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A Different Lincoln

Meserve-Kunhardt Collection
Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, May 20, 1860

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 of slavery. Starting from a very different premise—that slavery had destroyed the Union—most Republicans quickly concluded that it would be impossible to restore the Union without attacking slavery. A war for the Union, then, meant very different things to the loyal men and women of the North.

There was a critical sliver of common ground, however. Even if they disagreed over the morality of slavery, Democrats and Republicans in the North could agree that slavery had caused the war, that single-minded devotion to it had inspired widespread disloyalty to the Union in the slave states. Democrats really did care more about the Union than they cared about slavery, but it might be possible to convince many of them that the destruction of slavery was necessary if the Union was to be restored. A large part of Lincoln’s presidency, and no small part of his greatness, resided in his ability to persuade a majority of loyal Americans of something he himself had long believed—that the struggle for the Union was also a struggle for universal liberty.


Between November 6, 1860, the day Lincoln was elected president, and March 4, 1861, the day he was inaugurated, the United States of America fell apart. As soon as the voting results were clear, the South Carolina legislature called a secession convention to meet in December. As expected, when the delegates met they voted overwhelmingly to secede from the Union. By then several other secession conventions had been called and, by February, six more Deep South states had followed South Carolina’s lead. On February 4 representatives from the seceded states met in Montgomery, Alabama, where they drafted a new constitution and, five days later, elected Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as interim president of the Confederate States of America. All of this had happened by the time Lincoln left his home in Springfield, Illinois, on February 11, on his way to the inauguration in Washington, D.C. Whatever else it was, this was no ordinary interregnum.

Yet it is one of the strengths of Harold Holzer’s Lincoln President-Elect that it reminds us of how much of Lincoln’s time was occupied with the ordinary things any newly elected president has to do. Lincoln put up with countless office seekers, held numerous conferences with fellow Republicans, selected his cabinet, and drafted his inaugural address. It was mostly familiar business. Before the era of civil service, presidents-elect got to make hundreds of patronage appointments, but because this was the first time the Republican Party had ever taken power there was a wholesale turnover of federal appointees that made Lincoln’s job more onerous than usual. As Holzer shows, Lincoln followed well-established tradition by filling many key cabinet positions with the men he had defeated for his party’s nomination.

But there was no precedent for the breakup of the nation that made the interregnum of 1860–1861 different from any other. In the first weeks after his election Lincoln scoffed at disunionist rumblings. Southerners had been making such threats for years; if he just kept quiet it would all blow over. By December Lincoln realized that secession was a genuine threat. In public he maintained a “stately silence,” urging nothing more than obedience to the law. But in private Lincoln resisted any sectional compromise that violated the Republican Party’s rock-solid opposition to slavery’s expansion into the western territories. By January, Lincoln decided that compromise on any basis was capitulation to secessionist blackmail. At some point early in the New Year he probably reached the conclusion that war was likely.

In February, when he left Springfield for Washington, Lincoln broke his silence and revealed his policy in a series of speeches along the way. He summed it all up in his uncompromising inaugural address. He would neither “coerce” nor “invade” the South, but he would enforce the law, hold on to federal forts, and uphold his constitutional obligation to maintain the integrity of the Union. Secession was anarchy, Lincoln said, and as president he would not tolerate it. The next day the Richmond Dispatch took due note of Lincoln’s aggressive tone. “The inaugural address,” it declared, “inaugurates civil war.”

Holzer’s account of these events is lively and thoroughly researched, but it suffers from some of the occupational hazards of Lincoln scholarship. It’s too long, and it sometimes attributes to the sixteenth president powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men. Holzer calls Lincoln “the master puppeteer” who pulled the strings and made Republicans dance to his tune even from faraway Springfield, Illinois. In fact nothing Lincoln said or did in the months between his election in November 1860 and his inauguration in March 1861 was out of step with the Republican Party line. Democrats and border state Southerners demanded that Lincoln say something, anything, to ease the sectional tension. Don’t do it, Republicans countered. They bombarded him with letters, editorials, and personal visits telling him to keep quiet and give no hints of accommodation. Until his inauguration, one Republican wrote, Lincoln should “not open his mouth, save only to eat.” All but a few Republicans resisted any compromise that would allow slavery’s expansion into the territories, and by January most of them resisted any compromise whatever. Anyone who wavers, Benjamin Wade explained, “is shot down in an instant by his comrades.” The Republican caucus was disciplining itself.

The screws of party discipline were fastened tight by the intense hostility to compromise welling up from the Republican base. Local Republican editors published exhortations and individual voters wrote impassioned letters to their congressmen demanding unbending allegiance to the party’s antislavery platform. “For God sake,” one anxious voter wrote to Republican Senator John Sherman of Ohio, “don’t Compromise.” As president-elect, Lincoln felt this pressure more than most Republicans. He received at least as many letters as he sent out counseling silence and resistance to compromise. It required no nerves of steel for him to toe the party line.

It was also easier for Lincoln to hold his tongue in Springfield than it was for the Republicans who convened in Washington when Congress came back into session in December. Confronted each day by the belligerent speeches of Southern congressmen, and forced to take positions on various proposals for sectional compromise, Republican politicians began to break their silence and by March most of them were on record denouncing secession and opposing any compromise of the party’s antislavery principles. When Lincoln himself began to speak out, beginning in mid-February, he said the same things most Republicans were saying: the Union was perpetual, secession was illegal, and the laws would be enforced.

If any group was responsible for holding the line against compromise it was the party radicals. They were the “stiffbacks” of the Republican organization. For the sake of building a winning political coalition they had accepted “free soil” (i.e., opposition to extending slavery rather than abolition) as the party’s ideological bottom line, though their own antislavery principles went much deeper. Having adhered to that minimal position they would compromise no further—especially not now, at the very moment of the Republican Party’s first great triumph. When a tumbling stock market prompted jittery merchants in New York and Boston to call for sectional reconciliation, it was the radicals who strongly objected. They are asking us, Charles Sumner complained, ” to surrender our principles.” Ohio radicals warned that they would bolt from the party if Republicans backed away from their own antislavery platform. “We will repudiate it with a full heart, and counsel all our friends to do the same.” Now was the time to stand firm, Joshua Giddings insisted. “We have degraded ourselves enough.”

Lincoln agreed. The consummate pragmatist steadfastly rejected any sectional compromise that conceded a constitutional right to own slaves in the territories. “Entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery,” he warned in a private letter in mid-December. “Have none of it. The tug has to come & better now than later.”

In rejecting compromise Republicans knowingly accepted the possibility of war. But war would require the enthusiasm of many Northerners who had voted against the Republicans, and Lincoln used his trip to Washington to build that support. His February speeches rang with a new militancy. Indeed they stand out in the Lincoln corpus for their bellicose and emotional appeal to nationalism. Lincoln riled up crowds by flattering them for their love of country and then inviting them to shout in uproarious approval. He asked leading questions. You will support me, won’t you? he would say. Won’t you? He protested the sincerity of his hopes for peace, “but it may be necessary,” he warned legislators in Trenton, “to put the foot down firmly.” He invoked the sanctity of the Union to rally support for an impending war even among those who did not really care about slavery.

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