According to Shelby Foote, at the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill (1854), Lincoln emerged from his short retirement from an even shorter political career to speak against Stephen A. Douglas, a proponent of that bill and "Popular Sovereignty":
"The doctrine of self-government is right, absolutely and eternally right; but it has no just application, as here attempted. Or perhaps I should say that whether it has such just application depeands upon whether a Negro is not or is a man. If he is not a man, why in that case he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him.
But if the Negro is a man, is it not to that extent a total destruction of self-government to say that he too shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government; that is despotism. If the Negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that 'all men are created equal,' and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man's making a slave of another."According to Shelby Foote, Lincoln by this time believed that slavery was a "a moral wrong; he had not come to believe that it was a legal wrong . . . the words of his mouth came like meditations from the heart: "Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man's nature, opposition to it in his love for justice." (p. 27).
In the speeches of that day, the audience was not pre-selected. Lincoln had no TelePrompter, but a sheet of paper with his speech prepared. His voice was shrill, something you might not expect. As in some other speeches, Lincoln prepared his remarks as a lawyer would, seeking to convey his thoughts to a jury without alienating them by being a know-it-all: is the slave a Man or not? This is called a rhetorical question. I have no doubt that Lincoln conveyed that a slave was a man and entitled to freedom, but his audience was the jury, the judge, and needed to come to it themselves.
excerpt from a Letter to W.H. Wells. January 8, 1859.
A mix of politics, policy, and moral fiber:
"His [his political rival, Stephen Douglas'] policy, which rigorously excludes all idea of there being any wrong in slavery, does lead inevitably to the nationalization of the institution; and all who deprecate that consummation, and yet are secduced into his support, do but cut their own throats. True, Douglas has opposed the administration on one measure, and yet may on some other; but while he upholds the Dred Scott Decision, declares that he cares not whether slavery be voted down or voted up; that it is simply a question of dollars and cents, and that the Almighty has drawn a line on one side of which labor must be performed by slaves; to support him or Buchanan, is simply to reach the same goal by only different roads."Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865
There are more famous quotations from the Second Inaugural Address, but these are the ones that make reference to slavery, and to a change in what he, as President, was able to accept. He says he would have accepted a compromise four years earlier, which was not attained.
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. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. . . .Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.
. . . .
Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether."So Lincoln never described himself as having a constant policy to free slaves, even as president. He also made no bones that his actions were part of his statesmanship--a number of issues, particularly the preservation of the Union, and the armies on which the Union depended, took up much of his time and made up large parts of his rhetoric. He did not build policies derived solely from his own opinion--because he was a President, not a despot.
It is my belief that we can find Lincoln to be advanced in his hatred of slavery on a personal level, without the range of experiences required to develop a full appreciation of a black person's potential. However, in all cases, he did make the steps required to open that gate for us all to understand it.
Like anyone who writes of Lincoln, I have cherry-picked my quotations. Below the references are two sets: one that says Lincoln was, indeed, the Great Emancipator. The other, a great hypocrite. We must all judge on our own, of course. But I utterly reject the notion that he was a hypocrite. Like all men, his wisdom came through a process. Like all men, his wisdom was limited somewhat by the scope of his own experience and his milieu. He transcended existing conditions, but not infinitely. He had the help of a great many other people, starting with an illiterate but far-seeing stepmother and ending with every Union soldier that ever ate a bite of moldy hardtack and cursed the war.
Each of us has come farther than Lincoln, but it was Lincoln who opened the gate for us. Then it is for us to say how far down we walk that path he opened up.
Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol 1: Fort Sumter to Perryviille. (Prologue) Random House.
Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865. Library of America.
Library of Congress, "Abraham Lincoln: A Resource Guide", here.
Tibor Machan, (2002, June 1) "Lincoln, Secession, and Slavery," The Cato Institute Web site, here.
Wikipedia, "Abraham Lincoln on Slavery." This is not as definitive as it could be, but the references are good.
Selected Quotes, very different sets:
National Park Service, (n.d.), "Lincoln on Slavery," Lincoln Home National Historic site, NPS, here.
Vernellia Randall, (Ed.), "Lincoln on Slavery," Race, Racism, and the Law site, University of Dayton, here.