Pre-Civil War

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Dred Scott
Joshua F. Speed

Joshua F. Speed

Lincoln friend John Wesley Hill recalled: “In August 1837, Mr. Lincoln, with six other lawyers and two doctors, went in a bad wagon from Springfield to Salem to attend a camp-meeting. On the way Lincoln cracked jokes about the horses, the wagon, the lawyers, the doctors – indeed about nearly everything. At the camp-meeting, Dr. Peter Akers, like Peter Cartwright, a great Bible preacher of his day, then in the fulness of his powers, preached a sermon on ‘The Dominion of Jesus Christ.’ The object of the sermon was to show that the dominion of Christ could not come in America until American slavery was wiped out, and that the institution of slavery would at last be destroyed by civil war. For three hours the preacher enrolled his argument and even gave graphic pictures of the war that was to come. ‘I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet,’ said he, ‘but a student of the prophets. As I read prophecy, American slavery will come to an end in some near decade, I think in the sixties.”1

In the period leading up to the Civil War, the future of slavery became the dominant political issue in the United States. “Runaway slaves, underground railway stations, masters and men tracking negroes, the occasional capture of a man or woman to be taken back to the South, trials of fugitives – all the features common in those years particularly in the States bordering on bond territory Lincoln saw,” Lincoln biographer Ida Tarbell wrote. “It was not until 1844-45, however, that the matter became an important element in his political life. Heretofore it had been a moral question only, now, however, the annexation of Texas made it a political one. It became necessary that every politician and voter decide whether the new territory should be bond or free. The abolitionists or Liberty party grew rapidly in Illinois. Lincoln found himself obliged not only to meet Democratic arguments, but the abolition theories and convictions.”2

Abolitionism became a hot topic in Illinois in the fall of 1837. Lincoln chronicler Paul Simon wrote: “The first and only public notice Lincoln took of either the Lovejoy or the McIntosh murders was in a speech before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield on January 27, 1838, almost three months after Lovejoy’s slaying. It is a speech denouncing mob violence in general terms, pointing out examples in New England, Louisiana, Mississippi, and St. Louis. But there is no mention of Alton or of Lovejoy, except for one small phrase.”3

Lincoln biographers John G. Nicolay and John Hay summarized the events which led up to Elijah Lovejoy’s murder by an anti-abolitionist mob in Alton, Illinois, on November 6, 1837: “He had for some years been publishing a religious newspaper in St. Louis, but finding the atmosphere of that city becoming dangerous to him on account of the freedom of his comments upon Southern Institutions, he moved to Alton, in Illinois, twenty-five miles further up the river. His arrival excited an immediate tumult in that place; a mob gathered there on the day he came – it was Sunday, and the good people were at leisure – and threw his press into the river.”4 Other confrontations with Reverend Lovejoy followed and another printing press was thrown in the river. Finally, wrote Nicolay and Hay, “A new press was ordered, and arrived, and was stored in a warehouse, where Lovejoy and his friends shut themselves up, determined to defend it with their lives. They were there besieged by the infuriated crowd, and after a short interchange of shots Lovejoy was killed, his friends dispersed, and the press once more – and this time finally – thrown into the turbid flood.”5

In his speech entitled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” Mr. Lincoln referred obliquely to the recent murder of abolitionist Lovejoy:

Accounts of outrages committed by mobs, form the every-day news of the times. They have pervaded the country, from New England to Louisiana; – they are neither peculiar to the eternal snows of the former, nor the burning suns of the latter; – they are not the creature of climate – neither are they confined to the slaveholding, or the non-slaveholding States. Alike, they spring up among the pleasure hunting masters of Southern slaves, and the order loving citizens of the land of steady habits. Whatever, then, their cause may be, it is common to the whole country.

Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.6

This passage has been mined by psychohistorians, seeking an explanation for Mr. Lincoln’s actions 25 years later in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. But it is also instructive for what Mr. Lincoln did not say. Historian David Herbert Donald noted that Mr. Lincoln “did not mention Lovejoy or Alton by name and offered only a passing condemnation of persons who – among other outrages – ‘throw printing presses into rivers, [and] shoot editors.’ Though Lincoln deplored the Alton riot, he also implicitly censured Lovejoy’s abolitionist agitation; both resulted from unbridled passions, which could lead to the overthrow of popular government.”

Lincoln’s reference to Lovejoy’s murder was enigmatic. “Why did Lincoln not speak out more forthrightly?” asked Paul Simon in Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years. He raised three possible reasons:

1. Lincoln’s thinking was still maturing on the whole question of slavery, and Lincoln did not detail his ideas before he had come to some solid conclusions.

2. In the protest he had signed with Dan Stone in the [Illinois] House a few months earlier, Lincoln had already taken an unpopular stand against slavery. By opposing mob violence and mentioned the McIntosh case, he stood on the side of law and order without being charged with being an Abolitionist, which he was not. Too forthright a statement might offend public opinion.

3. Lovejoy’s extreme religious views, with his attacks on various denominations, were not in keeping with Lincoln’s convictions.

4. But while conceding the preceding points, it does not appear too difficult to speak out against mob action in the Lovejoy case and still not be associated with the Abolitionists, with Lovejoy’s religious views, or arouse much public opposition. A fourth possibility strong suggests itself. Lincoln was not without political ambition and did not want to alienate some of Lovejoy’s influential opponents who were Lincoln’s friends and potential supporters of his political aspirations. He felt so strongly on the subject that he had to speak out, but wanted to do this without stepping on powerful toes. He simply temporized for political reasons.”7

Mr. Lincoln understood the problem of public opinion. “Lincoln never attempted to propose what was more than one step ahead of the great body of political public opinion. But he always led the way.” wrote historian Harry V. Jaffa in Crisis in the House Divided.8 “Our government,’ Lincoln said before the Dred Scott decision, ‘rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much. But public opinion, according to Lincoln, was not essentially or primarily opinion on a long list of individual topics, such as James G. Randall has enumerated, nor was it the kind of thing that the Gallup poll attempts to measure. ‘Public opinion, on any subject,’ said Lincoln, ‘always has a ‘central idea’ from which all its minor thoughts radiate.’ And the ‘central idea in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be ‘the equality of men.'”9

Lincoln chronicler Herbert Mitgang wrote: “The record of his utterances discloses that Lincoln not only spoke up but voted against slavery when it was unpopular to do so – and that he did so from his beginning in public office. At the age of twenty-eight, as an elected representative in the Illinois General Assembly, he stood on principle against the Southern sympathizers in the state legislature. When a unanimous Senate and almost every member of the House approved rigid resolutions declaring the right of slaveholding sacred, even in the District of Columbia itself, only two state representatives went on record in protest – Dan Stone and A. Lincoln.”10

Paul Simon, who served as an Illinois Senator in the late 20th Century, concluded in his study of Mr. Lincoln’s actions in the State Legislature: “The significance of Lincoln’s votes on slavery can be summed up in a word ‘growth.’ He came from a family which was opposed to slavery, but did not get excited about the issue. Lincoln tended to accept that family attitude; he was not a crusader on the issue. But gradually, session by session, he became a little more concerned and a little more courageous.”11

Growth is indeed a word often used to describe Mr. Lincoln’s position on race and slavery in a state which had little sympathy for ex-slaves even if it had little support for slavery. Mr. Lincoln neither grew up in nor lived in a racially tolerant society. “There were black laws in Illinois indeed – laws that denied the Negro the vote and deprived him of other rights. Illinois in those days was a Jim Crow state. That was where Lincoln had spent most of the years of his manhood, among people who had migrated from slave country farther south, as he himself had done. Naturally he had shared some of the negrophobic feeling of his neighbors in Kentucky, in southern Indiana, in central Illinois. That was where, in geography, and in sentiment, he came from,” wrote historian Richard N. Current. “But he did not stay there. The most remarkable thing about him was his tremendous power of growth. He grew in sympathy, in the breadth of his humaneness, as he grew in other aspects of the mind and spirit. In more ways than one he succeeded in breaking through the narrow bounds of his early environment.”12

Bloomington resident Robert H. Brown heard Mr. Lincoln say in a speech in 1854: “The slavery question often bothered me as far bar back as 1836-40. I was troubled and grieved over it; but after the annexation of Texas I gave it up, believing as I now do, that God will settle it, and settle it right, and that he will, in some inscrutable way, restrict the spread of so great an evil; but for the present it is our duty to wait.”13

In 1847, Mr. Lincoln moved from the Illinois capital to the nation’s capital. As a one-term Congressman, Mr. Lincoln “attended to the duties of the Congressional office diligently and with becoming modesty,” wrote law partner William Herndon. “His only public act of any moment was a bill looking to the emancipation of the slaves in the District of Columbia. He interested Joshua R. Giddings and others of equally as pronounced anti-slavery views in the subject, but his bill eventually found a lodgement on ‘the table,’ where it was carefully but promptly laid by a vote of the House.”14 Mr. Lincoln was proud of his record of consistent support for the Wilmot proviso.

Historian Olivier Frayssé wrote that Congressman “Lincoln combined a very firm attitude against the extension of slavery with a particularly conservative position on the possibilities of doing away, even locally, with the particular institution, but this conservative position was evolving in a progressive direction.”15 Frayssé wrote of Mr. Lincoln’s proposal for gradual compensated emancipation of District of Columbia slaves: “Lincoln’s position was obviously quite moderate. Compensated and voluntary emancipation was his great idea, as it was Clay’s, for it alone did not call into question the right of property. The only ‘bold’ measure called for in his bill was the automatic emancipation of children born after 1848, and even that was accompanied by an apprenticeship that considerably cushioned the shock of emancipation.”16 Wrote Frayssé: “Nevertheless, as moderate as it was, the bill was seen as a provocation by pro-slavery men, and Calhoun in his ‘Southern Address’ placed Lincoln on the same level as [Daniel] Gott, [Joshua] Giddings, and other abolitionists. Only a complete capitulation could satisfy the pro-slavery forces, as was seen in 1850, 1854, 1857, and 1860. Lincoln was not a man of complete capitulations.”17

Historian Harry V. Jaffa wrote: “…Douglas, long before 1854, expressed his understanding that popular sovereignty had ‘superseded’ the Missouri Compromise in 1850.”18 Mr. Lincoln had no such understanding and so the demise of the Missouri Compromise in the Kansas-Nebraska Act reinvigorated Mr. Lincoln’s political instincts.

One crucial factor in Mr. Lincoln’s growth during this period was his growing alignment with the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Historian Mark Neely, Jr. wrote: “Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence assumed a conspicuous place in Lincoln’s political imagery in this period.”19 In Mid-August 1855, Mr. Lincoln wrote Kentuckian George Robertson:

You are not a friend of slavery in the abstract. In that speech you spoke of ‘the peaceful extinction of slavery’ and used other expressions indicating your belief that the thing was, at some time, to have an end[.] Since then we have had thirty six years of experience; and this experience has demonstrated, I think, that there is no peaceful extinction of slavery in prospect for us. The signal failure of any thing in favor of gradual emancipation in Kentucky, together with a thousand other signs, extinguishes that hope utterly. On the question of liberty, as a principle, we are not what we have been. When we were the political slaves of King George, and wanted to be free, we called the maxim that ‘all men are created equal’ a self evident truth; but now when we have grown fat, and have lost all dread of being slaves ourselves, we have become so greedy to be masters that we call the same maxim ‘a self-evident lie’ The fourth of July has not quite dwindled away; it is still a great day – for burning fire-crackers!!!

That spirit which desired the peaceful extinction of slavery, has itself become extinct, with the occasion, and the men of the Revolution. Under the impulse of that occasion, nearly half the states adopted systems of emancipation at once; and it is a significant fact, that not a single state has done the like since. So far as peaceful, voluntary emancipation is concerned, the condition of the negro slave in America, scarcely less terrible to the contemplation of a free mind, is now as fixed, and hopeless of change for the better, as that of the lost souls of the finally impenitent. The Autocrat of all the Russians will resign his crown, and proclaim his subjects free republicans sooner than will our American masters voluntarily give up their slaves.

Our political problem now is ‘Can we, as a nation, continue together permanently – forever – half slave, and half free?’ The problem is too mighty for me. May God, in his mercy, superintend the solution.20

Nine days later, Mr. Lincoln wrote perhaps his most heartfelt and comprehensive synopsis of his mid-decade views on slavery and race. The recipient was a friend of two decades, Joshua F. Speed, whose Kentucky family had long owned slaves. He went into special detail on the crisis in Kansas that was then agitating both sides of the slavery issue:

You know what a poor correspondent I am. Ever since I received your very agreeable letter of the 22nd. of May I have been intending to write you in answer to it. You suggest that in political action now, you and I would differ. I suppose we would; not quite as much, however, as you may think. You know I dislike slavery; and you fully admit the abstract wrong of it. So far there is no cause of difference. But you say that sooner than yield your legal right to the slave– especially at the bidding of those who are not themselves interested, you would see the Union dissolved. I am not aware that any one is bidding you to yield that right; very certainly I am not. I leave that matter entirely to yourself. I also acknowledge your rights and my obligations, under the constitution, in regard to your slaves. I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet. In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continual torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the constitution and the Union.

I do oppose the extension of slavery, because my judgement and feelings so prompt me; and I am under no obligation to the contrary. If for this you and I must differ, differ we must. You say if you were President, you would send an army and hang the leaders of the Missouri outrages upon the Kansas elections; still, if Kansas fairly votes herself a slave state, she must be admitted, or the Union must be dissolved. But how if she votes herself a slave state unfairly – that is, by the very means for which you say you would hang men? Must she still be admitted, or the Union be dissolved? That will be the phase of the question when it first becomes a practical one. In your assumption that there may be afair decision of the slavery question in Kansas, I plainly see you and I would differ about the Nebraska-law. I look upon that enactment not as a law, but as violence from the beginning. It was conceived in violence, passed in violence, is maintained in violence, and is being executed in violence. I say it was conceived in violence, because the destruction of the Missouri Compromise, under the circumstances, was nothing less than violence. It was passed in violence, because it could not have passed at all but for the votes of many members, in violent disregard of the known will of their constituents. It is maintained in violence because the elections since, clearly demand it’s repeal, and this demand is openly disregarded. You say men ought to be hung for the way they are executing that law; and I say the way it is being executed in the precise way which was intended from the first; else why does no Nebraska man express astonishment or condemnation? Poor [Andrew] Reeder is the only public man who has been silly enough to believe that any thing like fairness was ever intended; and he has been bravely undeceived.

That Kansas will form a Slave constitution, and, with it, will ask to be admitted into the Union. I take to be an already settled question; and so settled by the very means you so pointedly condemn. By every principle of law, ever held by any court, North or South, every negro taken to Kansas is free; yet in utter disregard of this – in the spirit of violence merely – that beautiful Legislature gravely passes a law to hang men who shall venture to inform a negro of his legal rights. This is the substance, and real object of the law. If, like Haman, they should hang upon the gallows of their own building. I shall not be among the mourners for their fate.

In my humble sphere, I shall advocate the restoration of the Missouri Compromise, so long as Kansas remains a territory; and when, by all these foul means, it seeks to come into the Union as a Slave-state, I shall oppose it. I am very loth, in any case, to withhold my assent to the enjoyment of property acquired, or located, in good faith; but I do not admit that good faith, in taking a negro to Kansas, to be held in slavery, is a possibility with any man. Any man who has sense enough to be the controller of his own property, has too much sense to misunderstand the outrageous character of this whole Nebraska business. But I digress. In my opposition to the admission of Kansas I shall have some company; but we may be beaten. If we are, I shall not, on that account, attempt to dissolve the Union. On the contrary, if we succeed, there will be enough of us to take care of the Union. I think it probable, however, we shall be beaten. Standing as a unit among yourselves, you can, directly, and indirectly, bribe enough of our men to carry the day – as you could on an open proposition to establish monarchy. Get hold of some man in the North, whose position and ability is such, that he can make the support of your measure– whatever it may be – a democratic party necessity, and the thing is done. Appropos of this, let me tell you an anecdote. Douglas introduced the Nebraska bill in January. In February afterwards, there was a call session of the Illinois Legislature. Of the one hundred members composing the two branches of that body, about seventy were democrats. These latter held a caucus, in which the Nebraska bill was talked of, if not formally discussed. It was thereby discovered that just three, and no more, were in favor of the measure. In a day or two Douglas’ orders came on to have resolutions passed approving the bill; and they were passed by large majorities!!! The truth of this is vouched for by a bolting democratic member. The masses too, democratic as well as whig, were even, nearer unanamous [sic] against it, but as soon as the party necessity of supporting it, became apparent, the way the democracy began to see the wisdom and justice of it, was perfectly astonishing.

You say if Kansas fairly votes herself a free state, as a christian you will rather rejoice at it. All decent slave-holders talk that way; and I do not doubt their candor. But they never vote that way. Although in a private letter, or conversation, you will express your preference that Kansas shall be free, you would vote for no man for Congress who would say the same thing publicly. No such man could be elected from any district in any slave-state. You think Stringfellow & Co ought to be hung; and yet, at the next presidential election you will vote for the exact type and representative of Stringfellow. The slave-breeders and slave-traders, are a small, odious and detested class, among you; and yet in politics; they dictate the course of all of you, and are as completely your masters, as you are the master of your own negroes.

You enquire where I now stand. That is a disputed point. I think I am a whig; but others say there are no whigs, and that I am an abolitionist. When I was at Washington I voted for the Wilmot Proviso as good as forty times, and I never heard of any one attempting to unwhig me for that. I now do more than oppose the extension of slavery.

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be take pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.21

Mary will probably pass a day or two in Louisville in October. My kindest regards to Mrs. Speed. On the leading subject of this letter, I hope more of her sympathy than I have of yours.22

Clearly, Mr. Lincoln’s views on slavery and race had evolved and strengthened; he was increasingly intolerant of intolerance. Historian Hans L. Trefousse wrote: “Lincoln’s views on race are less unequivocal. Born in a slate state and raised in deeply racist southern Indiana, he could hardly have escaped the all-present notions of racial inequality which in the nineteenth century prevailed not only in the United States but throughout the world. Considering the fact that modern anthropological findings about the equality of human races did not appear until after the turn of the century, it is not surprising that hardly anybody espoused them previously. To be sure, there were a few abolitionists and foes of slavery who preached the doctrine of human equality – Charles Sumner, Wendell Phillips, Thaddeus Stevens, and Gerrit Smith, for example – but they were an exception and even many opponents of human bondage were not free from prejudice. Consequently, Lincoln too was affected by his surroundings and prior to the Civil War never advocated full racial equality.”23

Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote: “Though Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow countrymen against the Negro, it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery.”24 Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher wrote: “It is a mistake to assume that Lincoln’s actions in relation to the Negro were determined or even strongly influenced by his racial outlook. He based his antislavery philosophy squarely upon perception of the slave as a person, not as a Negro. According to the Declaration of Independence, he said, all men, including black men, are created equal, at least to the extent that none has a right to enslave another.”25


  1. John Wesley Hill, Abraham Lincoln – Man of God, p. 77.
  2. Ida M. Tarbell, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 222.
  3. Paul Simon, Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years, p. 140.
  4. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume I, p. 146.
  5. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, p. 147-148.
  6. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 108-115 (Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838).
  7. Paul Simon, Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years, p. 142-143.
  8. Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis in the House Divided, p. 386.
  9. Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis in the House Divided, p. 309.
  10. Herbert Mitgang, The Fiery Trial: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 114.
  11. Paul Simon, Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years, p. 137.
  12. Richard Nelson Current, Speaking of Abraham Lincoln: The Man and His Meaning for Our Times, p. 36-37.
  13. Don E. and Virginia E. Fehrenbacher, editor, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 61 (Robert H. Browne).
  14. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 143.
  15. Olivier Frayssé, Lincoln Land, and Labor: 1809-60, p. 126.
  16. Olivier Frayssé, Lincoln Land, and Labor: 1809-60, p. 125-126.
  17. Olivier Frayssé, Lincoln Land, and Labor: 1809-60, p. 126.
  18. Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis in the House Divided, p. 137.
  19. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties, p. 216.
  20. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 317-318 (Letter to George Robertson, August 15, 1855).
  21. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, (Letter to Joshua F. Speed, August 24, 1855).
  22. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 320-323.
  23. Martin H. Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh, editor, The Price of Freedom: Slavery and the Civil War, (Hans L. Trefousse, “Lincoln and Race Relations”).
  24. Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, p. 485-486 (Speech at the Freedmen’s Monument, April 16, 1876).
  25. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Lincoln in Text and Context, p. 104.