Etched into the pedestal of a statue of Daniel Webster that stands in Central Park not far from where I live are the most famous words from Webster’s second reply to Robert Hayne during their “great debate” of January 1830: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.” Abraham Lincoln loved that speech and greatly admired the man who delivered it. For Lincoln, as for most Republicans in 1860, to revere the Union was to love liberty and loving liberty meant hating slavery. A lifelong Whig, Lincoln always saw his support for economic development as part of a larger vision of national unity. But after 1854, when he reentered public life as an antislavery politician, just about everything Lincoln said about the Union was closely bound up with his moral opposition to slavery. Lurking behind nearly every major political or military decision Lincoln made as president was his conviction that the problem of the Union and the problem of slavery were one and the same. So it’s not quite right to say that Lincoln cared more about the Union than he did about slavery. His concern for the Union was inseparable from his hatred of slavery.
“For the sake of the Union,” Lincoln argued in his 1854 Peoria speech, the old Missouri Compromise restrictions on introducing slavery into the western territories “ought to be restored.” Opening those areas to slavery, he warned, would raise “a grave question for the lovers of the Union.” More than an anomaly in a nation founded on the principle of universal liberty, slavery was for him a threat to the Union’s existence. In 1858 Lincoln likened the nation to a house at war with itself, doomed to bitter strife and unable to sustain itself “half slave and half free.” He often asked audiences whether any issue had ever unsettled the Union the way slavery had done repeatedly since the nation’s founding. His antislavery politics were guided by a kind of Platonic ideal of a Union that—once cleansed of slavery’s stain—would more closely approximate the true vision of the founders. Restrict slavery’s expansion, reaffirm the nation’s antislavery principles, and “we shall not only have saved the Union,” Lincoln concluded in 1854, “but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.”
Lincoln said these things better than most politicians but he was hardly the only politician saying them, and not everybody agreed. Northern Democrats thought there was something sinister, even treasonous, in all the talk of an irreconcilable conflict between slavery and freedom. The real threat to the Union, they believed, was not slavery but the relentless obsession with it—by zealous supporters in the South and fanatic opponents in the North. Most Northern Democrats would fight and die for the Union, but they would not wage a war whose primary goal was the abolition…
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