Lincoln and slavery: “If I could save the union without freeing any slave, I would”

To generations of Americans, Abraham Lincoln is the Great Emancipator, the man who ended slavery. But, argues Lucy Worsley, scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find that the president’s motives weren’t as unblemished as many people believe

The bronze statue in Washington DC celebrating Abraham Lincoln's emancipation of slaves shows the 16th president standing over a shackled African American. Lincoln is "one of the towering figures in the story that Americans tell about themselves," writes Lucy Worsley. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC is very familiar to British eyes – not least because American action movies often seem to show it and the other monuments of the capital’s National Mall under attack from terrorists, criminals or even aliens. A spectacular assault on the landmarks of Washington DC is Hollywood shorthand for expressing the idea that America and its values are under threat.

But visit the memorial on any summer’s day, and you’ll find it a peaceful place, crowded with schoolchildren paying a first visit to their nation’s capital, and learning from their teachers the basic story of America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. He’s one of the towering figures in the story that Americans tell about themselves in order to explain – in the absence of a long shared history or natural borders – what holds their nation together.

Want to read more?

Become a BBC History Magazine subscriber today to unlock all premium articles in The Library

Unlock now