Did Abraham Lincoln Own Slaves?

Lately, the topic of America's collective attitude towards its founding fathers and its early presidents has come under new scrutiny, and in particular, what schoolchildren are taught about those men. Gone is the narrative that the founding fathers were, uniformly, admirable and forward-thinking men. The fact is that many of them were slave owners, and even among those who opposed slavery, many if not most had attitudes about Blacks that were less than evolved. What's more, as History reports, 12 of the men who served as president owned enslaved people at one or more points in their lives, including several who kept slaves while in office.

One president whose name often comes up in the discussion of slavery is Abraham Lincoln. Though he led the country during the Civil War, which ushered in the end of slavery, and although he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, his attitudes about slavery can best be described as "complicated," as NPR explains — his outlook "evolved" over time. However, one question about which there is little ambiguity is whether or not he ever owned slaves.

Lincoln couldn't have owned slaves even if he wanted to

According to History, Lincoln was a president who never owned slaves. And while it's impossible to prove a negative — "How do you know he didn't?" — and while it's possible that he may have, at some point in his life, owned one or more slaves, the circumstances of where and how he lived would seem to rule out that possibility.

Lincoln was born in Kentucky in 1809, according to a companion History report, to a poor family, and grew up there and in neighboring Indiana. His family was almost certainly too poor to own slaves, and Indiana was a Union state where slavery was illegal.

The future 16th president eventually made his way to Illinois, also a Union state where slavery was illegal. In his youth Lincoln was employed at a variety of jobs — surveyor, postmaster, merchant — before becoming an attorney and politician. By the time he was in Springfield, Illinois, when he might possibly have afforded slaves, slavery was illegal there. He left Springfield for Washington and never returned alive. It's certain Lincoln did not own slaves while he lived in the White House.