Fragment on Sectionalism, July 23, 1856

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln


It is constantly objected to [John C.] Fremont and [William] Dayton, that they are supported by a sectional party who, by their sectionalism, endanger the National Union. This objection, more than all others, causes men, really opposed to slavery extension, to hesitate. Practically, it is the most difficult objection we have to meet.

For this reason, I now propose to examine it, a little more carefully than I have heretofore done, or seen it done by others.

First, then, what is the question between the parties, respectively represented by Buchanan and Fremont?

Simply this: “Shall slavery be allowed to extend into U.S. territories, now legally free?’ [James] Buchanan says itshall; and Fremont says it shall not.

That is the naked issue, and the whole of it. Lay the respective platforms side by side; and the difference between them, will be found to amount to precisely that.

True, each party charges upon the other, designs much beyond what is involved in the issue, as stated; but as these charges can not be fully proved either way, it is probably better to reject them on both sides, stick to the naked issue, as it is clearly made upon the record.

And now, to restate the question ‘Shall slavery be allowed to extend into U.S. territories, now legally free?’ I beg to know how one side of that question is more sectional than the other? Of course I expect to effect nothing with the man who makes this charge of sectionalism, without caring whether it is just or not. But of the candid, fair, man who has been puzzled with this charge. I do ask how is one side of this question, more sectional, than the other? I beg of him to consider well, and answer calmly.

If one side be as sectional as the other, nothing is gained, as to sectionalism, by changing sides; so that each must choose sides of the question on some other ground — as I should think, according, as the one side or the other, shall appear nearest right.

If he shall really think slavery ought to be extended, let him go to Buchanan; if he think it ought not let [him] go to Fremont.

But, Fremont and Dayton, are both residents of the free-states; and this fact has been vaunted, in high places, as excessive sectionalism.

While interested individuals become indignant and excited, against this manifestation of sectionalism, I am very happy to know, that the Constitution remains calm — keeps cool — upon the subject. It does say that President and Vice President shall be resident of different states; but it does not say one must live in a slave, and the other in a free state.

It has been a custom to take one from a slave, and the other from a free state; but the custom has not, at all been uniform. In 1828 Gen. [Andrew] Jackson and Mr. [John] Calhoun, both from slave-states, were placed on the same ticket; and Mr. Adams and Dr. Rush both from the free-states, were pitted against them. Gen: Jackson and Mr. Calhoun were elected; and qualified and served under the election; yet the whole thing never suggest the idea of sectionalism.

In 1841, the president, Gen. Harrison, died, by which Mr. Tyler, the Vice-President & a slave state man, became President. Mr. Mangum, another slave-state man, was placed in the Vice Presidential chair, served out the term, and no fuss about it — no sectionalism thought of.

In 1853 the present president came into office. He is a free-state man. Mr. King, the new Vice President elect, was a slave state man; but he died without entering on the duties of his office. At first, his vacancy was filled by Atchison, another slave-state man; but he soon resigned, and the place was supplied by Bright, a free-state man. So that right now, and for the year and a half last past, our president and vice-president are both actually free-state men.

But, it is said, the friends of Fremont, avow the purpose of electing him exclusively by free-state votes, and that this is unendurable sectionalism.

This statement of fact, is not exactly true. With the friends of Fremont, it is an expected necessity, but it is not an ‘avowed purpose,’ to elect him, if at all, principally, by free state votes; but it is, with equal intensity, true that Buchanan’s friends expect to elect him, if at all, chiefly by slave-state votes.

Here, again, the sectionalism, is just as much on one side as the other.

The thing which gives most color to the charge of Sectionalism, made against those who oppose the spread of slavery in free territory, is the fact that they can get no votes in the slave-states, while their opponents get all, or nearly so, in the slave-states, and also, a large number in the free States. To state it in another way, the Extensionists, can get votes all over the Nation, while the Restrictionists can get them only in the free states.

This being the fact, why is it so? It is not because one side of the question dividing them, is more sectional than the other; nor because of any difference in the mental or moral structure of the people North and South. It is because, in that question, the people of the South have an immediate palpable and immensely great pecuniary interest; while, with the people of the North, it is merely an abstract question of moral right, with only slight, and remotepecuniary interest added.

The slaves of the South, at a moderate estimate, are worth a thousand millions of dollars. Let it be permanently settled that this property may extend to new territory, without restraint, and it greatly enhances, perhaps quite doubles, its value at once. This immense, palpable pecuniary interest, on the question of extending slavery, unites the Southern people, as one man. But it can not be demonstrated that the North will gain a dollar by restricting it.

Moral principle is all, or nearly all, that unites us of the North. Pity ’tis, it is so, but this is a looser bond, than pecuniary interest. Right here is the plain cause of their perfect union and our want of it. And see how it works. If a Southern man aspires to be president, they choke him down instantly, in order that the glittering prize of the presidency, may beheld up, on Southern terms, to the greedy eyes of Northern ambition. With this they tempt us, and break in upon us.

The democratic party, in 1844, elected a Southern president. Since then, they have neither had a Southern candidate for election, or nomination. Their Conventions of 1848 — 1852 and 1856, have been struggles exclusively among Northern men, each vieing [sic] to outbid the other for the Southern vote — the South standing calmly by to finally cry going, going, gone, to the highest bidder; and, at the same time, to make its power more distinctly seen, and thereby to secure a still higher bid at the next succeeding struggle.

‘Actions speak louder than words’ is the maxim; and, if true, the South now distinctly says to the North ‘Give us the measures, and you take the men

The total withdrawal of Southern aspirants, for the president, multiplies the number of Northern ones. These last, in competing with each other, commit themselves to the utmost verge that, through their own greediness, they have the least hope their Northern supporters will bear. Having got committed, in a race of competition, necessity drives them into union to sustain themselves. Each, at first secures all he can, on personal attachments to him, and throughhopes resting on him personally. Next, they unite with one another, and with the perfectly banded South, to make the offensive position they have got into,’ a party measure.’ This done, large additional numbers are secured.

When the repeal of the Missouri compromise was first proposed, at the North there was litterally [sic] ‘nobody‘ in favor it. In February 18548 our Legislature met in call, or extra, session. From them Douglas sought an indorsement of his then pending measure of Repeal. In our Legislature were about 70 democrats to 30 whigs. The former held a caucus, in which it was resolved to give Douglas the desired indorsement. Some of the members of that caucus bolted — would not stand it — and they now divulge the secrets. They say that the caucus fairly confessed that the Repeal was wrong; and they placed their determination to indorse it, solely on the ground that it was necessary to sustain Douglas. Here we have the direct evidence of how the Nebraska-bill obtained it’s strength in Illinois. It was given, not in a sense of wrong, to sustain Douglas. So Illinois was divided. So New England, for Pierce; Michigan for Cass, Pennsylvania for Buchcan[an], and all for the Democratic party.

And when, by such means, they have got a large portion of the Northern people into a position contrary to their own honest impulses, and sense of right; they have the impudence to turn upon those who do stand firm, and call them sectional.

Were it not too serious a matter, this cool impudence would be laughable, to say the least.

Recurring to the question ‘Shall slavery be allowed to extend into U.S. teritory [sic] now legally free?[‘]

This is a sectional question — that is to say, it is a question, its nature calculated to divide the American people geographically. Who is to blame for that?who can help it. Either side can help it; but how? Simply by yielding to the other side. There is no other way. In the whole range of possibility, there is no other way. Then, which side shall yield? To this again, there can be but one answer — the side which is in the wrong. True, we differ, as to which side iswrong; and we boldly say, let all who really think slavery ought to spread into free teritory, openly go over against us. There is where they rightfully belong.

But why should any go, who really think slavery ought not to spread? Do they really think the right ought to yield to the wrong? Are they afraid to stand by the Right? Do they fear that the constitution is too weak to sustain them in the right? Do they really think by right surrendering to wrong, the hopes of our constitution, our Union, and our liberties, can possibly be bettered?1


  1. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 349-353 (Fragment on Sectionalism, [c. July 23, 1856]).