Abraham Lincoln paid a singular tribute to New Haven clergyman Leonard Bacon. Bacon’s book Slavery Discussed, the president told a visitor in 1864, “had much to do in shaping my own thinking on the subject of slavery.” And, added Lincoln: “He is quite a man.”
Yet Bacon’s views on emancipationexpressed in hundreds of magazine articles and a series of books from the 1820s until beyond the Civil Warangered many abolitionists. While condemning the institution of slavery, Bacon sought a solution in colonizationthe emigration of slaves to Africaand favored financial compensation for slaveholders. Above all, gradualism and gentle persuasion of “good slaveholders” were key, rather than any absolute fiat. Until 1862, these views were largely shared by Lincoln as well. Bacon’s postwar attitude toward Reconstruction and universal suffrage was tangled up with an enduring concern for states’ rights and a degree of paternalism toward freedmen.
Pastor of the Center Church in New Havenone of the most prestigious in New Englandfor more than 40 years, Bacon also taught theology at Yale and served on the Corporation. He studied and wrote history, helped found several anti-slavery and “Negro assistance” societies, and published frequently on Congregationalist doctrine and polity, the early temperance movement, and other current issues. Biographer and historian Hugh H. Davis believes Bacon, on balance, was too divisive to have helped build an effective abolitionist coalition, although his conservative, middle-of-the-road approach served to prepare public opinion in the North for acceptance of emancipation.