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Abraham Lincoln Promoted Black Voting Rights

By David J. Kent

Washington D.C.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Abraham Lincoln is best known for his Emancipation Proclamation, Gettysburg Address, and saving the Union during the Civil War. But in this Black History Month it’s important to remember that Lincoln also pushed for black voting rights.

The Emancipation Proclamation declared “that all person held as slaves” within the states in rebellion “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Issued as a war measure – the only authority he had under the Constitution – Lincoln then began work that led to the 13th Amendment to permanently end slavery in all the United States. The struggle to pass the amendment was dramatically characterized in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie, Lincoln.

These two major steps set the stage for further African-American rights, which were enhanced by passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. While these two acts occurred after Lincoln’s assassination, they were set in motion by Lincoln’s leadership at the end of the Civil War.

Most notable was Lincoln’s April 11, 1865 speech from the White House. Among other points, Lincoln spoke about reconstruction efforts in Louisiana. He encouraged all Louisianans to join in the process of bringing the state back into the Union. He pressed for black voting rights:

It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.

While this seems a rather mild support for African-American suffrage, it was actually radical for its time. Lincoln understood that for many, if not most, Northerners, being anti-slavery did not necessary mean they were for equal rights for free or freed black men. [The fact that women of any color were not allowed to vote was not lost on Lincoln, who years before had suggested women might also be allowed to cast their ballots. This is an important point in this 100th anniversary year of women’s suffrage.] In any case, Lincoln was pushing as gently as he could the idea that black men should have the same rights under the law as did white men, including but not exclusively the right to vote.

His inclusion of this point in the speech was not an ad lib.


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