"I claim not to have controlled events but confess plainly that events have controlled me." –Abraham Lincoln
President Lincoln was by nature and by training a politician: this must be kept in mind to discover his true position in relation to the question of emancipation and slavery. It is well known that he was against slavery—calling it a "great moral wrong"-- but he also was seemingly in favor to "let slavery… alone". To understand how he held this seemingly incompatible beliefs at the same time, it is crucial to see how he developed his beliefs, which were not static but rather changing throughout his career. Lincoln first takes a conservative, hands-off approach to the question, then with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 he is galvanized to take a firmer stand against slavery in the territories and free states. While this is the turning point of his view on the matter, it is certainly not the final product: he then appeases both sides throughout the Lincoln-Douglas debates, takes a firm but understanding presidential run, and finally musters the steady, dedicated force to issue, and follow through with, the Emancipation Proclamation.
"I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down… but I bite my lips and keep quiet."
Lincoln’s early position was nothing radical or surprising for a small-time Illinois legislator: on the slavery question, he practically said nothing. Whatever his personal opinions of the practice were, they were simply of too little importance to worry over, the moving of the Illinois capital to Springfield being a much more pressing matter. He let the Fugitive Slave Law pass unmolested, he let slavery reside in the Slave states without a murmur of discontent, and he took no active steps against the practice at all, though he personally disliked the slavery system. His conservative constituents approved of this, because it preserved the status quo by which they prospered. By today’s standards, he was racist and would rather let slavery run its course, which he presumed it would, and die out rather than face black immigrants competing with his constituents for jobs, a sure fallout of immediate emancipation. He ran several successful campaigns, served in the government, but otherwise seemed doomed to obscurity, a moderate Whig but nothing more. Nothing seemed more likely than this obscurity after he fell from public office and public eye in 1848.
"New free States are the places for poor white people to go to, and better their condition."
With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the slavery question suddenly gained new importance to Lincoln. Rather then a remote, contained problem that would eventually take care of itself, it was beginning to spread: the 36-30 line was now obsolete, and Supreme Court decisions seemed sure to make slavery a nationwide institution. Lincoln once again entered the realm of politics which he loved so dearly, now on a clear, popular platform. Running for the Republicans, he avoided all other issues besides the halt of slavery’s expansion. Now he finally expressed publicly what he though of "the monstrous injustice of slavery itself." However, he did not become an abolitionist over night—he still believed in the inferiority of blacks, and the practice of letting slavery die a natural death. His complicated policy stemmed from his need to appease two very different interest groups: the growing number of abolitionists and the Negrophobes. The abolitionists were partly appeased with his stopping of slavery’s spread, while the Negrophobes were glad to have slaves and blacks kept out of the state. However, after his enunciation that slavery was inherently evil, it was only a matter of time before he must condemn it not only in his own state but everywhere.
"I would despise myself if I thought that… I was concealing my opinions on slavery."
During the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, he came very close to doing just that: concealing how he felt. Moving from Anti- to Pro- slave areas of Illinois, he changed his message from talk of the necessity of abolition to the necessity for maintaining the existing racial order. However, he pulled off this near-impossible task with great effectiveness, pulling what was a fracturing Republican party together under a single set of policies: no expansion of slavery. It was this careful tiptoeing through the most controversial subject that would serve him well throughout the rest of his career, whether running for his first presidency or keeping the Union together during the Civil War.
"If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do as to the existing institution."