As detailed in last week’s column, the Northwest Ordinance of 1789, the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the Dred Scott decision attempted to address the issue of slavery in the expanding United States. Slavery was an inescapable issue that culminated when Abraham Lincoln was nominated to be the newly-formed Republican Party’s candidate for President in 1860.
Lincoln’s father, Thomas, was a strict Baptist and held strong beliefs against slavery. He kept no slaves himself and his abolitionist leanings were at least part of the reason for his family moving from Kentucky to Indiana. At the age of 19, Lincoln and his cousin John Hanks were promised 50 cents a day to ferry a shipment of goods down the Mississippi River from Springfield, IL. to New Orleans - plus a bonus of $60 upon completion of their journey. In an interview with William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and biographer, Hanks stated that while they were in New Orleans, they had been horrified by the sight of black men in chains.
“There it was. We saw Negroes chained, maltreated, whipped and scourged. Lincoln saw it – his heart bled. He said nothing much, was silent from feeling sad. I can say knowingly that it was on this trip that he formed his opinions of slavery – it ran its iron in him then and there.”
As an Illinois state legislator (1835-1843), he did not believe in perfect social equality for Negroes. He did not think blacks should be permitted to vote or to serve on juries, much less intermarry with whites. But he differed with the overwhelming majority of citizens and politicians of the day when he declared, “In the right to eat the bread which his own hands earn, a black Man is my equal and…the equal of every living man.”
The Illinois assembly voted 77-6 for a resolution that highly disapproved the formation of abolition societies and also held sacred the right of owning slaves as property. Lincoln was one of the six who voted against it.
Near the end of his four terms as state legislator, Lincoln wrote “the fundamental test of a democracy was its capacity to elevate the condition of men, to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all. A real democracy would be a meritocracy where those born in the lower ranks could rise as far as their natural talents and discipline might take them.”
He opposed the American war against Mexico, largely because its Democratic supporters hoped with conquest to acquire new Southern territory ripe for slavery. At the very least, he insisted, “slavery must be limited to those states where it had long existed.”
Lincoln denounced the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1857 Dred Scott decision. Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote “that blacks are not included and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution.”
“Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution had been intended to apply to blacks,” wrote the Chief Justice. “Blacks were so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Lincoln responded by saying “the founders did not declare all men equal in all respect. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. But they did declare all men equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The Lincoln-Douglas debates further separated the abolitionists in the north from the pro-slavery sentiments in the South. Before President Lincoln took the oath of office in March 1861, seven southern states had already succeeded from the United States, and a month after his inaugural, Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter.