The Influence Freed Slaves May Have Had on the Boy Abraham Lincoln

Early encounters between Lincoln and African Americans, enslaved and free, were likely during his childhood in Indiana.

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln Hulton/Archive/Getty Images

Yet the African Americans whom Lincoln would have seen were not just “freesies,” for slavery was a common sight on the Ohio River.

Long before his trip down the Mississippi to Louisiana, the young Lincoln would have been brought face to face with one of the most appalling aspects of slavery: the shipment of people in bondage to be sold at market. And as his 1855 letter to Joshua Speed attests, he was profoundly affected by what he saw every time he touched the Ohio.

While Lincoln was always clear that he disliked slavery, he was also conflicted about the concept of free people of African descent living as equals in America. I can’t help but wonder how his time in Indiana shaped those attitudes. 

Eric Foner, in his excellent book on Lincoln, argues that Lincoln had to change a great deal in order to become the man who could sign the Emancipation Proclamation. I now believe that Lincoln had to come much further than we could have ever imagined in order not only to sign that document, but to grow into the realization that this might be a nation where at least some African Americans could be free and equal citizens. 

Anna-Lisa Cox is an active historian, writer and lecturer on the history of race relations in the 19th-century Midwest. She is the author of A Stronger Kinship, winner of a Michigan Notable Book award. Cox is currently an associate at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, a research associate at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and an honorary faculty member at Western Michigan University. She is currently completing a book entitled Lincoln’s Neighbors.