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Unresolved Conflicts
Lincoln's Early Ideas on Slavery

Sarah-Eva E. Carlson
Clonlara School, Rockford

On the surface, Abraham Lincoln's beliefs on race and slavery seem firm and defined. But inside, his heart and his mind battled unresolved conflicts. Lincoln's views changed prior to 1860 only because, as he progressed in years, he became more aware of the truths of slavery and the dangers of both its existence and its elimination.

Young Abraham Lincoln had minimal knowledge of the South's "peculiar institution." He saw little of it as a child. Therefore, his stance developed mainly through what he saw and experienced as an adult. Mary Todd Lincoln, his wife, was a good source on the issue. She had much first-hand contact with slavery and told him stories of her childhood in a slave-owning family.

Lincoln's career as an attorney afforded him additional experience with the slavery issue. As one historian wrote, "to be a lawyer in the Illinois of Lincoln's day was to know something about the Negro." Lincoln's first slavery case, Bailey v. Cromwell, went before the Illinois Supreme Court in 1841. Lincoln was retained by David Bailey, who had purchased a slave girl, Nance, from Mr. Cromwell. When the note by which she had been bought fell due, Bailey refused to pay, saying that Nance had left after six months and that Cromwell had not yet produced her papers. Lincoln argued that Nance was free under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Illinois Constitution, both of which forbade slavery. He also said that Bailey's promissory note was void, because it was against the law in Illinois to buy a human. Lincoln's legal victory here was one of the greatest of his 250 cases.

Lincoln's second slavery case, Matson v. Rutherford, occurred in 1847. Lincoln was retained by Robert Matson who sued Gideon M. Ashmore and Hiram Rutherford. Ashmore and Rutherford had helped one of Matson's slave families (the Bryants) run away from his land in Illinois, where he employed the Kentucky-based slaves from spring until after the fall harvest. Lincoln argued that if the Bryants had been brought to Illinois permanently, then they would have been free under the Northwest Ordinance. But since they were only seasonal workers, they were not free. The circuit court ruled for the Bryants's freedom.

The common opinion is that neither the Matson nor the Bailey case indicate anything of Lincoln's views about slavery because his business was law, not morality. These two cases, however, apparently opened his eyes to the realities of slavery. He saw first-hand the abuse and cruelty directed toward slaves. Even his position on both sides of the slavery question in these cases was consistent with his later view that slavery probably could not be abolished where it existed, but under no circumstances should it be extended.

Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon, also affected Lincoln's ideas. Herndon subscribed to proslavery newspapers that declared "what once was an evil, now is good." Herndon also purchased a copy of George Fitzhugh's Sociology for the South, which argued that slavery was preferred to free labor because of the protection it provided. To this Lincoln later responded, "Although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a good thing, we never hear of the man who wishes to take the good of it, by being a slave himself." Herndon also read a variety of abolitionist materials that he undoubtedly shared with Lincoln.

Lincoln believed in following the law and maintaining order. Thus, his public feelings were a mix of conservatism and radicalism. He supported enforcement of the law concerning fugitive slaves. Lincoln believed that social disorder and ignorance of the law were results of "abolition fanaticism." In a letter to a fellow Republican, Lincoln defined his position: "I suppose my opposition to the principle of slavery is as strong as that of any member of the Republican party, but I also suppose that the extent to which I feel authorized to carry that opposition, practically, was not at all satisfactory to that party."

Lincoln described his position against slavery as one of "toleration by necessity where it exists, with unyielding hostility to the spread of it, on principle." He was willing to accept slavery as long as it was contained. He stated that where slavery was lawful, it could not be challenged. Lincoln also did not want to give blacks citizenship. He proposed, originally, to send all former slaves back to Liberia. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 led him to conclude that "slavery and free society were absolutely incompatible." Yet, he still doubted that whites and freed blacks could live together.

Lincoln noted both the "delicacy" of eliminating slavery and the "evil" that could grow along with its elimination. He knew the danger of confronting slavery in the slave states. He felt such an act would put the Union in jeopardy, and the Union was of highest political importance to him. Still, he felt slavery might, over many years, be removed carefully with patience and wisdom.

Lincoln actually sympathized with the Southern position. Lincoln did not hold the South accountable or responsible for the existence of slavery. Rather, he felt the North would react the same way

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if put under such circumstances. Before his presidency, Lincoln never mentioned a word or acted in any way to give the South the impression that he had intentions of starting a war over slavery.

In some ways, Lincoln disagreed with both the ways of enforcement and the principles of slavery, rather than its fundamental premises. Lincoln saw slavery as a product of violence, because the institution was maintained by force.

Lincoln became obsessed with the issue of slavery. He knew he was right. He wanted the words of God and the Declaration of Independence to be real for all people. In 1860 Lincoln stated, "I want every man to have the chance—and I believe a black man is entitled to it—in which he can better his condition." In the end, he felt it was his duty under the laws of the United States to see that all men alike were bestowed with the blessings of the United States, the blessing of freedom.—[From David Herbert Donald, Lincoln; Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness; Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men; Robert W. Johannsen, The Frontier, The Union and Stephen A. Douglas; Benjamin Quarles, Lincoln and the Negro; William H. Town send, Lincoln and the Bluegrass; Elton Trueblood, Abraham Lincoln.]

ILLINOIS HISTORY/FEBRUARY 1997

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