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in the 1850s

Matthew Pinsker
Historical Research and Narrative

The man who is of neither party is not — cannot be, of any consequence."
—Abraham Lincoln, July 6, 1852

People tend not to remember Abraham Lincoln as a political party leader. He is celebrated as many things—as president, emancipator, debater, writer, self-made man, folk hero, story-teller, even as a shrewd politician—but few focus on the significance of his career as a partisan organizer. Yet Lincoln helped launch the first party system in Illinois during the 1830s and 1840s, played a pivotal role in the formation of the antebellum Republican Party, and might have led a third realignment in American politics if he had only lived long enough to develop the National Union Party, under whose banner he had won reelection in 1864. In particular, it was Lincoln's decision to organize the Republican Party during the 1850s that transformed his career and helped alter the nature of American political culture.

When the decade began, Abraham Lincoln was a respected former congressman in his ABE LINCOLN — A Man Going Places early forties looking to rebuild his law practice in Illinois and to reconnect with his wife and young sons. Although his experience in Congress had been frustrating, Lincoln had little to complain about. For someone "raised to farm work" as he once put it, the future president had established himself as a successful politician and lawyer with startling ease. Within three years of leaving his father's farm in Coles County, the young man had been elected to the state legislature (1834) and after just two terms in office had become floor leader for his party caucus. Only a few years removed from the legislature, he then served a single term in Congress (1847-49) where he accomplished little but made some important friends. Meanwhile, despite little formal education, the young politician had taught himself the law, received a license, and ended up partnering with two of his state's leading attorneys before opening his own firm, Lincoln & Herndon, in 1844. He was also married to Mary Todd, the daughter of a prominent Kentucky businessman.

ABE LINCOLN — A Man Going Places

Yet Lincoln still appeared restless and dissatisfied with his political life. Lincoln was a Whig in a state dominated by Democrats. That inconvenient fact limited his prospects for public office. Also, the great economic and constitutional issues that had ignited the formation of the Whig Party in the 1830s seemed less relevant by the early 1850s. But most important, Lincoln was a diligent organizer in a party that resisted organization. He was frustrated by the Whig habit of ignoring basic tenets of nineteenth-century party management. "A house divided against itself cannot stand," he had warned other Whigs in 1843 while urging them to adopt a convention system for candidate nominations. Since 1849, Lincoln had also been sorely disappointed by the patronage decisions of the new Whig administration in Washington.

Even worse, former local rival Stephen A. Douglas, the so-called "Little Giant," was fast becoming a national phenomenon. In the autumn of 1850, Senator Douglas, still only in his mid-thirties, had found a way to rescue the stalled deal over California's controversial admission to the union. Douglas's genius lay in realizing that even though the so-called "omnibus," or package, bill was doomed to failure because sectional interests outweighed national ones, it was still possible to cobble together a deal by separating the various measures of the Compromise of 1850 into separate resolutions. Breaking up the compromise into parts allowed southerners to vote against provisions such as the admission of California as


Stephen A. Douglas

a free state, which they opposed, or for northerners to vote against a tougher fugitive slave law, which they despised, because there were just enough swing votes to provide a majority in each case. That is why some historians such as David Potter have described this moment as the "armistice of 1850."

1858 ambrotype of Lincoln. Image copied from a daguer-rotype of Lincoln taken in 1854 by J.C.F. Polycarpus von Schneidau while Lincoln was in Chicago to give a speech. Lincoln was holding a newspaper for the photo. George Schnieder (von Schneidau's neighbor ) took the photo to Joseph Medill, publisher of the forerunner of the Chicago Tribune the Press and Tribune. Medill had a photographer friend make this ambrotype copy of the 1854 image, changing the visible title of the newspaper to "'Press and Tribune.'" Courtesy: The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library

By that point, however, after nearly two decades of intense agitation over slavery, most of the nation's political leaders were willing to settle for an armistice. On December 23,1851, vowing "never to make another speech upon the slavery question," Douglas informed the Senate, "I am heartily tired of the controversy, and I know the country is disgusted with it." Lincoln did not express himself so bluntly, but he had claimed during the compromise debates that regarding this "one great question of the day" there was "often less real difference in its bearing on the public weal, than there is between the dispute being kept up, or being settled either way" (July 25, 1850). In the 1852 election, both major parties endorsed the measures hoping to see the great debate "settled."

The Whigs lost the 1852 election, but neither party succeeded in upholding the spirit of compromise. Sporadic northern resistance to the new, tougher fugitive slave law increasingly infuriated southerners. The publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) also created a national sensation. For these reasons and others, sectional opinion was becoming more aroused during the early 1850s than ever before. This had a troubling impact on the relationship among states, or what is known in legal doctrine as comity. In the past, for example, many southern states had allowed slaves limited access to their courts for "freedom



suits," or civil actions alleging illegal bondage. The most common ground for a successful freedom suit was proof of residence in free states or territories. Southern courts typically acknowledged that the common law principle of "once free, always free" applied to slaves whose masters had held them in the North, even if they were eventually returned into the South. Yet following the turbulence of the post-compromise period, the Missouri Supreme Court tossed aside decades of precedents in a critical 1852 decision that invalidated the freedom suit of a slave named Dred Scott whose master, an army surgeon, had once kept him and his wife in military posts in northern territory where slavery had been prohibited.

That is also the principal reason why Stephen Douglas took such a gamble in January 1854 with his controversial proposal to repeal the Missouri Compromise. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories and as an ardent believer in westward expansion, Douglas wanted to push through a plan to organize former Louisiana Purchase territories for prospective statehood. However, the always thorny problem of slavery had created a new stalemate. Angry over the failures of the recent compromise and troubled by the breakdown in comity, southern legislators insisted on an explicit repeal of the famous 1820 compromise that had authorized the admission of Missouri into the union as a slave state in exchange for the prohibition of slavery from any other parts of the territory north of the state's southern boundary (along the 36° 30' latitude line). In a stunning reversal of his previous position, Douglas agreed to reopen the slavery debate by accepting this repeal and fighting for what he called "popular sovereignty"—or allowing territorial residents to decide the slavery question themselves by referendum.

He was friendly with several KNOW NOTHINGS of Springfield

Douglas subsequently convinced fellow Democrat President Franklin Pierce to make the Kansas-Nebraska Act (May 30,1854) a test of party loyalty. The result was a divisive rupture within the northern Democratic Party and a massive realignment of American politics. Shrewd Whig Party leaders, such as Abraham Lincoln, realized that Douglas's flip-flop on slavery and hard-line party management created an opportunity for them to create an alliance with Anti-Nebraska Democrats. However, the question that historians continue to debate was whether Lincoln and others wanted to revive their flagging Whig Party or create a new kind of party organization.

What makes this question so difficult to resolve are the complicated realities of politcal life in mid-nineteenth-century America. The Nebraska Bill, as it was known, was by no means the only divisive issue of the day.



Northerners, in particular, were experiencing a backlash against European immigration that had spawned a secret nativist or "Know-Nothing" political movement. There was also a resurgence of underground resistance to the federal fugitive slave law, epitomized by the dramatic escape in 1854 of runaway Joshua Glover in Wisconsin and the controversial rendition (or return) of fugitive Anthony Burns from Massachusetts. National politics in that age was also decentralized and could not be fully understood except on a state-by-state, even county-by-county, basis. Finally, politicians themselves still were often reticent to discuss individual political ambitions or behind-the-scenes maneuvers. This inhibition was a legacy from earlier generations of Americans who expected candidates to "stand" rather than "run" for office, because of republican ideology that opposed corrupt power (and power-seeking) and honored civic virtue instead.

Lincoln was not immune to any of these factors. He was friendly with several Know Nothings around Springfield and remained interested in attracting their political followers—though without embracing their principles. Although there was not much Underground Railroad activity in Illinois, there were enough fugitive slave cases to bring Lincoln into court—both as attorney for white masters and for accused runaways. As much as anyone else, Lincoln was also cognizant of local political nuances. During this period, he traveled regularly across a vast portion of Illinois as a circuit-riding attorney. Most important for historians, Lincoln was also the "most secretive—reticent—shut-mouthed man that ever existed," according to his longtime law partner, William H. Herndon. In various autobiographical sketches written for his presidential campaign, Lincoln characterized his intentions during this period only in the broadest possible terms. "I was losing interest in politics," he recalled in one example, "when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused me again. What I have done since then is pretty well known" (December 20, 1859).

What Lincoln accomplished during the mid-1850s might have been "well known," but it was not easily understood. In the summer of 1854, he agreed to run for a seat in the state legislature as a way to help promote the local Anti-Nebraska coalition. Yet he spent most of that campaign, as historian Don Fehrenbacher has shrewdly pointed out, speaking outside of his legislative district and with eye apparently toward iht09160116-9.jpg bigger game, perhaps a seat in the U.S. Senate. Lincoln actually traveled the state for a time following Senator Douglas, in effect engaging in a series of informal "debates." There was neither a statewide nor a local Whig Party convention that year, but Lincoln still occasionally referred to himself as "an old Whig." However, he also dropped that label whenever it was convenient, and routinely reached out to Anti-Nebraska Democrats, Know Nothings or Free Soilers with little regard for old party allegiances. "Stand with anybody," he advised Whig audiences during the fall campaign, "that stands right" on the issue of the restoring the Missouri Compromise and containing the spread of slavery.

Here was the essence of the party-building strategy that would eventually carry Lincoln and the Republicans into national power. They kept a single-minded focus on the slavery issue while accommodating as broad a coalition of men as possible. Lincoln helped forge this strategy in Illinois—a critical battleground state in this era—but he has not received much historical credit for his actions. The perception that Lincoln was a reluctant Republican has mostly to do with his hesitation over labels. The all-important 1854 campaigns were chaotic. Across the nation, there were various names for the emerging Democratic opposition—Anti-Nebraska, Fusion, People's, or Republican. Illinois was no different, and in some ways, even more complicated. The state was a microcosm of the divided nation, with latitudes (and attitudes about slavery) that



stretched from the equivalent of Kentucky to Maine. Thus, when a group of self-appointed "Republicans" from northern Illinois met in Springfield in October and named Lincoln to their central committee, he declined— eager to "stand with anybody" but determined to do so only on his own terms.

Those terms became clear by mid-November 1854 after Douglas and the regular Democrats endured significant setbacks in the fall elections. The Democrats lost two-thirds of their northern congressional seats, and in Illinois, the party lost control of both the state's congressional delegation and the General Assembly. Sensing this unique opportunity, Lincoln aimed for the U.S. Senate seat. In those years, legislatures, not the general public, selected senators; and in the coming year, James Shields, not Stephen Douglas, would be the incumbent Democrat facing reelection. Since Shields was also an Irish immigrant, the ever resourceful Douglas announced that the fight should be over "No Nothingism" and not Nebraska, but Lincoln declined to accept this bait. Instead, he went straight to work, resigning the legislative seat he had won from Sangamon County and directly soliciting votes among the new legislators. Such early and aggressive campaigning for a Senate seat was practically unheard of at the time, and nobody else quite matched Lincoln's zeal or organization.

The determination paid off well at first. By the time the General Assembly opened in January, Lincoln was the frontrunner. He united nearly all of the former Whigs, Know Nothings, and Free Soilers into what he labeled in his campaign notebooks as the "Republican organization" (January 1, 1855). But one small group of Anti-Nebraska Democratic legislators refused to caucus with these "Republicans." The former Democrats held the balance of power. Without their five votes, neither Lincoln nor any Anti-Nebraska candidate could win. But the price for obtaining their support was high. The Anti-Nebraska Democrats insisted that Lyman Trumbull, a congressman from Alton, should be selected as senator. Following several ballots and plenty of high political drama, Lincoln accepted the deal and Trumbull became a United States senator.

Afterwards, Lincoln wrote that he had agreed to Trumbull's election because he could not "let the whole political result go to ruin, on a point merely personal to myself" (February 9, 1855). However, the result was a personal victory for Lincoln, too. He was not a senator, but he had become an indispensable state party leader. Trumbull's victory was the first statewide triumph for what would eventually become the Illinois Republican Party, and everyone knew that Abraham Lincoln was the person who engineered it.

The contrast with Stephen Douglas is revealing. As Lincoln was working to unite his new party on principle, Douglas was destroying the Democrats with his endless policy machinations. The doctrine of popular sovereignty in Kansas created a crisis when abolitionists and pro-slavery forces rushed to settle the territory and clashed over how to hold the critical referendum on slavery. Violence erupted and "Bleeding Kansas" became a new symbol of everything that was wrong with the rampant sectionalism of the 1850s. Then, after years of delay, the iht09160116-11.jpg Supreme Court tried to settle the great national debate over slavery with a ruling in the Dred Scott case (1857). The infamous verdict denied blacks citizenship and any further access to the courts, discarded old standards of comity on slavery-related matters, and invalidated the Missouri Compromise, claiming that Congress had no constitutional authority to prohibit slavery in the territories. The result encouraged further chaos since the ruling suggested that both slavery containment and popular sovereignty were unconstitutional. Douglas shrugged off this critique and claimed to see vindication in the verdict, but Lincoln was gloomier and found in the court's decision a distressing sign that an era of compromise had finally passed.

The year 1857 ended with more bad news for Douglas as he broke with the Democratic administration in Washington over the Lecompton Constitution, a patently fraudulent effort by pro-slavery forces to secure Kansas as a slave state. President James Buchanan was willing to accept the "Lecompton swindle," but Douglas flatly refused. Their rupture sealed the fate of the Democratic Party, and also threatened the future of the Illinois Republicans in an unexpected way. With Douglas cast adrift from the regular Democratic machine, several leading national Republican figures saw this as an opportunity to turn the Little Giant into one of their own. Alarmed by this prospect, Lincoln rallied his forces to resist.


Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Charleston, Illinois, by Robert Marshall Root

He was willing to "stand with anybody" but only when they stood right, and Lincoln claimed he never quite knew where Douglas stood. In June 1858, Illinois Republicans thus broke new political ground by nominating Lincoln in advance of the legislative elections as their "first and only choice" for U.S. Senate against incumbent Stephen Douglas.

What followed was a titanic clash of men and ideas. As he had done in a few previous elections, Lincoln began the 1858 campaign by following Douglas and speaking in his wake. This time, however, the two agreed to hold seven joint debates across the state, during which time they engaged in a fascinating exchange about the compatibility of slavery and democracy and the meaning of race and citizenship. By this point, Lincoln was firm in his ideas about the "wrong" of slavery and about the need to put it on a path toward "ultimate extinction." He was less certain, however, about race. Like most Republicans, Lincoln believed that blacks were human and deserved the "natural rights" of the Declaration, but he was unwilling to commit to any notions of equality or full citizenship. Douglas repeatedly baited him on these issues and was reelected as Democrats managed to retain control of the legislature.

Yet once again, Lincoln benefited from an ostensible defeat. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates earned Lincoln a national audience while also reaffirming his special position as party leader in Illinois. Over the next two years, Lincoln managed to speak in about half the states of the North without losing the loyal support of his peers at home. Nobody else among Illinois Republicans quite matched Lincoln's combination of managerial skills and communication talents. No one else had his record of organizational accomplishment. Nor had anyone accumulated so much loyalty and respect from others. Thus, by the end of the 1850s, Lincoln had become a man of "consequence" largely because of wise partisan choices. He had not held a single public office during the decade, nor had he won any fame as a military hero—the previous pathways to the presidency. What he had done time and again was to make tough, prudent choices in a confused political climate and to explain them in ways that clarified matters and held a fragile coalition together. That was enough to launch a successful presidential campaign in 1860. It was also enough to suggest that Lincoln had just the right kind of experience for a new and dangerous political era when ballots were sadly giving way to bullets.


Sarah Drake Brown


Main Ideas


The curriculum materials for "Man of Consequence: Abraham Lincoln in the 1850s" provide opportunities for students to acquire content knowledge and engage in cognitive processes specific to the discipline of history. While reading primary sources that emphasize the development of Lincoln's ideas in the context of 1850s Illinois politics, students will be asked to consider:

  • How things happen and how things change
  • How human intentions matter, but also how their consequences are shaped by the means of carrying them out, in a tangle of purpose and process
  • The complexity of historical causation
  • The importance of individuals who have made a difference in history
  • The significance of personal character for both good and ill (NCHE, 2005)

Connection with the Curriculum

The following materials may be used to teach aspects of the antebellum period in United States history or Illinois history courses. The narrative and activities may be appropriate for meeting Illinois Learning Standards 16.A.3C, 16.A.4a, 16.A.4b, 16.A.5a, 16.A.5b, 16.B.5a, 16.B.5D, 16.D.4a(US), 16.D.4b(US).

In order to engage students in "doing" history and in thinking historically, we need to provide multiple opportunities for the examination of primary and secondary sources. The methods students use to read sources are critical. As the history education researcher Sam Wineburg noted, historical thinking is an "unnatural act" that must be taught (Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple Univesrity Press, 2001). The activities that comprise these curriculum materials are designed to enhance students' abilities to read history and to think historically. The analysis guides compel students to consider sources as living documents that tell a story about the topic and about the author, his/her motives, bias, intended audience, etc. in the context of time. Illinois Learning Standard 16.A, "Apply the skills of historical analysis and interpretation," addresses one aspect of historical thinking. While there is not one definition of historical thinking and the concept should not be constrained to a narrow perspective, it can be constructive to utilize the five aspects of historical thinking as they appear in the National Standards for History and as Illinois has noted, in ILS 16.A. The five aspects of historical thinking as explained in National Standards for History and that serve as guideposts for these materials include:

  • Chronological thinking
  • Historical comprehension
  • Historical analysis and interpretation
  • Historical research capabilities
  • Historical issues—analysis and decision-making

The activity sheets in these materials provide opportunities for students to examine closely the values, beliefs, political ideas, and institutions prevalent in Illinois during this time while involving students in cognitive processes that are central to the discipline of history.

Teaching Level

The curriculum materials are appropriate for use with students in grades 9-12 and may be used for students in grades 7 and 8 after appropriate modifications by the teacher. The materials consist of five primary sources, a document-analysis guide, a comparative-analysis guide, a guide to historical thinking, and a culminating assessment. The lesson outlined below will extend over 2 to 3 days.

Materials for Each Student

  • A copy of one of the primary sources
  • A copy of the document analysis guide (Activity Sheet 1)
  • A copy of the comparative analysis guide (Activity Sheet 2)
  • A copy of the historical thinking guide (Activity Sheet 3)
  • A copy of the culminating assessment (Activity Sheet 4)

Objectives for Each Student

  • Explain Lincoln's development as a leader of Republicans in Illinois
  • Assess the credibility of specific primary sources
  • Synthesize evidence to create a poster highlighting Lincoln's political life in the 1850s

Opening the Lesson

As Matthew Pinsker noted in the historical narrative, Abraham Lincoln's contributions toward organizing the Republican Party in the 1850s are not well known. In order to assist students in learning about Lincoln's political life prior to his 1860 election as president and to prepare them for engagement in historical thinking, open-ended, how/why questions can be utilized to begin the lesson. Such questions as "How did Abraham Lincoln become a 'man of consequence'?"


and "Why was Lincoln able to consolidate the Republican Party in Illinois?" will provide a framework to which students can return as they read and analyze various sources.

Since students are likely to be unfamiliar with Lincoln's work prior to his presidency (or may know only of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates), it will be useful to weave context for students by activating their prior knowledge. The use of a "What do I know?/What do I want to know?" chart that focuses on Lincoln and on American values, beliefs, and political institutions during the antebellum period can assist students in their subsequent examination of sources pertaining specifically to Lincoln. Direct instruction drawn from the content in the Pinsker narrative may also be beneficial.

Developing the Lesson

After helping students recognize the context of the time period in which Lincoln lived, use the jigsaw method to assign students to "home" and "expert" groups. Assign students to groups of five and inform students that this group represents their "home" group. Distribute the five primary sources, 1 through 5, so that each member of the home group has a different source. Then inform students that they are responsible for becoming experts on their assigned source. Based on the strengths of individual students, teachers may wish to assign sources 1, 3, or 5 to more adept readers and utilize sources 2 and 4 with students for whom longer readings might be problematic. Have students number off so that their number corresponds to the source they will read:

  • #1 - Excerpt from Lincoln's October 16, 1854, Peoria Speech
  • #2 - Lincoln's February 21,1855, letter to William H. Henderson
  • #3 - Lyman Trumbull's January 3, 1858, letter to Lincoln
  • #4 - Excerpt from the August 21, 1858, Lincoln/Douglas Debate in Ottawa
  • #5 - Lincoln's February 27, 1860, Cooper Union Address

Based on the size of the class, assign an appropriate number of students to each expert group. For example, if the class is large and there are seven students with document #1, ask students to break up into two expert groups consisting of three and four individuals. Distribute the document analysis guides (Activity Sheet 1) and have students complete the guide as a group. Remind students of the central questions posed at the beginning of the lesson, and inform students that upon completing their analysis guides they will return to their home groups and act as experts in order to explain their primary source to their peers. Students should take notes and complete the comparative-analysis guide (Activity Sheet 2) for each source as the other members of their group report on the sources they read.

After all students have reported out on their document, distribute Activity Sheet 3. The five questions on Activity Sheet 3 are devised to engage students in the aforementioned aspects of historical thinking as found in ILS 16.A and the National Standards. The questions on this activity sheet also incorporate the habits of mind outlined under the Main Ideas section.

Concluding the Lesson

Upon students' completion of Activity Sheet 3, introduce the culminating assessment as described on Activity Sheet 4, and have students work in small groups to complete the assignment. Students should present their posters to their classmates. Questions for students to consider during their presentations include: How did our poster answer the two central questions posed for this lesson? How and why did we decide to focus on particular aspects of Lincoln's political career? How might our decisions as historians have been influenced by our values and ideas today?

Extending the Lesson

To extend the lesson, develop an analysis guide to assist students in reading Pinsker's narrative. In addition to focusing on the historian's main ideas, ask students questions that compel them to consider the author's motives, use of sources, etc. when constructing his interpretation of iht09160116-16.jpgthe past.

Further assessment options exist for use with these materials. For example, have students write an account of Lincoln's career from the perspective of Stephen A. Douglas; have students write an editorial as a Whig in 1854 explaining the strengths and weaknesses of Lincoln's argument at Peoria; have students draw a political cartoon either in support of or opposition to Lincoln by using specific examples from the primary sources.

Assessing the Lesson

Much of the work completed in this lesson will be assessed informally by the teacher as he/she observes the students analyzing sources to complete and discuss questions in the analysis guides. In order to assess the culminating activity and the activities outlined in the Extending the Lesson section, teachers can design their own rubrics or consult "A History Rubric for Alternative Assessment" by Frederick D. Drake and Lawrence W. McBride in "Reinvigorating the Teaching of History Through Alternative Assessment," The History Teacher 30 (February 1997): 145-173. This rubric uses three dimension—knowledge, reasoning, and communication—to provide a holistic assessment of students' work.


Activity 1 — Document Analysis Guide

When was this source written?

Who was the author?

What do you know about the author's life at this time? What has this person done prior to this time?

What type of source is this (letter, speech, newspaper article, diary, etc.)?

Describe what life was like during this time period. What events and ideas were important in the world? In the United States? In Illinois?

Why was this source created? What was its purpose at the time, and who was the audience?

What other sources have you read that you think will help you understand the ideas in this document?

Explain the author's main idea.

What evidence does the author use to support his/her idea?

How do these ideas relate to concerns in the world and the United States during this time?


Activity 2 — Comparative Analysis Guide

Understanding Context

Based on your reading of the primary sources, what key ideas were discussed by people in Illinois during this time?

Comparing Sources

 When WrittenAuthorType of SourcePurposeMain Idea

Doc #1


Doc #2


Doc #3


Doc #4


Doc #5




Activity 3 — Historical Thinking Guide


Chronological Thinking
Explain Lincoln's main concerns and thinking from 1854 to 1860 as represented by these documents. To what extent did his point of focus change over time? To what extent did they remain the same?

Historical Comprehension
What similarities and differences do you notice in the way these documents were written? What role did the intended audience and purpose play in the similarities and differences you noted?

Historical Analysis and Interpretation
How did Lincoln's stand on the issues and his willingness to promote ideas instead of his personal goals contribute to his nomination as the Republican candidate in 1860?

Historical Research Capabilities
What questions do you have for the authors of these documents? What other sources would you like to read to get a fuller picture of the time period?

Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making
Based on your understanding of these documents, what issues and ideas were most important to Lincoln? To what extent did the context of the time period influence his decisions?


Activity 4 — Culminating Assessment


It is the spring of 1860, and you are a supporter of Abraham Lincoln. By tradition, Lincoln cannot campaign openly for the presidential nomination, but you and other supporters of Lincoln would like to make his positions on the issues more well known. Your job is to communicate to the American public where Lincoln stands on critical issues in 1860 and how he arrived at these positions. Use evidence from the five primary sources you read to assist you in the creation of your poster.

Document #1: Abraham Lincoln's Speech at Peoria, Illinois, October 16, 1854

The repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and the propriety of its restoration, constitute the subject of what I am about to say.

As I desire to present my own connected view of this subject, my remarks will not be, specifically, an answer to Judge Douglas; yet, as I proceed, the main points he has presented will arise, and will receive such respectful attention as I may be able to give them.

I wish further to say, that I do not propose to question the patriotism, or to assail the motives of any man, or class of men; but rather to strictly confine myself to the naked merits of the question.

I also wish to be no less than National in all the positions I may take; and whenever I take ground which others have thought, or may think, narrow, sectional and dangerous to the Union, I hope to give a reason, which will appear sufficient, at least to some, why I think differently.

And, as this subject is no other, than part and parcel of the larger general question of domestic-slavery, I wish to MAKE and to KEEP the distinction between the EXISTING institution, and the EXTENSION of it, so broad, and so clear, that no honest man can misunderstand me, and no dishonest one, successfully misrepresent me....

This declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I can not but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticising the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.

Before proceeding, let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses north and south. Doubtless there are individuals, on both sides, who would not hold slaves under any circumstances; and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew, if it were out of existence. We know that some southern men do free their slaves, go north, and become tip-top abolitionists; while some northern ones go south, and become most cruel slave-masters.

When southern people tell us they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery, than we; I acknowledge the fact. When it is said that the institution exists; and that it is very difficult to get rid of it, in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself. If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia—to their own native land. But a moment's reflection would convince me, that whatever of high hope, (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible. If they were all landed there in a day, they would all perish in the


Activity 4 — Primary Sources


next ten days; and there are not surplus shipping and surplus money enough in the world to carry them there in many times ten days. What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery, at any rate; yet the point is not clear enough for me to denounce people upon. What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded. We can not, then, make them equals. It does seem to me that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the south.

When they remind us of their constitutional rights, I acknowledge them, not grudgingly, but fully, and fairly; and I would give them any legislation for the reclaiming of their fugitives, which should not, in its stringency, be more likely to carry a free man into slavery, than our ordinary criminal laws are to hang an innocent one.

But all this, to my judgment, furnishes no more excuse for permitting slavery to go into our own free territory, than it would for reviving the African slave trade by law. The law which forbids the bringing of slaves from Africa; and that which has so long forbid the taking them to Nebraska, can hardly be distinguished on any moral principle; and the repeal of the former could find quite as plausible excuses as that of the latter....



Document #2: Letter from Abraham Lincoln to William H. Henderson, February 21,1855

Hon: W. H. Henderson: Springfield, Ills.
My dear Sir: Feby. 21-1855

Your letter of the 4th covering a lot of old deeds was received only two days ago. Wilton says he has the order but can not lay his hand upon it easily, and can not take time to make a thorough search, until he shall have gone to & returned from Chicago. So I lay the papers by, and iht09160116-25.jpg wait.

The election is over, the Session is ended, and I am not Senator. I have to content myself with the honor of having been the first choice of a large majority of the fiftyone members who finally made the election. My larger number of friends had to surrender to Trumbull's smaller number, in order to prevent the election of Matteson, which would have been a Douglas victory. I started with 44 votes & T. with 5. It was rather hard for the 44 to have to surrender to the 5—and a less good humored man than I, perhaps would not have consented to it—and it would not have been done without my consent. I could not, however, let the whole political result go to ruin, on a point merely personal to myself.

Your son, kindly and firmly stood by me from first to last; and for which he has my everlasting gratitude. Your friend as ever




Document #3: Lyman Trumbull's January 3, 1858, letter to Lincoln

Washington, Jany. 3—1858.

My Dear Sir,
I am just in receipt of yours from Bloomington— I have seen the difficulty which the laudation of Douglas by Republicans was likely to occasion us in Ills & have remonstrated with some of our friends about it; but his course was so unexpected to many & was looked upon as such a God send that they could not refrain from giving him more credit than he deserves— Our friends, specially Gov. Seward & some others were so anxious for a split among the so-called democracy, that they have been for holding back on our side & letting him take the lead so as to get him committed.

I made a few remarks on the message the day it was delivered against the expressed opinion of Gov. S. as you will see by looking at the Globe— He got the floor before me & hoped the discussion would be left to the other side &c. I was glad afterwards that I said something, for Douglas the next day in his set speech was compelled to follow out the line of argument I had suggested— Some of our friends here act like fools in running after & flattering Douglas— He encourages it & invites such men as Wilson, Seward, Burlingame, Parrot &c to come & confer with him & they seem wonderfully pleased to go— I have had no conversation with him about his course & thought it would be time enough to do so, when it was known what it would be. I will see the correspondent of the Tribune & endeavor to get him to pursue a different course—

My own notion is that the aspect of things will change after we get a practical question before the Senate. The speaking thus far has been on the message & Douglas has monopolized the whole thing on our side. The Republican Senators will take hold of the matter when the Lecompton Constitution gets here, & I presume Douglas will not be permitted to lead the opposition— If he is disposed to go with us well & good, but he must come in to our measures not we into his— Different men look at his present attitude very differently. F. P. Blair, Esq. the old Gentleman says he is politically ruined let him do what he will— That the South will now cast him off, & that he can do nothing but join the Republicans, who will not of course put him in the lead— Mr. B. thinks it idle to suppose that Douglas can keep up a party opposed alike to the Administration & the Republicans— This I doubt not is his aim, but it will fail even in Ills, as I think. So far as I am concerned, I have no sort of idea of making Douglas our leader either here or in Ills He has done nothing as yet to commend him to any honest Republican— He still endorses the Dred Scott decision & no man who does so ought to be thought of as deserving Republican support. But suppose he does repent of his political sins & become a zealous Republican, is he to be rewarded by us for bringing the country to the verge of civil war & stirring up a sectional strife which has nearly dissolved the Union? The idea is preposterous— If the Lecompton Constitution is forced through Congress as it probably will be, it seems to me that will be the end of Douglas politically. The result will then be apparent that by repealing the Missouri Compromise he has got a slave state iht09160116-27.jpg into the Union, & the people will not forgive him for setting the house on fire, even if he did try to quench the flames before it was entirely consumed— Douglas will only carry Stuart, & Broderick with him in the Senate so far as I can ascertai-Pugh will I think, though it is not certainly known, go with the administration—

The unexpected course of Douglas has taken us all somewhat by surprise & we must wait for further developments before we can exactly tell what the effect is to be— I did not believe he would go so far as to offend the South till he did it, & even now he may yet unite with them upon some compromise— Should he do so, he will have made nothing by his present move—I have written you freely & just as I feel, & presume it is unnecessary for me to assure you that I shall continue to labor for the success of the Republican cause in Ills — & the advancement at the next election to the place now occupied by Douglas of that Friend, who was instrumental in promoting my own.

Yours very truly,

Lyman Trumbull

My wife who is sitting by me says you are too modest to understand whom I mean by "that friend", but he who magnanimously requested his friends just at the right moment to cast their votes for me, & without which I could not have been elected will, I think understand it.



Document #4: August 21, 1858 Lincoln/Douglas Debate in Ottawa


I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness .... I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects—certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man....


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Document #5: Lincoln's February 27, I860, Cooper Union Address, New York City

What is the question...?"

It is this: Does the proper division of local from federal authority, or anything in the Constitution, forbid our Federal Government to control as to slavery in our Federal Territories?

Upon this, Senator Douglas holds the affirmative, and Republicans the negative. This affirmation and denial form an issue; and this issue—this question—is precisely what the text declares our fathers understood "better than we."

.. . The sum of the whole is, that of our thirty-nine fathers who framed the original Constitution, twenty-one—a clear majority of the whole—certainly understood that no proper division of local from federal authority, nor any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control slavery in the federal territories; while all the rest probably had the same understanding. Such, unquestionably, was the understanding of our fathers who framed the original Constitution; and the text affirms that they understood the question "better than we."

... It is surely safe to assume that the thirty-nine framers of the original Constitution, and the seventy-six members of the Congress which framed the amendments thereto, taken together, do certainly include those who may be fairly called "our fathers who framed the Government under which we live." [25] And so assuming, I defy any man to show that any one of them ever, in his whole life, declared that, in his understanding, any proper division of local from federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control as to slavery in the federal territories. I go a step further. I defy any one to show that any living man in the whole world ever did, prior to the beginning of the present century, (and I might almost say prior to the beginning of the last half of the present century,) declare that, in his understanding, any proper division of local from federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control as to slavery in the federal territories. To those who now so declare, I give, not only "our fathers who framed the Government under which we live," but with them all other living men within the century in which it was framed, among whom to search, and they shall not be able to find the evidence of a single man agreeing with them.

... But enough! Let all who believe that "our fathers, who framed the Government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now," speak as they spoke, and act as they acted upon it. This is all Republicans ask—all Republicans desire—in relation to slavery. As those fathers marked it, so let it be again marked, as an evil not to be extended, but to be tolerated and protected only because of and so far as its actual presence among us makes that toleration and protection a necessity. Let all the guaranties those fathers gave it, be, not grudgingly, but fully and fairly maintained. For this Republicans contend, and with this, so far as I know or believe, they will be content.


... Under all these circumstances, do you really feel yourselves justified to break up this Government, unless such a court decision as yours is, shall be at once submitted to as a conclusive and final rule of political action? But you will not abide the election of a Republican President! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, "Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!'" To be sure, what the robber demanded of me—my money—was my own; and I had a clear right to keep it; but it was no more my own than my vote is my own; and the threat of death to me, to extort my money, and the threat of destruction to the Union, to extort my vote, can iht09160116-33.jpgscarcely be distinguished in principle.

A few words now to Republicans. It is exceedingly desirable that all parts of this great Confederacy shall be at peace, and in harmony, one with another. Let us Republicans do our part to have it so. Even though much provoked, let us do nothing through passion and ill temper. Even though the southern people will not so much as listen to us, let us calmly consider their demands, and yield to them if, in our deliberate view of our duty, we possibly can. Judging by all they say and do, and by the subject and nature of their controversy with us, let us determine, if we can, what will satisfy them.

... Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored—contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man—such as a policy of "don't care"' on a question about which all true men do care—such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to Disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance—such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did.

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT.


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