Abraham Lincoln and the Threat of Slave Insurrection

We are often told a reductionist version of history that credits Abraham Lincoln with the emancipation of America’s slaves. In his capacities as Commander in Chief of the Union armies, skillful politician, and staunch moralist, Lincoln single-handedly broke the bonds of the nation’s blacks and died a martyr’s death shortly after the war was won. However, another and more recent thesis contends that it was the blacks who freed themselves. This position argues that without the presence of the thousands of black slaves who deserted their owners to fight on the front lines of the civil war, the South would have won, thereby extinguishing the chances for both rapid abolition and a stable union. Moreover, it is claimed that blacks put the necessary pressure on Lincoln, who was hesitant at times to make a move towards emancipation. It would be accurate to recognize that both of the aforementioned positions have their own merits.

There is however, a third crucial element that is responsible for emancipation: slave insurrection. While the actualization of slave rebellion in North America was not directly responsible for freeing many slaves, its influence should not be deprecated. The threat of slave insurrection played a powerful, symbolic role in the eventual act of emancipation. It drove the South into hysterics about the overthrow of their way of life, it inspired many blacks to arm themselves when the time was right, and it pressured Lincoln into making abolition one of the intended outcomes of the war. Far from insisting that slave insurrection can be assigned absolute responsibility (although it should nonetheless be acknowledged for its contributions), I argue that freedom for America’s blacks could only happen when there was the appropriate combination of Lincoln’s actions, the valor of black soldiers, and the redefinition of the civil war.

There were numerous instances of slave insurrection but one event in particular, John Brown’s raid, is indicative of insurrection’s overall impact. John Brown is remembered as the archetypal rebellious abolitionist. In October 1859 he led an assault on Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Brown’s plan involved recruiting slaves from the plantations and arming them for self-defense. Through this, Brown believed that slaves would liberate themselves from bondage and their liberty would be protected by the force of the militant abolitionists and their brothers in arms. The scheme failed when within two days of the commencement of the raid a team of marines had surrounded Brown and his fortified engine house in Harpers Ferry. The make-shift fort was swiftly taken and John Brown was captured. Along with his accomplices, he was promptly charged with treason and executed. Indeed, the abortiveness of the raid has tended to mask its actual accomplishment. Brown had met his end, but his legacy outlasted him. He was indirectly responsible for starting the civil war and for transforming it into a revolutionary war.

The civil war was of crucial importance to the eventual ending of slavery. As James McPherson reasons, save but for the intervention of the civil war there could be “no confiscation act, no Emancipation Proclamation, no Thirteenth Amendment… certainly no self-emancipation, and almost certainly no end of slavery for several more decades.”[1] The civil war was the only event capable of swiftly overturning the institution of slavery, which had become increasingly entrenched in the Southern (as well as Northern) economy. Surprisingly, proponents of slave insurrection who had been scoffed at in their day would later be vindicated because it was their method, if not their poor timing, that won the war.

One of the toughest challenges that Abraham Lincoln faced while campaigning for the presidency was how to keep the union together. In the popular imagination, racial equality was a threatening notion. Seizing upon this, the Democratic party adopted populist pro-slavery rhetoric. For Lincoln, the oppositional candidate, the task was to present the Republican Party as both morally opposed to slavery and committed to the Union. This was made all the more difficult by the Harpers Ferry raid of John Brown. That event was the catalyst that started a new wave of hysteria over slave insurrections in the South.

The range of receptions to the Harpers Ferry incident can be divided into three types: pro-slavery, radical anti-slavery, and moderate anti-slavery. From the pro-slavery point of view, John Brown represented all that was wrong with the North. He gave a face to the fear that abolitionists were unpredictable, violent, and had no respect for private property or the laws which protected that right. On the other side of the spectrum the radical and moderate anti-slavery opinions agreed that Brown cannot be faulted for desiring the end of human bondage yet they can be differentiated by how they responded to Brown’s tactic. Radical Republicans and abolitionists both trusted in the righteousness of Brown’s cause and later pushed to make emancipation a war aim.

William Lloyd Garrison is typical of the abolitionists who publicly condemned slave insurrection while conceding that he sympathized with Brown’s motives. Garrison even tried to point out the hypocrisy of criticizing incitements to violent activity: “No one who glories in the revolutionary struggle on 1776” can reasonably “deny the right of the slaves to imitate the example of our fathers.”[2] This justification for slave insurrection was nevertheless neglected by Southern ears.

Democrats and pro-slavery Northerners responded to the Harpers Ferry incident by holding Union meetings to show disapproval of Republican sentiments. The meetings were held in major Northern cities to upset the Republican Party in the upcoming election. The tactic backfired, however, because the overzealous Unionist meetings gave the Republicans the opportunity to point out that whereas southern slave power is spreading its hysteria, the Republicans are trying to maintain the order. Lincoln tried to downplay the extremism of his party, emphasizing the constitutionality of the Republican anti-slavery stance and the sobriety with which it was promulgated.

Lincoln’s Cooper’s Union speech is by far the most lucid expression of his position on slave insurrection. Lincoln explained that John Brown’s aborted slave insurrection was “wrong for two reasons. It was a violation of law and it was, as all such attacks must be, futile as far as any effect it might have on the extinction of a great evil.”[3] This statement reveals that Lincoln, though opposed to slavery, put a high value on legal means in halting it. Ironically, it was precisely the legality of his methods that would be challenged after he took office in 1860.

Still, the events at Harpers Ferry seemed to be directly inspired by William Henry Seward’s assertion of an “irrepressible conflict.” In turn, Seward’s statements seemed to be informed by Lincoln’s own “House Divided” speech. The connection was not lost on the South, who were already alerted to the dangers to their way of life that Lincoln’s election represented. Above all, Lincoln did not want the Republicans to lose the election and he tried to distance himself as much as possible from John Brown’s actions. However, Lincoln had already set himself up as an unequivocal opponent of slavery, leaving himself as an easy target for unionist Democrats. Slaveholders were quick to lump anti-slavery abolitionists and anti-slavery Republicans together. Lincoln took it upon himself to clarify the distinction between ends and means and the basis therefore of difference between John Brown and the Republican Party:

You [Southerners] charge that we stir up insurrections among your slaves. We deny it; and what is your proof? Harper’s Ferry! John Brown!! John Brown was no Republican; and you have failed to implicate a single Republican in his Harper’s Ferry enterprise… Some of you admit that no Republican designedly aided or encouraged the Harper’s Ferry affair, but still insist that our doctrines and declarations necessarily lead to such results. We do not believe it…. Republican doctrines and declarations are accompanied with a continual protest against any interference with your slaves. Surely, this does not encourage them to revolt.[4]

Lincoln turned the threat of slave insurrection around; no longer was it a matter of meddling by insidious Republicans, the revolt of slaves on both the small and large scales is the result of slavery. Slavery, not abolitionism, causes insurrection: “Occasional poisonings from the kitchen, and open or stealthy assassination in the field, and local revolts extending to a score or so, will continue to occur as the natural results of slavery; but no general insurrection of slaves, as I think, can happen in this country for a long time. Whoever much fears, or much hopes for such an event, will be alike disappointed.”[5] Opponents of the Republican Party, he insinuated, would in fact find that the threat of slave insurrection would be augmented if the party were defeated.

The outcome of the war would prove that this was not exactly the case. For the union to win, it was essential that blacks fight. Lincoln would come to realize this in 1863 when he counseled “every possible means by which the Negro could be secured in his freedom.”[6] The Emancipation Proclamation was likewise promulgated with the intention to encourage slaves to liberate themselves and fight. While it did not grant freedom to slaves in Union held territories, it emancipated those that were behind Confederate lines. Lincoln hoped that this was enough incentive to bring them over, simultaneously slowing down the Confederate war machine and strengthening the North through an influx of manpower.

But why was slave insurrection such anathema to whites while civil war was sanctioned? Understandably, slave power was threatening to the slave-owner’s livelihood. But to non-slave-owners who desired the freedom of the slaves, shouldn’t insurrection have been seen as an effective means towards this end? One easy answer to this question would be to say that even anti-slavery whites were racist in the sense that they held a double-standard – it was permissible for white men to fight because they conducted war in a civilized manner but slaves were just brutish. By all means, blacks were not to be armed without proper supervision.

A more appropriate and informed answer would be that insurrections were unsuccessful not because blacks were inferior, but the very nature of decentralized rebellion lacked the coordination to confront a systemic problem like slavery. Only through a united coalition of anti-slavery whites and freed blacks could unequivocal victory be won against the existing slave power. Thus the civil war was a necessary, albeit often inadvertent, precondition to emancipation.

Despite Lincoln’s initial best efforts to combat the misconception, white Southerners were driven to secession by the belief “that emancipation meant insurrection and race war on the model of the Nat Turner slave revolt in 1831 or the massacres of white planters by their former slaves in San Domingue in 1791.”[7] With the summer of 1862 came race riots that erupted in such Northern free-states as Ohio, New York, and Indiana. White workers in the North were feeling threatened by freed slaves with whom they would have to compete. If this was the model for emancipation in the South, it would only stimulate the working class whites of the South to fight even harder. Slave insurrection was preached as a sort of apocalypse among slave owners and was used to start an insurrection of their own. Yet Lincoln’s election signaled that Washington, D.C. was firmly opposed to slavery. Regardless of whether fears of race wars were justified or not, it was the apprehension that drove the South towards secession.

To the Lincoln who emerges from the Cooper Union address, inciting slave insurrection as John Brown had done would be a mistake. He made clear that it was wholly unconnected to the Republican Party and did not represent the wishes of the majority of Northerners. But because Lincoln’s policy prefigured a war that was needed to crush the institution of slavery, his criticism of John Brown could not be based on the immorality of violence to achieve an ends. He must have meant, then, that John Brown’s endeavor was a mistake because the forces were not sufficient to decisively wipe out all opposition to emancipation. War was, however, a last resort for Lincoln. In the border-states, for example, Lincoln had been pushing for compensated emancipation. If slavery could be abolished in this relatively bloodless manner, then by all means it should be. If the situation was grim enough, the government would resort to armed conflict.

As history shows, Lincoln was ultimately forced into accepting the legitimacy of emancipation through violent means. In 1864, despite the dwindling popularity for the war among Union soldiers because of emancipation, Lincoln held steadfastly to his plans to free the slaves. This exemplifies what is perhaps Lincoln’s most courageous trait: unflinching fidelity to abolition after the Emancipation Proclamation. To revoke his edict might have won more support for the war, since the conflict would thusly be defined as a struggle to save the union, but Lincoln could not forsake the black soldiers. Lincoln asserted, “…the promise being made, must be kept… There have been men who proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors… I should be damned in time and in eternity for so doing.”[8] Black troops became party to the war for Union, thereby making emancipation a war aim.

Lincoln’s rhetoric of 1861 had promised that he would take the Union even with slavery still intact, but the above statement reveals that by 1864 he would not take that sort of peace. Between the early and the later Lincoln, the president filled two supplementary though contradictory roles. Although Lincoln was primarily concerned with holding the Union together, a united coalition of Northerners was prerequisite for expanding the war aims to include the abolition of slavery.

Historians should avoid the equally paternalistic interpretations that hold Lincoln and John Brown solely responsible for emancipation. Brown’s frustrated insurrection failed like so many others, and Lincoln’s armies only reluctantly accepted blacks into their ranks. On the other hand, without the roles that Brown and Lincoln had played, blacks would have been limited to decentralized insurrections which might have won them freedom, but only at a glacial pace. Lincoln, perhaps unwittingly, was the catalyst for change in the South by provoking secession which in turn was based off the fear of Northern vigilantes like John Brown.

All of these elements combined to achieve the historic feat, the end of slavery. Responsibility for the event can be credited to each party in like amounts. Insurgent blacks and to a lesser extent, radical abolitionists, of whom John Brown exemplifies the extreme case, took the initiative to fight and in this they actively freed the slaves. The abolitionists’ contribution to Southern fears of slave insurrection was an unintended consequence (their intent had been a successful rebellion), although without this factor Lincoln’s election could not be assured. Moreover, without Lincoln’s contribution to starting the civil war, American slaves would have been denied the chance to overthrow the slave system in the South. To his credit, Lincoln played a crucial role in inciting blacks to fight by bringing into law such acts as the Emancipation Proclamation.

The truth about emancipation was that it was not undertaken by any single person or group. Only within the dynamic transition of civil war could all of the appropriate elements combine into a situation conducive to the end of slavery. Lincoln’s election to the presidency was the unique catalyst that started the civil war. He was a moral opponent of slavery and as such ignited the fire of secession. His contribution to emancipation was crucial. Likewise, the role blacks played should not be discarded. Had no blacks abandoned their lives as slaves and joined ranks with the Union armies, the civil war would never have escalated into a revolutionary conflict against the South. Without black support, no amount of military success or policy proposed by the Lincoln administration would have abolished slavery. Likewise, slave insurrection was an integral part of the process, though not always in the way it is glorified.


Basler, Roy P. ed. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings.Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1946.

Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln.New York: Touchstone, 1995.

Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.

Finkelman, Paul, ed. His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

McPherson, James M. “Who Freed the Slaves?” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 139, no. 1 (March 1995): 1-10.

[1]           James M. McPherson, “Who Freed the Slaves?”, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 139, no. 1 (March 1995), 3.

[2]           William Lloyd Garrison, The Liberator, Oct. 21, 1859, p. 166, in Paul Finkelman, “Manufacturing Martyrdom: The Anti-slavery Response to John Brown’s Raid,” in His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid, Paul Finkelman, ed. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 41.

[3]           David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 239.

[4]           Abraham Lincoln, Address at Cooper Institute, New York. February 27, 1860, in Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings, Roy P. Basler, ed. (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1946), 529.

[5]           Lincoln, 530-531.

[6]           John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln, and the Freedmen (New American Library, 1970), 173, quoted in Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation(New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), 225.

[7]           Guelzo, 16.

[8]           Raymond to Lincoln, 22 August 1864, quoted in Basler, ed., Collected Works of Lincoln, 7:518, quoted in McPherson, 8.

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