Although Lincoln is viewed today as "the Great Emancipator," it is a title he wears uncomfortably in view of the relevant facts. His Emancipation Proclamation ultimately freed a miniscule proportion of slaves, and federal legislation beyond this decree did not go into effect until after Lincoln's death. While he was instrumental in paving the way for the abolition of slavery, Lincoln's role as an emancipator was not without ambiguity or reservation.
Against the better advice of many Union strategists and Congress themselves, Lincoln vetoed the use of black soldiers in the field in 1862. In fact, he did not authorize blacks to serve as soldiers in Union army until after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Even then, blacks fought strictly in separate regiments with white commanding officers. But to be fair, despite lower numbers and a more desperate position, the Confederacy did not authorize blacks for combat until March of 1865, mere weeks before their surrender.
As for Lincoln, his hesitancy over the armament of blacks was closely related to his doubts over their capacity to integrate fully into the political and social life of the United States. Thus, for much of his Presidency, Lincoln remained a strong supporter of the controversial colonization policy. Originally proposed by Henry Clay, colonization was a plan for the federal government to finance the return of freed slaves to majority black areas such as Haiti and Liberia. For all intents and purposes, the scheme was tantamount to subsidized deportation, and today it smacks of blatant racism.
Though the contemporary reader may be inclined to dismiss Lincoln as a hypocritical bigot, one must remember that even the greatest men are the products of their times. Lincoln's logic in supporting colonization was grounded in the fundamental reality of racial discord, which persists strongly even today. As he explained to an audience of freed blacks in August 1862, "your race suffers greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffers from your presence. In a word, we suffer on each side...if this is admitted, it affords a reason, at least, why we should be separated."
Over time, Lincoln began to have second thoughts about colonization. Perhaps convinced by his own rhetoric in the swell of events, he eventually revised his position. In the spring of 1864, Lincoln ordered Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to return those black colonists removed to the Caribbean who would prefer to be back in the United States. Later, Lincoln would run for re- election on the platform of a universal emancipation amendment, but while he would live to see it through Congress, the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in his memory and not by his signature. Nevertheless, and with substantial justification, this final emancipation is today viewed as a cornerstone of the Lincoln legacy.