Abraham Lincoln lived in a time of relentless political, social, economic and technological change. As Lincoln grew to maturity, politics became increasingly democratic as the Americans swept aside the old system of deference, or rule by the elite, along with limitations on voting such as property qualifications, religious tests and poll taxes. Many of the new western states framed constitutions mandating universal white male suffrage. More state offices became elective rather than appointive by state legislatures. A new emphasis on the popular will infused American culture. The historian George Bancroft argued that popular opinion was infallible, and the country embraced a vision of the wisdom of the common man.
In the wake of the War of 1812, a period of political unity, if not harmony, ensued which subsequently foundered over differing conceptions of the role of the federal government. Now that political independence had again been ensured, some argued that the federal government should play an active role in national development. Henry Clay, a Kentucky congressman and later senator, proposed his American system: a protective tariff, national bank, and internal improvements. Clay argued for greater government involvement in spurring economic growth. Others contended that the Constitution strictly limited the federal government's role. By the 1830s, the second party system had arisen out of these contrasting philosophies. The Whigs, advocated their leader Clay's American system. Drawn to the party's expansive economic vision, Lincoln became a Whig.
Democrats opposed a growing federal government and preferred to exalt the freedom of the individual and the wisdom of the common man. Andrew Jackson became the charismatic leader of the Democrats and dueled politically with Henry Clay. A military hero and self-made man, Jackson seemed to embody the spirit of an age that embraced a romanticized conception of nature, a fervent belief in progress and in the destiny of the United States, and faith that individuals could triumph over all obstacles. As president, Jackson vigorously assailed the three pillars of Clay's American system. He vetoed federal internal improvements, reduced tariff rates amidst threats of secession from South Carolina, and vetoed a renewed charter for the national bank.
It was an optimistic age, with an ardent faith in progress both societal and individual. New, more hopeful forms of protestantism emerged that rejected the concepts of original sin, predestination, and a wrathful God. Individuals, not God, controlled their fates as sin was a voluntary act that could be banished by an act of will. Society too could be perfected if men and women would but rid themselves of corrupting institutions. Corrections in the social environment would present Americans with fewer temptations to commit evil acts. Communes abolishing private property and marriage as institutions that caused too much human acrimony sprang up in the United States. Health reformers urged Americans to change their diet. The temperance movement battled unprecedented levels of alcohol consumption. But the movement committed to the abolition of slavery became the era's most influential.
Abolitionism took flight in the 1830s, just as Abraham Lincoln was beginning his political career. Led by professional activists like William Lloyd Garrison, abolitionists publicized the abuses of the slave system, bombarded Congress with petitions, and called for the emancipation of all slaves. In response, the South grew more insular and adopted legal practices that curtailed free speech, such as prohibiting antislavery literature. Those who supported abolition in the South were compelled to leave the region or keep silent. In response to abolitionists the South moved to the offensive, as George Fitzhugh and others argued that slavery represented a moral good.
Most Northerners had little sympathy for abolitionists, whom they regarded as fanatics and radicals. Still, the people of the North slowly came to oppose slavery, and did not wish to see the "peculiar institution" spread beyond the South. Therein lay the seeds of sectional conflict.
In 1846, the United States went to war with Mexico and in the process of defeating that nation acquired millions of square miles of western territory. When Pennsylvania congressman David Wilmot introduced legislation to prohibit slavery in these new territories, a sectional controversy developed. Increasing numbers in the North, including many Democrats, were prepared to risk Southern wrath and insist that slavery be confined within its current geographical boundaries. Population growth in the North outpaced the South's as immigrants fleeing famine in Ireland and wars, revolutions, and religious strife in Europe arrived in Boston and New York and were attracted to the fertile plains of the middle west. The result was Northern dominance of the House of Representatives, which passed the Wilmot Proviso. Southern members blocked the measure in the Senate, but slavery's political vulnerability was clear. With time, the population disparity would translate into new free states and Northern political supremacy. The Compromise of 1850, in which both North and South made concessions, temporarily addressed the problem, but failed to solve it.
New technologies increased the American standard of living and stimulated economic growth. When Lincoln was a young man, steamboats carried farm products to market, and canals drastically reduced freight rates. As Lincoln reached middle age, the railroad replaced canals and linked eastern cities to the granary of the midwest. The telegraph zipped the latest news across vast distances that it had once taken days, even weeks, to travel.
The decade prior to the Civil War witnessed an intense national polarization over slavery. Aggressive enforcement of the fugitive slave law in the North outraged citizens, and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin portrayed slavery in all its grim raiment. Some Northern states passed personal liberty laws that effectively prevented the return of fugitive slaves. Southerners felt betrayed by such resistance, as northerners' pledge to offer stronger enforcement of the fugitive slave law made up an important part of the Compromise of 1850. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act's shocking repeal of the Missouri Compromise accelerated an ongoing process of political realignment. The Whig party expired, unable to survive its own sectional squabbles, depriving the country of the stability provided by a conservative political party. Bloodshed in Kansas seemed a harbinger of doom and marked the beginning of the end of sectional unity in the Democratic party. A new Republican party arose out of the political ashes, uniting disparate factions behind the issue of restricting slavery.
Southerners could not countenance the Republicans and abandoned northern Democrats
when Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois refused to support national
legislation protecting slavery in the territories. When Abraham Lincoln
won the presidency in 1860, he inherited an America where sober voices
had been silenced by the yelps of extremists, where brother prepared
to fight brother, where compromise had become distasteful, even disgraceful.
The nation was gripped by the blood-lusting frenzy, the thirst for war,
that has periodically overcome reason in the human race throughout recorded
history. More citizen-soldiers would die before peace was restored than
in any other American war. With peace came a national rebirth, as the
dread age of slavery in the United States closed forever.