The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln

Meserve-Kunhardt Collection
Abraham Lincoln at the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Macomb, Illinois, August 26, 1858

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution abolished slavery and barred states from abridging the equal civil and political rights of American citizens, including former slaves. Abraham Lincoln’s native state of Kentucky was the only state that refused to ratify all three amendments. The region of southern Indiana where Lincoln had lived from the age of seven to twenty-one (1816–1830) was among the most proslavery and anti-black areas in the free states during those years. Its representative in Congress also voted against the Thirteenth Amendment. So did the congressman from central Illinois, where Lincoln had lived for three decades. Lincoln himself had represented this district in the state legislature for eight years and in the United States Congress for one term in the 1830s and 1840s. And in 1842 he married a woman from a prominent Kentucky slaveholding family.

One might therefore expect that the cultural influences surrounding Lincoln during the first half-century of his life would shape his convictions about slavery and race in the same mold that characterized most politicians of his time and place. But instead, he was one of only two representatives in the Illinois legislature who presented a public “protest” against a resolution passed in 1837 by their colleagues that condemned abolitionist doctrines of freedom and civil equality and affirmed the right of property in slaves as “sacred to the slave-holding states.” Lincoln’s protest acknowledged that the Constitution did indeed sanction slavery in those states but declared that nevertheless “the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy.”

In 1854 Lincoln made an even stronger protest, this time in the form of eloquent speeches against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s longtime political rival, had rammed this law through a divided Congress. It repealed the earlier ban on the expansion of slavery into territories carved out of the Louisiana Purchase north of latitude 36º 30'. Douglas’s actions opened these territories to slavery and sparked the formation of the new “anti-Nebraska” Republican Party, which would nominate Lincoln for president six years later. Douglas had said that if the white people who moved to Kansas wanted slavery there, they should be allowed to have it. “This declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I can not but hate,” said Lincoln in 1854, “because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself” and also “because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites.”

When he ran for the Senate in the famous contest with Douglas in 1858, Lincoln declared: “I have always hated slavery I think as much as any Abolitionist.” Six years later he said with feeling:…

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