As Lincoln's fourth and final term in
the state legislature came to a close in 1841, he sought out greater
political prominence and challenges. Illinois was a solidly Democratic
state though; there was little prospect for an aspiring Whig politician
to win statewide office. Whigs had a majority only in Illinois' Seventh
Congressional District, which included Lincoln's Sangamon County. To keep
peace within the party, Seventh District Whigs agreed that the seat
should be rotated among aspirants. Lincoln's rivals and friends John
J. Hardin and Edward D. Baker both served a term before Lincoln's turn
came in 1846.
Nominated by the Whigs on May 1, 1846,
Lincoln's opponent was Democrat Peter Cartwright, an itinerant Methodist
preacher who was popular in the district. Lincoln and Cartwright had
clashed before. Cartwright had bested Lincoln for the state legislature
in 1832, and Lincoln had skewered Cartwright in an anonymous newspaper
article in 1834. A frontier preacher and staunch Jacksonian Democrat,
Cartwright annoyed Whigs by boasting that he could turn Methodists out
to the polls to vote Democratic. He now spread the rumor that Lincoln
was an "infidel," or someone who did not believe in the existence
of God. Lincoln complained that Cartwright "never heard me utter
a word in any way indicating my opinions on religious matters, in his
life," yet presumed to speak authoritatively on his religious faith.
Lincoln felt obliged to respond with a July 31, 1846 handbill denying
the charges. Cartwright's gambit did him no good as Lincoln easily bested
him in the election, held August 3, 1846.
Lincoln's handbill gives some insight
into his religious opinions. As a young man, Lincoln imbibed the rationalism
of Enlightenment philosophers. He may have written an antireligious
tract that friends burned to avoid later embarrassment. Lincoln never belonged
to a church though he read the Bible, and biblical imagery decorates
his speeches and prose. In an 1838 speech, Lincoln contended that "Reason, cold,
calculating, unimpassioned reason," was "our future support
and defense." In his 1846 handbill, Lincoln admitted that he was
not a church member, but claimed he had "never denied the truth
of the Scriptures," nor had been disrespectful of any religion.
He confessed that when younger he had privately argued in favor of a
Doctrine of Necessity but had not advocated that doctrine for five years.
Lincoln defined the Doctrine of Necessity as "the human mind is
impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind
itself has no control," and he contended that this fatalism with
predestinarian overtones was part of certain Christian faiths, an assertion
that sought to demystify it. He concluded with a flat claim that he
could never support an atheist for political office. Lincoln later grew more
religious or at least sympathetic to religion under the impact of the
deaths of his sons Edward and William, and the suffering of the Civil
These issues came to the fore during
a period of intense religious upheaval in the United States. Beginning
in the 1830s, traveling evangelists like Charles Grandison Finney and
Peter Cartwright had encouraged American Protestants into a national
revival movement that became known as the Second Great Awakening. This
movement gave rise to a number of important reform efforts, including sabbatarianism,
temperance, education reform, and abolitionism. Reform groups often
organized in voluntary associations and sponsored lectures, published
handbills, and agitated for political action. Many of these groups provided
women with indirect political influence, especially over matters of
hearth and home. In the 1840s northeastern Whigs often became these
groups' political spokesmen. Together with an emphasis upon economic
development, moral reform became a staple of the Whig political program.
The Second Great Awakening's Protestant
surge toward activism and moral reform often brought along darker aspects
as well. The belief that American society could be purified more than
once led to movements to banish supposedly unwholesome elements. With
the advent of widespread immigration in the 1830s, many native-born
Protestants sought to exclude Catholic immigrants from citizenship.
The Mormons elicited a similar response.
In 1840 the sect, followers of the upstate New York prophet Joseph Smith, arrived in western Illinois and began to build the city of Nauvoo on the principles of
their faith. Nauvoo quickly became the largest city in the state of
Illinois, and the Mormons' iconoclastic faith and considerable political
and economic influence quickly won them rivals and enemies in the surrounding
counties. Wherever they had settled, Mormons had organized themselves and voted
as a bloc. Often this behavior unseated local political leadership and
earned long-lasting enmity. Mormons' practice of polygamy also outraged
Protestant morality. In 1844 these simmering disputes boiled over into violence
as anti-Mormon forces murdered Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. The
so-called Mormon War covered western Illinois with religious bloodshed,
and set the importance of religion in sharp relief.
Like the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic movements
that flourished in this period, the Mormon conflict of 1844 advertised
many Protestant crusaders' intolerance and belligerence.
The Mexican War dominated Lincoln's
brief congressional career. In 1846 President James K. Polk, a Tennessee
Democrat, ordered General Zachary Taylor's army to advance to the Rio
Grande River. Mexico had never recognized the United States' 1845 annexation
of Texas, and skirmishes followed the arrival of Taylor's force. Lincoln
opposed the resulting war, which he thought a contest Polk provoked
as a vote-getting device, and he hoped his arguments against the war
would make his reputation in the United States House of Representatives.
Lincoln contended that the disputed
territory between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande only belonged
to Texas where her jurisdiction had been clearly established, and he
did not think it extended to the Rio Grande. "It is a fact, that
the United States Army, in marching to the Rio Grande, marched into
a peaceful Mexican settlement, and frightened the inhabitants away from
their homes and their growing crops," Lincoln said. In his "Spot"
resolutions of 1847, he called on Polk for proof of the president's
insistence that the war began when Mexicans shed American blood on American
soil "That soil was not ours; and Congress did not annex or attempt
to annex it." Lincoln voted for a resolution that declared the
war unnecessary and accused Polk of violating the Constitution in commencing
it. He nonetheless voted to supply the American army and he did not
support legislation that would have prohibited acquiring territory from
Mexico as part of a peace settlement.
Lincoln's law partner William Herndon
condemned his opposition to the war, and other Illinois Whigs expressed
similar reservations. Democrats derided his course, referring to him
as "Spotty" Lincoln, and there is no doubt that Illinois supported
the war. Still, questions have been raised over how much Lincoln's antiwar
stand cost him politically. Mark Neely argued that Illinois Whigs agreed
with Lincoln, and his refusal to run for another term merely reflected
the Whigs' rotation policy. Lincoln backed Zachary Taylor's successful
campaign for president and hoped to be rewarded with an appointment
as commissioner of the General Land Office, only to lose it to another
The issue of slavery arose while Lincoln
was in Congress, as the new territories acquired from Mexico reopened
sectional wounds. Lincoln's congressional voting record opposed slavery, though he exhibited more moderation than abolitionists
like Joshua Giddings. Lincoln voted against the "gag rule"
that peremptorily tabled citizens' antislavery petitions to Congress,
he presented citizens' appeals for the end of slavery in Washington,
D.C., and he supported David Wilmot's proviso that outlawed slavery
in territory acquired from Mexico.
Lincoln crafted a proposal to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia
through a local referendum and compensated emancipation. In essence,
Lincoln was inclined to leave slavery alone in the South, out of a desire
to placate southern opinion and trusting to its eventual extinction,
but he firmly opposed its extension into new territory. He stated: "I
hold it to be a paramount duty of us in the free states, due to the
Union of the states, and perhaps to liberty itself (paradox though it
may seem) to let the slavery of the other states alone; while, on the
other hand, I hold it to be equally clear, that we should never knowingly
lend ourselves directly or indirectly, to prevent that slavery from
dying a natural death."
Carwardine, Richard J. Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
Donald, David. Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Howe, Daniel Walker. The Political Culture of the American Whigs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Johannsen, Robert W. To the Halls of the Montezumas: The War with Mexico in the American Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Lincoln, Abraham. Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings: 1832-1858. Don E. Fehrenbacher, ed., New York: Library Classics of the United States, Inc., 1989.
Sellers, Charles G. The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Neely, Mark E. The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1982.
Robert Remini. Andrew Jackson. (3 vols.) New York: Harper and Row, 1977, 1981, 1984.
Wilson, Douglas L. Lincoln Before Washington: New Perspectives on the Illinois Years. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997.