Even as late as 1827, antislavery societies in the south outnumbered those in the north. Virginia had even considered a gradual emancipation plan in 1830s, though it was ultimately rejected. But as the nineteenth century progressed, such liberal sentiment began to ebb, with slavery becoming an increasingly integral part of the southern economy. In the presence of a constantly industrializing North, the South began to focus its resources more and more on agricultural staple crops, and especially on cotton. The intensive labor required of such an effort led to exponential growth in the slave population. By the brink of the Civil War, southern whites numbered 5.5 million, while the slave population was estimated at 3.5 million.
While slavery was integral to the southern fortunes, it was not pervasive among the broader society. Only about five percent of southern whites were actually slaveholders, and a sizeable proportion of southern slaves was held by the 38,000 who owned twenty slaves or more. Nevertheless, with a mounting tide of abolitionism and anti-southern sentiment against it, the newly-organized Confederates were able to win considerable support from many poor whites who had perhaps less of a stake in the slavery question, but were equally affected by Union control of tariff rates and general issues of state sovereignty.
For his part, as a candidate Lincoln had repeatedly stressed a policy of containing slavery without eliminating it. In the early days of the war, Lincoln had even gone so far as to revoke several hasty emancipation proclamations made by zealous Union generals. This, however, was more with an eye to politics than to the integrity of property. Lincoln's persistent personal wish was to gradually and completely eliminate the institution of slavery, and as the war dragged on, steps toward such action began to emerge as real possibilities.
Lincoln had first proposed gradual, compensated emancipation of slaves in the border states in spring of 1862. But wary of losing support in these key locations, his cabinet demurred, and Lincoln elected to focus his slavery strategy in more decided Union strongholds. Using his executive influence, Lincoln helped to push through the abolishment of slavery in the District of Columbia on April 16. Three months later slavery was abolished in United States territories, nullifying popular sovereignty and overriding the Dred Scott decision.
While such instances appear to the contemporary eye as policies driven by moral principles, they were in fact, far less idealistically, strategic aims to practical war ends. By rallying Union support around the cause of abolition, Lincoln hoped to spur on flagging confidence in a demoralized and severely weakened military force. Thus, in midsummer, Lincoln cautiously floated a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. With rumors swirling around Washington, Lincoln steadfastly asserted his position to New York newspaperman and politician Horace Greeley in late August. As Lincoln wrote, "my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery." If possible, he explained, he would "save the Union without freeing any slave." However, Lincoln insisted that his political strategy be disassociated from his personal views, writing that he "intend[ed] no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free."
While his idealistic wish to separate his personal motives from his professional decisions may have been realized in some degree, it is certain that Lincoln's individual views came increasingly to encroach upon his policy decisions as the strain of war grew heavier. Gradually, the distinction between the preservation of Union and the destruction of slavery began to blur in Lincoln's mind, as he recognized the latter as an potentially effective means of accomplishing the former.