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Selected Quotations on Slavery by Abraham Lincoln

If you wonder what Lincoln said about slavery, you will find the richest source of quotations in his political writings from 1854 to 1865. In 1854, Illinois Democrat Stephen A. Douglas pushed the Kansas-Nebraska Act through Congress, which in effect repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and opened new territories to slavery. This egregious maneuver motivated Lincoln to act; when he reflected on it six years later he wrote, "In 1854 his profession had almost superseded the thought of politics in his mind, when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused him as he had never been before."

Anyone who reads Lincoln's writings of this period can see that he came out swinging against slavery: he was intense, focused, even furious at times. But this response did not arise ex nihilo; rather it rested on a long-standing antipathy toward slavery. In 1837, as a 28-year-old member of the Illinois General Assembly, he and a fellow legislator made an unpopular public protest about slavery, denouncing it as being "founded on both injustice and bad policy." As late as 1864 he wrote, "I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did no so think, and feel."

The quotations below represent only a small sampling of Lincoln's speeches and writings on the subject. The source is the standard authority on Lincoln speeches and writings, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, a large, multi-volume publication. If a link appears after a quotation, it will lead to the entire document, if the document appears on this website. For quotations without links, you can read the entire document by searching the Collected Works online.


If as the friends of colonization hope, the present and coming generations of our countrymen shall by any means, succeed in freeing our land from the dangerous presence of slavery; and, at the same time, in restoring a captive people to their long-lost father-land, with bright prospects for the future; and this too, so gradually, that neither races nor individuals shall have suffered by the change, it will indeed be a glorious consummation.
--July 6, 1852 Eulogy on Henry Clay

The Missouri Compromise forbade Slavery to go north of 36.30. Our government breaks down that restriction and opens the door for slavery to enter where it could not go. This is practically legislating for slavery, recognising it, endorsing it, propagating it, extending it.
--October 4, 1854 Speech at Springfield, Illinois

Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man's nature -- opposition to it is in his love of justice. These principles are an eternal antagonism; and when brought into collision so fiercely, as slavery extension brings them, shocks, and throes, and convulsions must ceaselessly follow. Repeal the Missouri Compromise -- repeal all compromises -- repeal the declaration of independence -- repeal all past history, you still can not repeal human nature. It still will be the abundance of man's heart, that slavery extension is wrong; and out of the abundance of his heart, his mouth will continue to speak.
--October 16, 1854 Speech at Peoria

The Autocrat of all the Russias will resign his crown, and proclaim his subjects free republicans sooner than will our American masters voluntarily give up their slaves.
--August 15, 1855 Letter to George Robertson

You know I dislike slavery; and you fully admit the abstract wrong of it.
--August 24, 1855 Letter to Joshua Speed

The slave-breeders and slave-traders, are a small, odious and detested class, among you; and yet in politics, they dictate the course of all of you, and are as completely your masters, as you are the master of your own negroes.
--August 24, 1855 Letter to Joshua Speed

The slaves of the South, at a moderate estimate, are worth a thousand millions of dollars. Let it be permanently settled that this property may extend to a new territory, without restraint, and it greatly enhances, perhaps quite doubles, its value at once. This immense, palpable pecuniary interest, on the question of extending slavery, unites the Southern people, as one man. But it can not be demonstrated that the North will gain a dollar by restricting it.
--July 23, 1856 Fragment on Sectionalism

Welcome, or unwelcome, agreeable, or disagreeable, whether this shall be an entire slave nation, is the issue before us.
--ca. May 18, 1858 Fragment of a Speech

I believe this Government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
--June 16, 1858 House Divided Speech

I have always hated slavery, I think as much as any Abolitionist.
--July 10, 1858 Speech at Chicago

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.
--ca. August 1, 1858 Fragment on Democracy

I say when this government was first established it was the policy of its founders to prohibit the spread of slavery into the new Territories of the United States, where it had not existed. But Judge Douglas and his friends have broken up that policy and placed it upon a new basis by which it is to become national and perpetual.
--September 15, 1858 Debate at Jonesboro, Illinois

Now I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil.
--October 7, 1858 Debate at Galesburg, Illinois

He [Stephen Douglas] is blowing out the moral lights around us, when he contends that whoever wants slaves has a right to hold them; that he is penetrating, so far as lies in his power, the human soul, and eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty, when he is in every possible way preparing the public mind, by his vast influence, for making the institution of slavery perpetual and national.
--October 7, 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Galesburg, Illinois

When Judge Douglas says that whoever, or whatever community, wants slaves, they have a right to have them, he is perfectly logical if there is nothing wrong in the institution; but if you admit that it is wrong, he cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do wrong.
--October 13, 1858 Debate at Quincy, Illinois

I spoke of the Dred Scott decision in my Springfield speech, and I was then endeavoring to prove that the Dred Scott decision was a portion of a system to make slavery national in this country.
--October 15, 1858 Debate at Alton, Illinois

That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles -- right and wrong -- throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, "You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it." No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.
-- October 15, 1858 Debate at Alton, Illinois

I think we have fairly entered upon a durable struggle as to whether this nation is to ultimately become all slave or all free, and though I fall early in the contest, it is nothing if I shall have contributed, in the least degree, to the final rightful result.
--December 8, 1858 Letter to H.D. Sharpe

This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.
--April 6, 1859 Letter to Henry Pierce

Now what is Judge Douglas' Popular Sovereignty? It is, as a principle, no other than that, if one man chooses to make a slave of another man, neither that other man nor anybody else has a right to object.
--September 16, 1859 Speech in Columbus, Ohio

We believe that the spreading out and perpetuity of the institution of slavery impairs the general welfare. We believe -- nay, we know, that that is the only thing that has ever threatened the perpetuity of the Union itself.
--September 17, 1859 Speech in Cincinnati, Ohio

We know, Southern men declare that their slaves are better off than hired laborers amongst us. How little they know, whereof they speak! There is no permanent class of hired laborers amongst us ... Free labor has the inspiration of hope; pure slavery has no hope.
--ca. September 17, 1859 Fragment on Free Labor

Old John Brown has just been executed for treason against a state. We cannot object, even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery was wrong. That cannot excuse violence, bloodshed, and treason.
--December 3, 1859 Speech at Leavenworth, Kansas

An inspection of the Constitution will show that the right of property in a slave in not "distinctly and expressly affirmed" in it.
--February 27, 1860 Speech at the Cooper Institute

Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery. If there be, all our labor is lost, and, ere long, must be done again.
--December 10, 1860 Letter to Lyman Trumbull

You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.
--December 22, 1860 Letter to Alexander Stephens

I say now, however, as I have all the while said, that on the territorial question -- that is, the question of extending slavery under the national auspices, -- I am inflexible. I am for no compromise which assists or permits the extension of the institution on soil owned by the nation.
--February 1, 1861 Letter to William H. Seward

One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended.
--March 4, 1861 Inaugural Address

I am a little uneasy about the abolishment of slavery in this District, not but I would be glad to see it abolished, but as to the time and manner of doing it.
--March 24, 1862 Letter to Horace Greeley

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.
--August 22, 1862 Letter to Horace Greeley

What I did, I did after very full deliberation, and under a heavy and solemn sense of responsibility. I can only trust in God that I have made no mistake.
--September 24, 1862 Reply to Serenade in Honor of [Preliminary] Emancipation Proclamation

In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free -- honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.
--December 1, 1862 Message to Congress

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.
--January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation

Still, to use a coarse, but an expressive figure, broken eggs can not be mended. I have issued the emancipation proclamation, and I can not retract it.
--January 8, 1863 Letter to John A. McClernand

I have very earnestly urged the slave-states to adopt emancipation; and it ought to be, and is an object with me not to overthrow, or thwart what any of them may in good faith do, to that end.
--June 23, 1863 Letter to John M. Schofield

"The emancipation proclamation applies to Arkansas. I think it is valid in law, and will be so held by the courts. I think I shall not retract or repudiate it. Those who shall have tasted actual freedom I believe can never be slaves, or quasi slaves again."
--July 31, 1863 Letter to Stephen A. Hurlburt

You dislike the emancipation proclamation; and, perhaps, would have it retracted. You say it is unconstitutional -- I think differently. I think the constitution invests its commander-in-chief, with the law of war, in time of war.
--August 26, 1863 Letter to James Conkling

But the proclamation, as law, either is valid, or is not valid. If it is not valid, it needs no retraction. If it is valid, it can not be retracted, any more than the dead can be brought to life.
--August 26, 1863 Letter to James Conkling

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
--November 19, 1863 Gettysburg Address

If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.
--April 4, 1864 Letter to Albert Hodges

I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling.
--April 4, 1864 Letter to Albert Hodges

The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.
--April 18, 1864 Address at Baltimore

I will say now, however, I approve the declaration in favor of so amending the Constitution as to prohibit slavery throughout the nation.
--June 9, 1864 Reply to Committee Notifying Lincoln of his Renomination

Every advocate of slavery naturally desires to see blasted, and crushed, the liberty promised the black man by the new constitution.
--November 14, 1864 Letter to Stephen A. Hurlbut

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.
--March 4, 1865 Inaugural Address

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.
--March 4, 1865 Inaugural Address


Source: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler et al.

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