Milestones of 1860 remind us who we are

(CCU Faculty) 2010 marks the 150th anniversary of the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency. It is fitting that we recognize this anniversary, as Lincoln’s election marked a huge turning point in our nation’s history. I will accordingly offer a series of posts drawing our attention to the milestones of 1860.

Throughout much of that year, Lincoln traveled to several states to deliver many important speeches. He focused considerable attention on the issue of slavery and, while doing so, forced his audiences to consider what the United States was about. In nearly every speech, Lincoln returned to our founding document: the Declaration of Independence. In fact, in his Peoria Speech of 1854, he referred to the Declaration as the “sheet anchor” of America. Lincoln’s continuous return to the Declaration was due to the fact the he believed that it, more than anything else, defined the nature and purpose of the Union.

Just at this point in that fateful year, on February 27, having traveled from his home in Illinois to the northeast, Abraham Lincoln gave the first of his major election year speeches at the Cooper Union in New York City. In this speech, Lincoln painstakingly describes the thoughts of the authors of our Constitution concerning slavery. This was significant, as southerners were increasingly manipulating the thoughts and words of the Founders, arguing that they viewed chattel slavery as a good institution and that the founders did not believe that African slaves were fully human, entitled to equal rights.

In the Dred Scott Opinion, Chief Justice Taney had wrongly argued that the Founding Fathers never intended for blacks to enjoy equal rights in America. Likewise, Senator Stephen Douglas had argued in a published article that the Founders had been opposed to the Congress having power to regulate slavery in the territories. Douglas was a proponent of allowing the voters within each territory to determine whether to be a free state or a slave state. This position violated the long-standing rules passed by the Congress in 1820, whereby in the territory adopted from the Louisiana Purchase, Congress had limited where slavery could and could not be implemented.

In preparation for this speech, Lincoln devoted hours of research time in order to determine what exactly the authors of the Constitution believed concerning slavery, and whether or not it could exist for long in light of the principles laid down in the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon noted that Lincoln spent considerable effort studying the founders, writing: “No former effort in the line of speech-making had cost Lincoln so much time and thought as this one.”

The Speech is divided into three parts. In part one, Lincoln systematically goes through the 39 delegates who had signed on to the Constitution at the Convention of 1787. In this, Lincoln proves decisively that of these delegates, an overwhelming majority were either opposed to the spread of slavery or were silent on the matter. There was little to no evidence that the signers of the Constitution found it outside of the purview of the Congress to regulate the spread of slavery in the territories. As an example, Lincoln cites the fact that 76 members of the First Congress (including 16 of the 39) framed the first ten Amendments at the very same time that they were passing the Ordinance that enforced the prohibition of slavery in the Northwest Territory.

The second part of his speech deals with the problem of slave rebellions and the south’s claim that such rebellions were caused by the Republican Party. Lincoln denies this, stating that there was no evidence that any Republicans had supported slave revolts. Nonetheless, Lincoln continues to stress the moral wrongness of slavery. Quoting Jefferson, Lincoln states: “It is still in our power to direct emancipation, and deportation, peaceably, and in such slow degrees, as the evil will wear off insensibly; and their places be, pari passu, filled up by free white laborers. If, on the contrary, it is left to force itself on, human nature must shudder at the prospect held up.”

The final part of the Cooper Union Speech turns to the evolving attitude of the southerners. Lincoln believed that the south was no longer merely interested in keeping slavery legal in the south. Rather, with the Kansas Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott Opinion as their support, southerners were increasingly motivated to have slavery spread to states and territories where it had been previously forbidden. Linked to this expansion was the southern belief that slavery was actually a good institution and the proper place for people of African descent. For this reason, Lincoln concluded that nothing would satisfy the southerners save finding slavery to be good, and as such, allowing for it to spread.

“So, what will satisfy them? We must stop calling slavery wrong. We must call it right. We cannot be silent. We must be with them. We must support Senator Douglas’s sedition act, it must be enacted and enforced. We must suppress all declarations that slavery is wrong. We must pull down the Free State Constitutions. Yes, to outlaw slavery is to say it is wrong, so we must allow slavery. We must remove all taint of opposition to slavery. This, and this alone, will satisfy them.”

Lincoln concludes with this challenge and admonition to his fellow Republicans: “So, Republicans, I say: Do not give in! Do not compromise! Do not seek some middle ground between right and wrong. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

Many modern historians have attempted to frame the election of 1860 into a battle over “states rights”, “property” and “economic differences.” It cannot be more clear that the victor in 1860 knew full well that while each of these concepts is certainly relevant to the election, slavery was the central issue. For Lincoln, the future of the Union would be determined by the outcome on this issue. His clarity of purpose and determination to end what is morally wrong define the election of 1860.

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