The depth of Americans’ divisions over slavery were brought into sharp focus in 1858 in one of the most storied election campaigns in the nation’s history. Seeking reelection to the Senate as both a champion of popular sovereignty and the man who had prevented the administration from forcing slavery on the people of Kansas, Douglas faced an unexpectedly strong challenge from Abraham Lincoln, then little known outside of Illinois. Born into a modest farm family in Kentucky in 1809, Lincoln had moved as a youth to frontier Indiana and then Illinois. Although he began running for public office at the age of twenty-one, until the mid-1850s his career hardly seemed destined for greatness. He had served four terms as a Whig in the state legislature and one in Congress from 1847 to 1849.
Lincoln reentered politics in 1854 as a result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He once said that he “hated slavery as much as any abolitionist.” Unlike abolitionists, however, Lincoln was willing to compromise with the South to preserve the Union. “I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down,” he once wrote of fugitive slaves, “but I bite my lip and keep silent.” But on one question he was inflexible—stopping the expansion of slavery.
Abraham Lincoln in 1858, the year of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Lincoln developed a critique of slavery and its expansion that gave voice to the central values of the emerging Republican Party and the millions of northerners whose loyalty it commanded. His speeches combined the moral fervor of the abolitionists with the respect for order and the Constitution of more conservative northerners. “I hate it,” he said in 1854 of the prospect of slavery’s expansion, “because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it 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—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity.” If slavery were allowed to expand, he warned, the “love of liberty” would be extinguished and with it America’s special mission to be a symbol of democracy for the entire world.
Even though Lincoln lived in a society firmly in the grasp of the market revolution and worked on occasion as an attorney for the Illinois Central Railroad, one of the nation’s largest corporations, his America was the world of the small producer. In a sense, his own life personified the free labor ideology and the opportunities northern society offered to laboring men. During the 1850s, property-owning farmers, artisans, and shopkeepers far outnumbered wage earners in Illinois. Lincoln was fascinated and disturbed by the writings of proslavery ideologues like George Fitzhugh (discussed in Chapter 11), and he rose to the defense of northern society. “I want every man to have the chance,” said Lincoln, “and I believe a black man is entitled to it, in which he can better his condition.” Blacks might not be the equal of whites in all respects, but in their “natural right” to the fruits of their labor, they were “my equal and the equal of all others.”