Abraham Lincoln, the exalted Republican who led the war effort to preserve the American union, spent much of his political life as a member of another political party: the Whigs. As a young statesman, Lincoln closely followed his party's line; he believed that federal aid for industry, protective tariffs, and a national bank benefited western expansion and stimulated a modernizing society. His party, however, was sharply divided over the issue of slavery and its spread. Whigs, some of them wealthy southern planters, others northern merchants and industrialists, agreed only that "liberty" came from the economic opportunities that a prosperous nation offered to average (white) citizens, not from the abolition or limitation of bondage. Lincoln's party, however, never developed a clear response to the political crises that grew as a result of western expansion, abolitionist agitation, and the threat of slave insurrection.
Lincoln himself displayed seemingly inconsistent views on these increasingly controversial topics. He refused to sympathize with defenders of slavery, convinced that the existence of the institution jeopardized freedom and justice for all Americans. But Lincoln also condemned those who broke the law in support of abolition, since he felt that this also compromised the principles of the republic. Unlike his abolitionist counterparts, Lincoln declined to attack the slave labor system on moral grounds, and instead referred to it as "bad policy" that would likely disappear with time. For this reason, he resolved to accept the southern slave system, no matter how reprehensible, and urged his supporters to do the same. "I hold it a paramount duty of us in the free States," he wrote in 1845, "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." As long as the federal government refused to sanction the institution or mandate its growth, it would die "a natural death."36
Lincoln, like many northerners, remained relatively ambivalent about the survival of a system fundamentally incompatible with the free-labor outlook that thrived outside the South. But in 1854, the adoption of a single piece of legislation shook his confidence in the gradual demise of slavery.
Meanwhile, in an effort to encourage the construction of a transcontinental railroad, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas drafted a bill that promised to establish formal governments in the Kansas and Nebraska territories. Despite recent federal legislation, including the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850, disputes over the expansion of slavery continued to upset national unity. The short, square-framed Douglas had worked tirelessly as a party leader in the Illinois state legislature and the U.S. Congress for over a decade before it seemed that sectional disputes might tear the nation apart. He believed that a new measure just might restore sectional peace. (Incidentally, Douglas also envisioned the city of Chicago in his home state of Illinois as the primary hub for the planned transcontinental railroad; thus, his measure promised to fill Illinois's coffers and his own pockets.)
Locals in the West, Douglas resolved, should be able to decide for themselves the status of slavery in their communities. By upholding popular sovereignty Douglas hoped, once and for all, to protect American citizens from the strong arm of the federal government and to prevent politicians from imposing their beliefs on the rest of the nation, thereby restoring individual liberty. His fellow Democrats in Congress agreed and successfully passed Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act.
By authorizing territorial legislatures to decide whether to prohibit or condone slavery, the Kansas-Nebraska Act in effect repealed the Missouri Compromise, which forbade slave labor in territory above the 36º30' parallel. Much to the dismay of men like Lincoln, who favored government-mandated limits on the expansion of slavery, the act reopened the nation's heartland to slaveholders and promised to revitalize their economic system. Unfortunately for Douglas, too, it did nothing to reduce sectional conflict, but instead spurred a significant reorganization of the country's political landscape. Controversy over the bill drove a wedge in the Democratic Party, shattered Whig unity, and resulted in the rise of a new political organization, the modern Republican Party, from the ashes of antislavery factions based largely in the North.
Abraham Lincoln was just one of many Whig Party members who, amidst the crisis of the 1850s, abandoned the old set for one that provided a more decisive response to proslavery forces. He chose the Republican Party for its battle against the nationalization of slavery through federal support—explicit or implicit—of the institution. By the late 1850s, Lincoln had become one of the most prominent and outspoken Republican leaders in the country, an enthusiastic representative of the "free labor" ideology.
But Abraham Lincoln was no radical, no fervent abolitionist spokesman, and certainly no righteous crusader of racial equality. The Illinois Republican Party, however, didn't require such a man when, in 1858, it sought a candidate to run for the state's seat in the U.S. Senate. In fact, party members chose Lincoln precisely because he carefully disassociated himself from abolitionist radicals. While he denounced the institution as a morally corrupt system, he avoided engaging in debates about the condition of life for the enslaved and the abuses committed by slaveholders. Lincoln, suited to the party's agenda, focused on one issue and one issue alone: halting the western expansion of slavery. And he was a brilliant orator to boot—the perfect man to compete against the Democratic incumbent Stephen Douglas.
During the 1858 senatorial race in Illinois, the two candidates, Lincoln and Douglas, grappled in a series of fiery debates. For four months, the two men traveled all across the state, speaking before thousands of spectators. They argued primarily about whether, in Lincoln's words, "a house divided against itself cannot stand" and whether slavery ought to be placed "in the course of ultimate extinction."37 Lincoln proclaimed that compromises would no longer suffice because no middle ground existed. Leaders like Douglas, who exhibited indifference to the spread of the institution, he explained, threatened the very existence of northern "free" states.
Douglas, on the other hand, proclaimed that by supporting the will of the people, he alone best exemplified republicanism. He reminded Illinois citizens that he successfully resisted Kansas slaveholders and Democratic President James Buchanan, who attempted to ratify the proslavery Lecompton constitution against the wishes of the majority of Kansas voters. He remained committed to protecting popular sovereignty and individual freedom, and, for that reason, Douglas said, he deserved bipartisan support in the Illinois legislature (the body that, until the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, elected the state's senator).
Douglas also claimed that his opponent championed racial equality, a charge that exploited fears held by most whites in the North. But Lincoln skillfully deflected this allegation. "I will say," he remarked during a debate in Charleston, Illinois, "that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races: that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people."38
In his public statements, Lincoln defined slavery not as an impediment to black freedom, but as an obstacle to white economic independence. In free states and only in free states would white men—even the most destitute among them—have the opportunity to make something of themselves. On the other hand, societies that condoned bondage, he explained, divided wealthy slaveholders from the non-slaveholding populace. Poor citizens, unable to obtain slaves, could neither compete with large-scale planters nor sell their own labor in the hopes of economic uplift. What, Lincoln inquired, prevented the poor in these societies from descending into slavery themselves? What if the institution no longer divided white from black, but rich from poor? Without definitive action, he cautioned, state laws prohibiting slavery would be no more. In the blink of an eye, Illinois, and ultimately all northern states, would no longer be "free" and the liberty of every citizen would be in peril. Douglas, Lincoln proclaimed, represented the party that would allow—or even encourage—such alarming change.
Despite his persuasive arguments against Stephen Douglas's agenda, Lincoln failed to win the Senate seat. By a vote of 54 to 46, the Illinois legislature voted to reelect its Democratic incumbent. Back in Washington, however, Douglas found his political power diminished. His proslavery colleagues resented the Illinois senator for his bold defiance of President Buchanan's efforts to admit Kansas as a slave state and sought to strip him of his authority over territorial affairs. Douglas, dejected and frustrated with the schisms developing in his own party, focused his energies on preparation for the 1860 presidential election.
Lincoln, on the other hand, found his position in the national Republican Party elevated as a result of his dynamic—though unsuccessful—senatorial campaign. He single-handedly strengthened the young political organization by rallying the support of a wide range of antislavery northerners. He attracted antislavery Whigs, "free soil" advocates, members of the nativist Know-Nothing movement, and others who viewed slavery as an obstacle to economic uplift.
In addition, Lincoln (like Douglas) addressed the fears of those who assumed emancipation would result in thousands of former slaves descending on the North in search of political, economic, and civil rights. Lincoln's conservative stance against racial equality appealed to whites concerned not simply with the spread of slavery but with the very presence of blacks in their communities.
Lincoln, however, also managed to attract the support of those—whites and blacks—who objected to slavery on moral grounds. Abolitionists did, in fact, criticize Lincoln and the Republican Party for rejecting a more radical position against the very survival of the slave system in the South. Critics such as William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Parker, and Frederick Douglass asserted that it was not enough merely to oppose the westward expansion of slavery or to hope for its eventual demise. Political leaders, they argued, must take action to strike down the institution where it existed, and the Republican Party had failed to do so.
But throughout the late 1850s, abolitionists maintained close ties to party leaders and felt that the relationship was mutually beneficial. The Republican Party, they believed, was compelled to recognize its dependence upon the zeal of the radical movement. "Our agitation, you know," abolitionist leader Wendell Phillips reminded Republican Senator Charles Sumner, "helps keep yours alive in the rank and file."39 Frederick Douglass, a free black abolitionist and the movement's most prominent spokesman, remarked that antislavery radicals contributed to the rise of the Republican Party by serving "to keep the subject before the people—to deepen their hatred of the system."40
Abolitionists also acknowledged that, without large numbers, they lacked the critical mass necessary to compete with any of the major political parties for power in Washington. Thus, many gravitated, however reluctantly, toward the Republican organization and the man who had become its most prominent and charismatic leader.
"Though I now sink out of view, and shall be forgotten," Lincoln lamented upon learning of his loss in the senate race, "I believe I have made some marks which will tell for the cause of civil liberty long after I am gone."41 His prediction was only partially correct; he certainly influenced the manner in which the contest between proslavery and antislavery camps would be fought, but rather than "sink out of view," Lincoln became the Republican Party's favored nominee for the highest office in the land.
Securing the support of many disparate factions in the North and Northwest, Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election handily. He did not, however, earn a single vote in most of the slaveholding South, and in direct response to his victory, seven southern states seceded from the Union. No longer did southern leaders differentiate between statesmen who opposed the expansion of slavery into the West and abolitionist radicals who sought to overturn the southern economic system by any means necessary. Abraham Lincoln, they resolved, was no different than men like John Brown, a radical convicted and hanged for attempting to incite slave rebellion; both appeared determined to destroy the southern way of life. By splitting from the North, southern leaders believed they could salvage all that they feared they might lose with Lincoln at the helm. "[T]he people of the non-slaveholding North," delegates to South Carolina's 1861 secession convention proclaimed, "are not and cannot be safe associates of the slaveholding South under a common Government."42
President Lincoln was determined to prevent disunion, but his attempts at negotiation failed miserably; within the first months of his tenure, the divided nation was engaged in a full-blown civil war.
Slavery may very well have been the ultimate cause of the war, but that doesn't mean that the rise of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party resulted from a moral opposition to the enslavement of roughly four million black men, women, and children. "[T]here is very little moral mixture in the 'Antislavery' feeling of this country," Republican George William Curtis acknowledged in the late 1850s. "A great deal is abstract philanthropy; part is hatred of slaveholders; a great part is jealousy for white labor, very little is consciousness of wrong done and the wish to right it."43
In essence, the Republican Party advocated a type of society that had come to represent something in sharp contrast to southern culture. Lincoln's victory in 1860 hardened these divisions and, from the perspective of the South, served to sever the ties that held the nation together. "We are not one people. We are two peoples," New York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley wrote in the months before the Civil War. "We are a people for Freedom and a people for Slavery. Between the two, conflict is inevitable."44