How Abraham Lincoln Freed the Slaves

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What is Abraham Lincoln known for? What dilemma did Lincoln face upon being inaugurated?

Abraham Lincoln, who was president from 1861 to 1865, inherited a nation in crisis. By the time of his inauguration, seven Southern states had seceded from the Union, and his own party was divided. Lincoln had to decide whether they should try to keep the slave states in the Union, or if the time for compromise had ended.

Here’s how Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in spite of the backlash.

Lincoln’s Crisis

According to Doris Kearns Goodwin, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was the result of a personal crisis he experienced early in his career. The crisis stemmed from several political setbacks that prevented him from fulfilling the campaign promises he’d made to his constituents. Lincoln saw these failures as a breach of integrity—a trait Lincoln prized highly—and thus a stain on his character. As such, these failures affected Lincoln deeply. At one point, he became so depressed that he was bedridden.

Did Lincoln Lose Integrity? 

As Goodwin notes, Lincoln’s failures affected him deeply because he valued integrity highly—so much so that integrity was central to his identity. Lincoln was even known to his friends and colleagues as “Honest Abe,” a nickname he earned when he was a young shopkeeper chasing customers out of the store to ensure they got exact change.

However, his sense of failure may have been unfounded. According to the definition of acting with integrity set forth by self-esteem expert Nathaniel Branden in The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Lincoln’s political failures didn’t constitute a breach of integrity. Branden argues that you can only act without integrity—in other words, contrary to your values—in situations you can control. Lincoln’s inability to fulfill his campaign promises doesn’t fit this definition because it stemmed from factors he couldn’t totally control—like the fact that people didn’t vote for his ideas. 

However, Goodwin argues, these failures were a blessing in disguise: They led Lincoln to reassess his political career and realize that, despite his desire to become president, he didn’t yet possess the necessary leadership qualities to excel at the job. In response, Lincoln embarked on a journey of self-improvement in two main ways. 

First, Lincoln chose to study every important topic he could get books on, such as history and philosophy, in an effort to grow intellectually and morally. In this way, he refined his intellectual skills by learning classical logic and philosophical thinking—and he applied these new skills to the prevailing issue of the day: the expansion of slavery. 

Second, Lincoln focused on doing his best at the job he did have—his career as a lawyer. In doing so, he learned to simplify complex topics and get his audience (in this case, jurors) on his side. These persuasive skills were on full display in an 1854 speech, which his contemporaries lauded as one of the best arguments against the expansion of slavery they’d ever heard.

How Lincoln’s Journey Reflects the Ultralearning Model  

The self-improvement journey Lincoln embarked upon after realizing that he didn’t have the skills necessary to excel at being president reflects several of the principles necessary for strategic, self-directed learning that Scott Young espouses in Ultralearning

First, Young argues that to learn a subject or skill, you must first learn how to learn it—which you do partly by determining what you need to learn, then examining how others have learned that subject, so you can emulate their strategies. As Young recommends, Lincoln determined that to refine his intellectual skills, he needed to learn subjects like history and philosophy—and that to learn these subjects, he needed to read books, just as others had.

Second, Young argues that to master a subject, you must practically apply any theoretical skills you’ve learned. Not only did Lincoln apply his newfound intellectual skills by analyzing the expansion of slavery, but he also regularly practiced rhetoric during his career as a lawyer. The fact that his contemporaries lauded his 1854 speech against the expansion of slavery suggests that Lincoln fully mastered both these analytical and rhetorical skills.

How Lincoln’s Crisis Affected His Leadership

Goodwin contends that Lincoln’s intellectual skills and his ability to persuade others affected his decision to release the Emancipation Proclamation in two main ways.

First, Goodwin argues that the intellectual skills Lincoln developed during his personal crisis were critical to his decision to release the Emancipation Proclamation. Although he viewed slavery as a moral abomination, Lincoln didn’t initially set out to free the slaves; he didn’t initially think that presidents had that legal power. So what led him to change his mind? 

Goodwin argues that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves not just because it was a moral thing to do—it was also a strategic move that would cripple the Confederate war effort and thus fell within the wartime powers legally granted to the president. In this way, the intellectual skills Lincoln refined during his crisis allowed him to see the loophole that let him release the Emancipation Proclamation.   

Second, Goodwin argues that Lincoln was only able to convince his cabinet of the need to release the Emancipation Proclamation due to his skill of persuasion. Since Lincoln wanted to save the Union, he selected the most capable men in the country to be in his cabinet—despite the fact that many were rivals of his with drastically different views on slavery. But thanks to Lincoln’s understanding of the issue and his ability to address all their concerns, he could persuade each of them to support his signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. 

(Shortform note: In her 2005 book Team of Rivals, Goodwin goes into greater detail on each member of Lincoln’s cabinet, explaining why they disliked not just him, but each other—and why many of them eventually grew into ardent admirers of Lincoln. However, despite Lincoln’s successes, his team of rivals didn’t survive his entire presidency: Notably, Salmon P. Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, never fully supported Lincoln and ultimately resigned in 1864.)

How Abraham Lincoln Freed the Slaves

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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