American Abolitionists and Antislavery Activists:
Conscience of the Nation

Updated April 4, 2021

l to r: Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips

Abraham Lincoln Quotes on Slavery and Emancipation



There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.  In any case that arises, as for instance, the promulgation of abolitionism, one of two positions is necessarily true; that is, the thing is right within itself, and therefore deserves the protection of all law and all good citizens; or, it is wrong, and therefore proper to be prohibited by legal enactments; and in neither case, is the interposition of mob law, either necessary, justifiable, or excusable.[1]


- Abraham Lincoln, speech at Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1837





They believe that institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy; but that the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than to abate its evils.  They believe that the congress of the United States has no power, under the constitution, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the different States.  They believe that the Congress of the United States has the power, under the constitution, to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia; but that that power ought not to be exercised unless at the request of the people of said District.  The difference between these opinions and those contained in the said resolutions, is their reason for entering this protest.


- Abraham Lincoln and Dan Stone, Illinois State Representatives, March 3, 1837, in protest of anti-abolitionist resolution adopted by State legislature on January 20





Having been led to allude to domestic slavery so frequently already, I am unwilling to close without referring more particularly to Mr. Clay's views and conduct in regard to it. He ever was, on principle and in feeling, opposed to slavery. The very earliest, and one of the latest public efforts of his life, separated by a period of more than fifty years, were both made in favor of gradual emancipation of the slaves in Kentucky. He did not perceive, that on a question of human right, the negroes were to be excepted from the human race. And yet Mr. Clay was the owner of slaves. Cast into life where slavery was already widely spread and deeply seated, he did not perceive, as I think no wise man has perceived, how it could be at once eradicated, without producing a greater evil, even to the cause of human liberty itself. His feeling and his judgment, therefore, ever led him to oppose both extremes of opinion on the subject.


- Abraham Lincoln, eulogy for Henry Clay, July 6, 1852





What natural right requires Kansas and Nebraska to be opened to Slavery? Is not slavery universally granted to be, in the abstract, a gross outrage on the law of nature? Have not all civilized nations, our own among them, made the Slave trade capital, and classed it with piracy and murder? Is it not held to be the great wrong of the world? Do not the Southern people, the Slaveholders themselves, spurn the domestic slave dealer, refuse to associate with him, or let their families associate with his family, as long as the taint of his infamous calling is known?  Shall that institution, which carries a rot and a murrain in it, claim any right, by the law of nature, to stand by the side of Freedom, on a Soil that is free?[2]


- Abraham Lincoln, speech in Springfield, Illinois, October 4, 1854





My ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal;’ and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man's making a slave of another.


- Abraham Lincoln, speech in Peoria, Illinois, October 16, 1854, against the Kansas-Nebraska Act





This declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I can not but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world---enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites---causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty---criticising the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest…. If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,---to their own native land. But a moment's reflection would convince me, that whatever of high hope, (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible. ... What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? … What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded. We can not, then, make them equals. It does seem to me that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the south. … The doctrine of self government is right---absolutely and eternally right---but it has no just application, as here attempted. Or perhaps I should rather say that whether it has such just application depends upon whether a negro is not or is a man. … [If] the negro is a man, is it not to that extent, a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man … that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal;’ and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man's making a slave of another. … Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. … Let us turn slavery from its claims of ‘moral right,’ back upon its existing legal rights, and its arguments of ‘necessity.’ Let us return it to the position our fathers gave it; and there let it rest in peace. Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. Let north and south---let all Americans---let all lovers of liberty everywhere---join in the great and good work. If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.[3]


- Abraham Lincoln, speech in Peoria, Illinois, October 16, 1854, against the Kansas-Nebraska Act





You know I dislike slavery…. I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet. …   You may remember, as I well do, that … there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons.  The sight was a continual torment to me; and I see it something like every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. … You ought … to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the constitution and the Union. I do oppose the extension of slavery, because my judgment and feelings so prompt me… The slave-breeders and slave-traders, are a small, odious and detested class, among you...[4]


- Abraham Lincoln, August 24, 1855, letter to Joshua Speed





You enquire where I now stand.  That is a disputed point.  I think I am a whig; but others say there are no whigs, and that I am an abolitionist. … I now do no more than oppose the extension of slavery.  I am not a Know-Nothing.  That is certain.  How could I be?  How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people?  Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid.  As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.”  We now practically read it, “all men are created equal, except negroes.”  When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’  When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.”[5]


- Abraham Lincoln, 1855, in a letter to Joshua Speed





A fine example was presented on board the boat for contemplating the effect of condition upon human happiness. … [The slaves] were chained six and six together.  A small iron clevis was around the left wrist of each, and this was fastened to the main chain by a shorter one at a convenient distance from the others; so that the negroes were strung together precisely like so many fish upon a trot-line.  In this condition they were being separated forever from the scenes of their childhood, their friends, their fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters, and many of them, from their wives and children, and going into perpetual slavery where the lash of the master is proverbially more ruthless and unrelenting than any other where; and yet amid all these distressing circumstances, as we would think of them, they were the most cheerful and apparently happy creatures on board. … How true it is that God … renders the worst of human conditions tolerable, while He permits the best, to be nothing better than tolerable.[6]


- Abraham Lincoln, 1855, in a letter to Mary Speed





That Spirit which desired the peaceful extinction of slavery, has itself become extinct… The autocrat of all the Russias will resign his crown, and proclaim his subjects free republicans sooner than will our American Masters voluntarily give up their slaves.”[7]


- Abraham Lincoln, 1855





“Not even you are more anxious to prevent the extension of slavery than I …. Of their [No Nothing Party] principles I think little better than I do of those of the slavery extensionists.  Indeed I do not perceive how any one professing to be sensitive to the wrongs of the negroes, can join in a league to degrade a class of white men.”[8]


- Abraham Lincoln, August 11, 1855, in letter to abolitionist friend Owen Lovejoy





All the powers of earth seem rapidly combining against him.  Mammon is after him; ambition follows, and philosophy follows, and the Theology of the day is fast joining the cry.  They have him in his prison house; they have searched his person, and left no prying instrument with him.  One after another they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him, and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrence of every key; the keys in the hands of a hundred different men, and they scattered to a hundred different and distant places; and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced to make the impossibility of his escape more complete than it is.[9]


- Abraham Lincoln, in speech on June 26, 1857, in Springfield, Illinois, referring to the effect of the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision and its effect on Blacks





I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects.  They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development, or social capacity.  They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal—equal in ‘certain inalienable rights, among which were life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ … They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence.[10]


- Abraham Lincoln, in speech on June 26, 1857, in Springfield, Illinois, referring to the Declaration of Independence





I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,--that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to inter-marry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.  And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.[11]


- Abraham Lincoln, fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate in Charleston, Illinois, 1858





A house divided against itself cannot stand.  I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.  I do not expect the Union to be dissolved.  I do not expect the house to fall, but I do expect it will cease to be divided.[12]


- Abraham Lincoln, June 16, 1858, in speech after being nominated as Republican Senatorial candidate for Illinois





I think the Negro is included in the word men used in the Declaration of Independence.”


- Abraham Lincoln, August 3, 1858, in a letter to Republican candidate David Davis[13]





“[The Democratic Party wants to] dehumanize the negro—to take away from him the right of ever striving to be a man … to make property, and nothing but property of the Negro in all the states of this Union. … That is the real issue.  That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent.  It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world. … The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. … It is the same spirit that says, ‘You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’  No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.[14]


- Abraham Lincoln, seventh and final Lincoln-Douglas debate, in Alton, Illinois, October 1858





It does not stop with the negro. … So I say in relation to the principle that all men are created equal, let it be as nearly reached as we can. … Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man—this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position. … Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal. … I leave you, hoping that the lamp of liberty will burn in your bosoms until there shall no longer be a doubt that all men are created free and equal.”[15]


- Abraham Lincoln, speech in Chicago, Illinois, 1860, referring to equality as stated in the Declaration of Independence





I have always hated slavery I think as much as any abolitionist.


- Abraham Lincoln, speech in Chicago, Illinois, 1860





Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery.  If there be, all our labor is lost, and, ere long, must be done again… The tug has to come & better now, than any time hereafter.[16]

- Abraham Lincoln, U.S. President-Elect, December 10, 1860





You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted.  For this, neither has any just occasion to be angry with the other.[17]


- Abraham Lincoln, U.S. President-Elect, December 15, 1860, written to Congressman John Gilmer, of North Carolina





Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices… If we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government.[18]

- Abraham Lincoln, U.S. President-Elect, January 11, 1861,





I hold, that in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual. …It follows from these views that no State, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union,--that resolves and ordnances to that effect are legally void;… I therefore consider that in view of the Constitution and the laws, the Union is unbroken; and, to the extent of my ability, I shall take care,… that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States. … In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence; and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority. … One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended. … I have no purpose… to interfere with the institution of slavery…  In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.  The government will not assail you.  You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors.  You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect and defend’ it.[19]


- President Abraham Lincoln, in his inaugural address in Washington City, March 4, 1861





My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or to destroy slavery.  If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.[20]


- President Abraham Lincoln, August 22, 1862, in response to Horace Greeley’s editorial, “A Prayer of Twenty Millions,” which had called for immediate emancipation of slaves





It is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter.  And if I can learn what it is I will do it! ... I view the matter as a practical war measure, to be decided upon according to the advantages or disadvantages it may offer to the suppression of the rebellion.[21]


- President Abraham Lincoln, September 13, 1862, in reply to delegation from Chicago advocating for national emancipation of slaves





On the first day of January in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred sixty-three, all persons held as slaves, within any state, or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.


- Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, announced September 22, 1862





What I did, I did after full deliberation, and under a very heavy and solemn sense of responsibility.  I can only trust in God I have made no mistake.[22]


- President Abraham Lincoln, September 24, 1862, to crowd gathered at presidential executive mansion in honor of the issuing of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation





As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.  We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.  Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history.  We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We -- even we here -- hold the power, and bear the responsibility.  In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve.  We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.[23]


- President Abraham Lincoln, December 1, 1862, in State of the Union message to Congress, in support of a scheme of compensated emancipation





And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

            “And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

            “And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

            “And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.


- Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Lincoln at noon on New Year’s Day 1863 in the cabinet room





“[The U.S. government will] give the same protection to all its soldiers, and if the enemy shall sell or enslave anyone because of his color, the offense shall be punished by retaliation upon the enemy’s prisoners in our possession.[24]


- President Abraham Lincoln, July 30, 1863, after Confederate government threatens to kill captured U.S. Colored Troops





“[I am] an anti-slavery man…  For my part I think I shall not, in any event, retract the Emancipation Proclamation; nor, as executive, even return to slavery any person who is free by the terms of that proclamation, or by any of the acts of Congress.[25]


- President Abraham Lincoln, August 5, 1863, written to Union General Nathaniel Banks





“[Colored troops are] a resource which, if vigorously applied now, will soon close the contest.[26]

- President Abraham Lincoln, August 9, 1863, written to General Grant





I shall not attempt to retract or modify the emancipation proclamation…[27]


- President Abraham Lincoln, December 20, 1863, to abolitionist official of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society





I congratulate you on having fixed your name in history as the first-free-state Governor of Louisiana.  Now you are about to have a Convention which, among other things, will probably define the elective franchise.  I barely suggest for your private consideration, whether some of the colored people may not be let in—as, for instance, the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks.  They would probably help, in some trying time to come, to keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom.[28]


- President Abraham Lincoln, March 13, 1864, written to Louisiana Governor Michael Hahn





It needs not to be a secret, that I wish success to emancipation in Maryland.  It would aid much to end the rebellion.[29]

- President Abraham Lincoln, March 17, 1864, written to Maryland Congressman John A. J. Creswell





I never knew a man who wished to be himself a slave.  Consider if you know any good thing, that no man desires for himself.[30]

- President Abraham Lincoln, March 22, 1864





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.  And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. … And I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract judgment and feeling on slavery. … I did understand however, that my oath to preserve the constitution to the best of my ability, imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government—that nation—of which that constitution was the organic law. … When, in March, and May, and July 1862 I made earnest, and successive appeals to the border states to favor compensated emancipation, I believed the indispensable necessity for military emancipation, and arming the blacks would come, unless averted by that measure.  They declined the proposition; and I was, in my best judgment, driven to the alternative of either surrendering the Union, and with it, the Constitution, or of laying strong hand upon the colored element.  I chose the latter.[31]


- Abraham Lincoln, April 4, 1864, in letter to Kentucky newspaper editor Albert G. Hodges





Such [an] amendment of the Constitution [as is] now proposed became a fitting, and necessary conclusion to the final success of the Union cause.[32]


- Abraham Lincoln, June 9, 1864, upon being notified of his nomination for president, approving one of the party platforms of a constitutional amendment to end slavery





I wish all men to be free.  I wish the material prosperity of the already free which I feel sure the extinction of slavery would bring.  I wish to see, in process of disappearing, that only thing which ever could bring this nation to civil war.[33]


- Abraham Lincoln, October 10, 1864, written to Henry W. Hoffman, referring to the adoption of a new Maryland state constitution, which would prohibit slavery





Article XIII, Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.  Section 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.


- Thirteenth Amendment, forbidding slavery in the U.S., passed by U.S. House of Representatives, January 31, 1865, ratified in 1804





One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war. … Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword. …

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.[34]


- Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1865, Second Inaugural Address





Whenever [I] hear any one, arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.[35]

- Abraham Lincoln, March 17, 1865, in speech to Union Army regiment





Don’t kneel to me.  You must kneel to God only, and thank him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter.[36]


- Abraham Lincoln, April 4, 1865, while touring Richmond, to formerly enslaved individual who knelt at his feet and blessed him





I know that I am free for I have seen Father Abraham and felt him.[37]


- Black woman, April 4, 1865, Richmond, to President Lincoln while kissing his hand





Now he belongs to the ages.[38]


- Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, upon death of President Abraham Lincoln at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865


[1] Basler, Collected Works, Vol. I; Foner, p. 28.

[2] Basler, Collected Works, Vol. II, p. 245.

[3] Basler, Collected Works, pp. 255-276; Foner, pp. 66-69.

[4] Basler, Collected Works, Vol. II, pp. 320-323; Foner, p. 11; Miers, p. 167.

[5] Basler, Collected Works, Vol. II, pp. 322-323; Foner, p. 77.

[6] Foner, pp. 11-12.

[7] Basler, Collected Works, Vol. II, p. 318.

[8] Basler, Collected Works, Vol. II, p. 316.

[9] Foner, p. 96.

[10] Basler, Collected Works; Foner, pp. 96-97.

[11] Basler, Collected Works, Vol. III, pp. 145-146.

[12] Foner, pp. 99-103; Miers, p. 218.

[13] Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln: His Book, New York, 1903.

[14] Basler, Collected Works, Vol. II, pp. 225-226, 254-255; Foner, p. 109.

[15] Basler, Collected Works, Vol. II, pp. 487-501, Vol. III, pp. 254-255; Foner, p. 104.

[16] Long, p. 10.

[17] Long, p. 11.

[18] Long, p. 25.

[19] Long, p. 46; Foner; Miers, pp. 24-25.

[20] Long, p. 254; Foner; Basler, Collected Works, Vol. V, pp. 388-389.

[21] Basler, Collected Works, Vol. V, pp. 419-425; Miers, p. 139.

[22] Washington Star, September 24, 1862; Basler, Vol. V, pp. 438-439.

[23] Basler, Collected Works, Vol. V, p. 537; Long, p. 292.

[24] Long, p. 392.

[25] Long, pp. 394-395.

[26] Long, p. 396.

[27] Long, p. 448.

[28] Miers, p. 246.

[29] Long, p. 467.

[30] Long, p. 467.

[31] Foner, pp. 297-298; Long, p. 481.

[32] Long, p. 518.

[33] Long, p. 582.

[34] Basler, Collected Works, Vol. VIII, pp. 332-333.

[35] Long, p. 653.

[36] Long, p. 666.

[37] Foner.

[38] Long, p. 677; Miers, p. 330; Nicoly and Hay, X, p. 302.