Abraham Lincoln emerged from his self-imposed
political retirement in 1854 soon after the Kansas-Nebraska Act became
law. In that act Illinois' Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas had
attempted to organize the vast Nebraska territory for settlement and
the passage of a transcontinental railroad. The region in question had
been considered a vast desert and had consequently been consigned to
the Indians. With settlement west of the Mississippi River, it became
clear that the territory was not a desert, but was suitable for farming.
Pressure, especially the desire for a transcontinental railroad connecting
California and Oregon to the Union, grew to permit settlement whatever
the cost to the Indians.
The railroad became a sectional issue,
with South and North competing for its terminus. Douglas sought to make
Chicago the railroad's eastern hub, and needed to organize the lands
west of it in order to pave the way for such a northern route. To placate
southern congressmen, he made two damaging concessions. Slavery had
long been prohibited in Nebraska because it lay above the line of thirty-six
degrees and thirty minutes latitude set by the Missouri Compromise.
Douglas agreed to an explicit repeal of that prohibition, opening the
territory to slavery. He also agreed to split the region into two territories,
Kansas and Nebraska. Douglas framed the bill with the idea that the
people of Nebraska and Kansas should decide for themselves whether they
wished to permit slavery, a doctrine he called "popular sovereignty."
He hoped that local control could remove slavery from the national political
stage, where it had become a disruptive issue. In this form,
the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed Congress and was signed into law by President
Douglas' hopes for national political
peace were dashed, as the repeal of the Missouri Compromise excited
widespread indignation and opposition in the North. Douglas was burned
in effigy across the North and shouted down when he attempted to speak
before a crowd in Chicago. The act also roused Abraham Lincoln by paving
the way for the extension of slavery, a prospect he had long opposed.
Lincoln laid out his objections to the
Act and resurrected his political career in a brilliant speech at Peoria
on October 16, 1854. In it he vigorously attacked the repeal of the
Missouri Compromise line, noting that restricting slavery above that
geographical boundary had been a southern concession to match northerners'
accession to allowing Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state.
Now that concession had been inexplicably withdrawn, and with it, the
sixty year old policy of restricting the expansion of slavery. Lincoln
invoked the founding fathers, specifically Thomas Jefferson, as he contended
that the Sage of Monticello had originated the restriction of slavery
with his Northwest Ordinance's prohibition of slavery in the Northwest
Lincoln criticized popular sovereignty,
questioning how it was that this doctrine could supersede the famed
Northwest Ordinance and the sacred Missouri Compromise. Congress had
purchased the territory, yet under Douglas' reasoning, it had no control
over the disposition of slavery there. The entire nation was interested
in the slavery issue, and properly so. Lincoln dismissed arguments that
climate and geography rendered slavery impossible in Kansas and Nebraska.
Only an explicit statutory prohibition was a true guarantee.
Most importantly, Lincoln attacked the
morality of slavery's extension and of slavery itself, while tempering
this assault on the "peculiar institution" with moderate rhetoric
toward the South. Douglas's contentions were perfectly acceptable if
the black man (Lincoln used the archaic term "Negro") were
no different than a hog. But Lincoln argued for the humanity of the
slaves. They were people, not animals, and consequently possessed certain
natural rights. "If the negro is a man, why then my ancient
faith teaches me that `all men are created equal;' and that there can
be no moral right in connection with one man's making a slave of another."
Still, Lincoln attached no blame to the South for slavery, and confessed
that he was not ready to accept black social and political equality.
Though he strongly condemned any extension of slavery, he was still willing
to tolerate even that to preserve the Union. Despite the radical nature
of some of his statements, Lincoln was still a Whig, not an abolitionist.
Lincoln's speech was a success. The
historian Mark Neely contended that by linking moral condemnation of
slavery with appeals to the founding fathers, Lincoln legitimated the
oft-criticized antislavery movement. Lincoln biographer David Donald
called the effort "a remarkable address, more elevated in sentiment
and rhetoric than any speech Lincoln had previously made." Because
Lincoln had spoken immediately after Stephen A. Douglas, who was touring
Illinois to explain and defend the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he began to
be thought of as Douglas's political foe.
Lincoln was drafted to run for the state
legislature in 1854, which he reluctantly agreed to do in the hope of
assisting the congressional candidate for his district. He won handily,
but immediately resigned to contest for a U.S. Senate seat, then decided
by the Illinois General Assembly. The anti-Nebraska forces had won the
General Assembly in 1854 but they were a queer political mix of Whigs,
Democrats who had broken with Douglas over Kansas-Nebraska, and "Know
Nothings." The latter party had formed in response to perceptions that
the country was being overrun with immigrants, many of whom were Catholic
in faith. Thus it was an essentially bigoted, anti-immigrant party seeking to protect old-line protestants' prerogatives and power.
The old Whig party had broken down after the 1852 election, riven by
insoluble sectional tensions. These disparate political groups were
united in a common distaste for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. They squabbled
over the Senate appointment, and Lincoln was forced to throw his support
behind the anti-Nebraska Democrat Lyman Trumbull .
Bitterly disappointed, Lincoln gravitated
toward the new Republican Party, the abolitionist faction of the anti-Nebraska
coalition. Lincoln sought to draw other anti-Nebraska political groups
into the Republican Party, especially former Whigs, former Democrats,
and Know-Nothings. On May 29, 1854, a convention of these factions met
at Bloomington. They united in opposition to the extension of slavery.
Lincoln gave another grand speech, the exact words of which have been
lost, but fragmentary accounts suggest he urged the political fusion
of those who opposed slavery's extension and the slave power.
Despite his disappointment at losing the Senate seat, Lincoln had found
a new political organization comprised of like-minded activists, and
become one of its leaders. He campaigned aggressively for the Republican
ticket in 1856.
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Donald, David. Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Fehrenbacher, Don E. Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962.
Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Gienapp, William E. The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856. New York: 1987.
Lincoln, Abraham. Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832-1858. Edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1989.
Litwack, Leon. North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States. Chicago: 1961.
Johannsen, Robert W. Stephen A. Douglas. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
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