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Debunking Lincoln, the 'Great Emancipator'

Was former President Abraham Lincoln the "Great Emancipator" or was he a "recovering racist"? Learn more about our 16th president.
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“Tell some historians that ‘Lincoln freed the slaves’ and one can virtually see the smoke come out of their ears,” relates a story about abolitionists on

The picture of former President Abraham Lincoln that is painted onscreen in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”, which leads the Oscar race this weekend with 12 nominations, is that of a staunch opponent of slavery.

He’s often referred to as the “Great Emancipator,” but does being the president when the Emancipation Proclamation becomes the Thirteenth amendment earn him that title?

“There’s this perception that good old Lincoln and a few others gave freedom to black people. The real story is that black people and people like [Frederick] Douglass wrestled their freedom away,” Erica Armstrong Dunbar, a historian, told CNN. Dunbar is featured in a PBS American Experience film called “The Abolitionists” that tells the story of five abolitionist leaders who arguably did more than Lincoln to end slavery.

“It was not Lincoln who originated the Thirteenth amendment, it was the abolitionist movement,” Eric Foner, a historian and author of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, told CNN. “It’s only in the middle of 1864 that Lincoln changes his mind and decides he’s in favor of this amendment.”

The amendment was passed in the Senate on April 8, 1864, but it wasn’t until January 31, 1865 that enough Democrats in the House voted for it to pass there. Then by December 18, 1865 the required three-quarters of states had ratified the amendment, ensuring that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude… shall exist within the United States.”

According to CNN, historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. once called Lincoln a “recovering racist” who used the N-word and enjoyed black minstrel shows.


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One could look to Lincoln’s 1858 senatorial debate with Stephen Douglas to try and understand his views on slavery:

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway 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 intermarry 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 forever 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. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.”

“No historian would doubt that Lincoln was a man of his times,” Dunbar told CNN. “He was a racist, and never truly believed that blacks could live in America after emancipation.”

What else doesn’t the average American know about our 16th president? Slavery is the typical conversation that comes up, but many Americans don’t know much about the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862, let alone the decisions Lincoln made at the end of it.

Mid-1862 in Minnesota was difficult for the Dakota people. More white settlers were migrating there, ignoring treaties and crops were failing. The Dakota people had been restricted to a narrow reservation on the Minnesota River—and they were starving and desperate. The killing of five settlers by four Dakota men ignited the conflict that resulted in the deaths of about 800 settlers and 150 Dakota.

After the war, 400 Dakota men were sentenced to death. Lincoln commuted that death sentence for all but 38 of them. That is still the largest mass execution in U.S. history. The state continues to reconcile and heal. Read more about it here.

Aside from slavery and the aftermath of the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862, Lincoln was also responsible for the propaganda behind Thanksgiving.

“Yeah, it was made up. It was Abraham Lincoln who used the theme of Pilgrims and Indians eating happily together. He was trying to calm things down during the Civil War when people were divided. It was like a nice unity story,” Ramona Peters, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer told Indian Country Today Media Network in a story about the first Thanksgiving. “Yes, it was public relations. It’s kind of genius, in a way, to get people to sit down and eat dinner together. Families were divided during the Civil War.”

Please think about these things while you’re watching the Oscars and especially when watching movies like “Lincoln” that claim to be historically accurate. Chances are there is a lot more to the story than what’s on the screen.