For more than a century, the details of Abraham Lincoln’s life and presidency have been told, re-told and told again, creating a near mythological figure in American history.
But what many may not realize is that the 16th president’s legacy is far more complex than we’re often taught.
We asked six historians from CNN’s new Original Series “Lincoln: Divided We Stand” to share the myths they’ve seen persist about Abraham Lincoln, and what they wish more Americans understood about this monumental president.
The views expressed in this commentary belong to the authors. View more opinion at CNN.com, and watch “Lincoln: Divided We Stand” Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT. Missed an episode? Catch up on CNNgo or find the audio-only showcast here.
Edna Greene Medford: He wasn’t the sole architect of freeing the enslaved
History is seldom uncomplicated. It can be messy and open to interpretations that embrace myths, half-truths and exaggerations. Among the more complicated and persistent historical beliefs is the one that credits Abraham Lincoln as having single-handedly “freed the slaves.”
It is true that in a time of civil war, he issued a proclamation of emancipation that declared enslaved people free in areas under the control of the Confederacy. In so doing, he opened the door that led to the end of slavery throughout America.
But that is only half of the story. Often missing in the emancipation narrative is the role others played in freeing enslaved people and ending the institution. In order for freedom to be realized, bondmen and women had to either make their way to the Union lines or be liberated by Northern soldiers and sailors. Among that liberating force were Black men, who made up 10 percent of the Union military.
It is important to remember as well that not all enslaved people were touched by the proclamation. Roughly 830,000 remained enslaved, exempted because they resided in the slave-holding loyal border states or in areas already occupied by Union forces. Their freedom and the freedom of those yet to be born rested with the passage and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which forever outlawed the institution.
While Lincoln played a crucial role in securing Black freedom, he was not the sole architect. The persistence of the abolitionists in pushing their decades-long agenda of liberation, and the agency of Black people themselves, ensured that America’s commitment to freedom would not remain a hollow promise.
Edna Greene Medford is a professor of history at Howard University, author of “Lincoln and Emancipation” and co-author of “The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views.”
Harold Holzer: His personal view of slavery never wavered
A powerful, inaccurate and unfortunate counter-myth percolates in both our curricula and culture that Lincoln was indifferent to slavery. Not true.
“I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think and feel,” he told a newspaper editor in 1864.
I take Honest Abe at his word. Nearly three decades earlier, as a young state legislator, he was already on record that slavery was “founded on both injustice and bad policy.” He never changed his position, even when such views placed him outside the moderate mainstream of his era. He didn’t immediately abolish slavery after winning the 1860 election not because he had no opinion on the institution; it was because, as he wrote in the 1864 letter, he didn’t believe he had the right to “act officially upon” his personal views.
His stance was always clear to the White South, who so feared Lincoln’s antislavery views that seven states seceded from the Union before he was inaugurated, organizing a separate nation with slavery protected and perpetual.
Within five years, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and pushed for the Thirteenth Amendment, ending slavery forever. Then, in his final speech, he became the first president in history to call for Black voting rights. Indeed, when John Wilkes Booth heard Lincoln suggest enfranchising some African Americans on April 11, 1865, he hissed: “That means n****r citizenship. That is the last speech he’ll ever make.” Three nights later, Booth killed him. In essence, Lincoln lived to destroy slavery, and died for advancing Black rights. And he still deserves to be so remembered.
Harold Holzer, director of the Roosevelt House Policy Institute at Hunter College, is the author of several books on Abraham Lincoln, including “Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion.”
Louis Masur: He fought for his political career
Despite Lincoln’s lifelong political career, there is a tendency to see him as some backwoods naif who transcended the jangle of politics. His self-deprecating manner, his striking oratory and his determined defense of democracy have contributed to a myth that he emerged unbidden to preserve the union and emancipate the slaves.
The truth is that Abraham Lincoln was a politician to his core, and an ambitious one. When he ran (unsuccessfully) for office at the age of 23, his first political announcement spoke of his ambition to be “truly esteemed of my fellow men.” He faced defeats and disappointments, but he persevered to serve several terms in the Illinois House of Representatives and one term in Congress.
Lincoln succeeded because he never abandoned politics, even when he thought his career was over. After losing a Senate race to his Democratic rival Stephen Douglas in 1858, he lamented that he would “now sink out of view, and shall be forgotten.” He was feeling sorry for himself, yet two years later, when asked about his presidential intentions, he admitted, “the taste is in my mouth a little.” William Herndon, his former law partner, recalled that “his ambition was a little engine that knew no rest” – a central fact that is often overlooked.
His presidency was no accident; he fought for it, and he showed that same grit in office. Seeing Lincoln as an ambitious politician allows us to appreciate all the more what he accomplished, and to hold elected officials to a higher standard. As president, he faced unrelenting opposition, death and destruction on an unprecedented scale, and personal devastation when he lost his son. At times, he fell into despair – “if there is a worse place than hell I am in it” he once cried – yet he never stopped growing and he never stopped working, deliberately and patiently, to save the nation. We can only hope for the same from our current collection of politicians.
Louis P. Masur is a Distinguished Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University and the author of many books, including “The Sum of Our Dreams: A Concise History of America.”
Mary Frances Berry: The 13th Amendment shows his evolution
When it comes to Lincoln’s stance on slavery, two contradictory myths persist: That he was proslavery, and if he had lived the South could somehow have kept the institution, or that he was radically antislavery.
Neither of these perspectives accord with his complicated views, which evolved until he actively pushed Congress to enact the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.
Five years earlier, when a proslavery amendment was proposed, Lincoln did not announce his disapproval. Instead, the newly elected president said in his first inaugural address that he wouldn’t object to the amendment, which was designed to keep slavery in perpetuity as a way to avoid Southern secession.
Lincoln knew that his personal opinion of slavery’s wrongs did not change the fact that proslavery provisions in the Constitution protected the institution. And the proposed amendment, enacted by Congress in March 1861, seemed to meet his objective of saving the Union. It was the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 that ended that possibility, and the arrival of war interrupted the amendment’s path toward ratification.
Military necessity, given the Union army’s manpower needs, led Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. In his speeches, however, Lincoln’s evolution slowly began to come to light: In the Gettysburg address of 1863, he talked of “a new birth of freedom.” And in his second inaugural address in 1865, Lincoln spoke explicitly about division over slavery as the cause of the war. His fight that year for the Thirteenth Amendment would make slavery’s eradication permanent, not just a measure ending with a Union victory. His evolution shows how circumstances can change the views of not just ordinary people, but great leaders – in this case, altering the course of history.
Mary Frances Berry is a Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of 12 books, including “Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy” and “And Justice For All: The United States Commission On Civil Rights And the Struggle For Freedom in America.”
Ted Widmer: His moderate politics put him in place for more radical work
Lincoln is so famous – some 15,000 books and counting – that myths grow around him all the time, like fungi in a dark forest. In his lifetime, he was denounced by the South as dangerously abolitionist, while some in his party accused him of not being abolitionist enough – a criticism that continues today.
Neither characterization gets it right. The South’s diatribes were alarmist from the moment Lincoln won the Republican nomination in May 1860, well before he had made any announcement of his policy. In fact, Lincoln was considered to be more centrist than his main rival for the nomination, William Henry Seward.
In 1858, Seward had predicted an “irrepressible conflict” over slavery, which was interpreted as an extreme statement – especially coming from a Senator from upstate New York, where so many simon-pure abolitionists made their home. Lincoln had said something similar when he predicted that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” But compared to Seward, he was perceived as a moderate – from a calmer state, with calmer opinions and calmer friends. That helped him to win the nomination. During the convention, voters from Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana were delighted to vote against the New York candidate and steer support toward a fellow Midwesterner who represented the broad middle in every sense.
Still, Lincoln was antislavery enough to make an enormous impact on his divided nation. As many histories have explained, it took years to get from the first inaugural address (which promised to protect slavery); to the wartime Emancipation Proclamation (which ended it behind enemy lines); to the Thirteenth Amendment (which ended it throughout the country). Lincoln was growing throughout this time, and as he grew, he brought the country along with him.
Many historians have found fault with the proclamation for its carve-outs and exceptions, but the simple fact is that Lincoln deployed the full might of the US government to extinguish the shameful curse of human bondage. And as President Biden said during his inaugural address, Lincoln committed himself completely to the cause, writing, “my whole soul is in it.” In his own way, and in his own time, he became one of the greatest abolitionists in American history.
Ted Widmer is a historian and professor at Macaulay Honors College (CUNY) and the author of “Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington.”
Kate Masur: He could not have stopped the racial injustice that followed
There’s a myth that Lincoln was so magnanimous and empathetic that if he had not been murdered, the United States would have avoided the racial conflict of the Reconstruction era and maybe even decades of state-imposed discrimination and disenfranchisement. Hillary Clinton voiced this view in 2016 when she speculated that if Lincoln had lived, the nation would have been “a little less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant.” Without his leadership, she said, “we had Reconstruction, we had the re-instigation of segregation and Jim Crow. We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant.”
This common myth, that Lincoln would have stemmed racial conflict and oppression by going easy on White southerners, relies on an outdated vision of Reconstruction history. For decades, American history textbooks taught that after Lincoln’s assassination, radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens acted vindictively when they insisted that Black men in the South must be permitted vote, and that White southerners were justified in resisting, even to the point of inflicting violence and terror on Black communities.
Historians now see the period much differently. We know that the mainstream Republican vision was one of multiracial democracy; that the Radical Republicans lacked the power to impose their will; and that in many respects what was tragic about Reconstruction was not that it went too far, but that it did not go far enough. In fact, Clinton was roundly criticized for her comments and quickly issued a clarification that she was referring only to Lincoln’s ability to lead toward reconciliation.
We can’t know, of course, how Lincoln would have handled the fierce challenges of Reconstruction. But no single leader, however great, could have saved the nation from having to contend with the legacies of two and half centuries of racial slavery. To meet our own moment, we need to acknowledge the scope of Reconstruction’s challenges, as well as the long and continuing history of White Americans’ resistance to racial justice.
Kate Masur is an associate professor of history at Northwestern University and the author of “Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction.”