Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky in 1809. Kentucky was a slave state populated by small farmers and independent producers, not large slaveholders. His family later moved to Indiana and, when he was 21, moved again to Illinois. Both states had been organized under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which prohibited slavery. Lincoln spent his childhood and entire adult life, with the exception of his time in Washington D.C., living in the border regions between slave and free states.
Lincoln’s most direct encounter with slavery came between 1828 and 1831, when he helped transport surplus farm produce from Illinois to New Orleans by way of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. On his journeys, it can be assumed that Lincoln encountered slaves working the large cotton and sugar plantations along the Mississippi River. In New Orleans, he experienced a diverse and vibrant city of 50,000 people, including 17,000 slaves and 12,000 free blacks.
These experiences, and later excursions through slaveholding states, had a strong impact on the young Lincoln and helped shape his views on slavery. In a letter to his friend Joshua Speed in 1855, he wrote the following:
As a member of the Illinois state legislature in the 1830s and later, as a Whig member of the House of Representatives from 1847-1849, Lincoln developed a moderate antislavery stance that combined free labor ideology with moral opposition to the institution:
Lincoln's arguments against slavery began to crystallize in 1854, following passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
The Act’s implications for the westward expansion of slavery alarmed Lincoln. In 1854, he spoke out against the Act and its champion in Congress, Stephen A. Douglas. His speeches made Lincoln a nationally-recognized politician with a reputation for stirring oratory.
In a speech in Peoria, Illinois in 1854, Lincoln stated his moral, political and legal arguments against slavery and popular sovereignty. Read the two excerpts from this speech, below:
“But one great argument in the support of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, is still to come. That argument is “the sacred right of self government.” . . . The doctrine of self government is right — absolutely and eternally right — but it has no just application, as here attempted. Or perhaps I should rather say that whether it has such just application depends upon whether a negro is not or is a man. If he is not a man, why in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him. But if the negro is a man, is it not to that extent, a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government--that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that "all men are created equal . . .”.”
By 1854, Lincoln clearly envisioned and desired a future without slavery. He shared the goal of abolitionists, but differed from militants like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass in that he opposed civic, social, and political equality for blacks. “My own feelings will not admit of this,” he stated, “and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.”
Like many of his contemporaries, Lincoln disliked slavery but did not know how to end it or what to do with slaves once they were freed. He confessed as much in his speech when he said “If all earthly power were given to 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,” a reference to political efforts that began with the American Colonization Society in 1816 to resettle freed slaves in Africa.
Lincoln ultimately settled on a combination of voluntary, gradual emancipation, and federal compensation of slave owners for their lost property, as the best way to end slavery. He would promote his plan throughout the first years of the Civil War. In the meantime, he helped organize a new Republican party around the principle of the non-extension of slavery.
In 1856 Lincoln abandoned the Whigs and threw his support to the Republican Party, which pledged itself to preventing the spread of slavery into the western territories. Distressed by the violence in Kansas, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott, Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate against Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858.
Throughout 1857 and 1858, Lincoln followed Stephen Douglas around Illinois, delivering speeches in towns Douglas had previously visited. He accused Douglas of conspiring with the “Slave Power” to promote slavery, and attacked the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case as a violation of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. Douglas eventually agreed to a series of formal debates against Lincoln, known as the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, which took place in Illinois the fall of 1858.
In the debates, Lincoln reiterated his position on the immorality of slavery and its affront to republican principles, as well as his rejection of full political and civil rights for blacks, including the right to vote, hold political office, serve on juries, and intermarry with whites. He had come to see the battle between slavery and freedom as imminent, and one in which there could only be a single victor.
He made this point most clearly in his “House Divided” speech, delivered in Springfield, Illinois at the Republican State Convention in 1858. Here is an excerpt from that speech:
Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new -- North as well as South.
Have we no tendency to the latter condition?”
Lincoln interpreted the Dred Scott decision and the Kansas-Nebraska Act as efforts to nationalize slavery: to make it legal everywhere in the United States. The Supreme Court ruled that the federal government did not have the authority to ban slavery from any territory, nor violate slave owners’ property rights by granting freedom to slaves who resided in a free state. “We shall lie down,” he cautioned, "dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free; and we shall awake to the reality, instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State.”
In his final debate with Douglas in October, 1858, Lincoln likened slavery to a cancer overspreading the body of the Union:
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: All Abraham Lincoln writings retrieved from The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. The Abraham Lincoln Association. Retrieved February 16, 2017, from http://quod.lib.umich.edu/l/lincoln/ Individuals may freely copy these texts for personal use, research, and teaching., Derived from Openstax tutorial 14.3 http://bit.ly/2kDl4KW. Some sections edited or removed for brevity.