|This Week in American History
August 22 28, 1856
Lincoln Campaigns for the Republican Party's First Presidential Bid
During the summer and fall of 1856, Abraham Lincoln travelled extensively, campaigning for the election of John C. Fremont as President, on the newly-formed Republican Party ticket. On August 27, Lincoln delivered an address at Kalamazoo, Michigan which summed up the reasons for defeating the Democratic candidate, James Buchanan, who had no objection to the spread of slavery into the national territories.
The question of slavery in the territories was an old one, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had forbidden slavery in the states which would be formed out of the Northwest Territory, which was located north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had forbidden slavery in the Louisiana Territory, which had been acquired from Spain, but the Southern states continued to lobby for slavery's expansion west.
A crisis was reached in 1849, when California applied for admission as a free state. To preserve the union, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster put together a series of bills, known as the Compromise of 1850, which admitted California as a free state and abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia. But the compromise also granted concessions to the South: Utah and New Mexico could enter the Union as either free or slave states; the Federal government assumed the debt incurred by Texas during its brief nationhood; and a new and harsher fugitive slave law was passed.
Although the Fugitive Slave Law was abhorred by many, the compromise held for four years, until Democratic U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois introduced and rammed through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and President Franklin Pierce signed it. This act invalidated the Missouri Compromise by providing that the territory from which the states of Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Montana, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming were later formed, was to be organized into two large sections called Kansas and Nebraska. The issue of slavery in these two sections was to be determined not by Congress, but by the people who would settle there. This method of spreading slavery was labelled "popular sovereignty" by Senator Douglas.
Abraham Lincoln, who had been active mostly behind the scenes as a Whig Party strategist, and had served as a Whig National Committeeman for Illinois during the 1852 Presidential campaign, now determined to challenge Douglas and his ideology at every point. When Douglas came back to Illinois to defend his actions, Lincoln answered his speeches with those of his own, usually on the same day or evening. At Peoria, Illinois on October 16, 1854, Lincoln stated that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was "wrong in its direct effect, letting slavery into Kansas and Nebraska, and wrong in its prospective principle, allowing it to spread to every other part of the wide world where men can be found inclined to take it."
"This declared indifference, but, as I must think, covert real zeal, for the spread of slavery," said Lincoln, "I cannot but hate. I hate it 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; and especially because it forces so many men among ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty, criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest."
Although many Americans were appalled by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, they were scattered among a multitude of parties. Lincoln himself was a Whig, a proponent of the American System of Political Economy and a supporter of Henry Clay. But Clay died in 1852, at a time when the Whig Party was already beginning to decline. During the severe economic recession of 1854-1855, a number of nativist parties had sprung up, fearful of competition from recent immigrants. These were grouped together under the name of "Know-Nothings." In addition, there were the Abolitionists, and also Democrats who, despite their party's endorsement of the legislation, opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Lincoln knew it was important to unite all these factions against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, no matter how much they might differ on other issues. There were many attempts during 1854 and the following years to put together "fusion" parties, but the real success came with the formation of the Republican Party. Lincoln played an interesting role in this process, and he took a different route than others with the same goal in mind.
In January of 1856, a call went out to the editors of what were now called "Anti-Nebraska" newspapers, to meet and plan for the next presidential election. The meeting took place at Decatur, Illinois on February 22, and Abraham Lincoln was the only non-journalist in attendance. Using Lincoln's advice, the newspapermen drafted a declaration that called for the restoration of the Missouri Compromise, upheld the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act, and pledged non-interference with slavery in the states where it already existed. The declaration also affirmed the "free soil" doctrine that stated that the United States was founded on the principle that freedom was national, and that slavery was exceptional.
The conference of journalists then called for a state "fusion" convention at Bloomington on May 29. Momentous events directly preceded that convention. On May 21, an armed pro-slavery mob of horsemen sacked Lawrence, Kansas, the base of the anti-slavery citizens. The next day, Senator Preston Brooks of South Carolina attacked Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in the Senate over a supposed insult to a Southern colleague. Brooks repeatedly beat Sumner over the head with a cane, severely injuring him.
Abraham Lincoln made the concluding speech to the Republican state convention in Bloomington, reportedly bringing the audience to its feet cheering. On June 19, the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia nominated John C. Fremont for president. Lincoln received 110 votes for Vice President, but not the nomination. The Democrats nominated James Buchanan, the Pierce Administration's Ambassador to the Court of St. James. The remains of the Whig Party and the Know-Nothings nominated former President Millard Fillmore, who received monetary and other help from the Buchanan campaign as a spoiler.
The nomination of James Buchanan posed a real threat to the existence of the Union, as was indeed borne out by subsequent events. Buchanan had received the nickname "Ten-Cent Jimmy" after an 1840 speech in which he proposed that the wages of American workers be lowered to the level of European workers. As Ambassador to Britain, he had sponsored the imperialist Ostend Manifesto, which flung an ultimatum to the Spanish Government, stating that if Spain did not agree to sell Cuba to the United States to be used as additional slave territory, the island of Cuba would be taken by force.
Although nominally from Pennsylvania, Buchanan served the interests of the pro-slavery faction, both in the South and in Great Britain. During the Presidential campaign, Buchanan wrote to Henry A. Wise about his loyalties: "For many years of my life, I was engaged in advocating Southern rights in the Senate, and afterwards sustaining them on the stump, in conversation, and in the newspapers before the people of Pennsylvania. A crisis has now arrived in the affairs of the Republic seriously endangering the Union. In fifteen States there can be no Fremont electoral ticket. The sectional party [Republican Partyed.] has been distinctly formed; and the battle of union or disunion must be fought by the Democratic Party of the free States, after having heartily adopted the principles endorsed by the South on the subject of slavery. It promises to be a fierce struggle. I have embarked in it with all my heart and shall give a direction to it so far as this may be proper."
To counter this unabashed pro-slavery candidate, Lincoln made as many as 90 speeches during the Presidential campaign. He began his speech in Kalamazoo by saying: "Fellow countrymen: Under the Constitution of the U.S. another Presidential contest approaches us. All over this landthat portion at least, of which I know muchthe people are assembling to consider the proper course to be adopted by them. One of the first considerations is to learn what the people differ about. If we ascertain what we differ about, we shall be better able to decide. The question of slavery, at the present day, should be not only the greatest question, but very nearly the sole question. Our opponents, however, prefer that this should not be the case. The question is simply this: Shall slavery be spread into the new Territories, or not?
"We have been in the habit of deploring the fact that slavery exists amongst us. We have ever deplored it. Our forefathers did, and they declared, as we have done in later years, the blame rested on the mother Government of Great Britain, We constantly condemn Great Britain for not preventing slavery from coming amongst us. She would not interfere to prevent it, and so individuals were enabled to introduce the institution without opposition. I have alluded to this, to ask you if this is not exactly the policy of Buchanan and his friends, to place this government in the attitude then occupied by the government of Great Britainplacing the nation in the position to authorize the territories to reproach it, for refusing to allow them to hold slaves."
"If you of the North wish to get rid of this question, you must decide between these two wayssubmit and vote for Buchanan, submit and vote that slavery is a just and good thing and immediately get rid of the question; or unite with us, and help us to triumph. We would all like to have the question done away with, but we cannot submit.
"They tell us that we are in company with men who have long been known as abolitionists. What care we how many may feel disposed to labor for our cause? Why do not you, Buchanan men, come in and use your influence to make our party respectable? (Laughter.) How is the dissolution of the Union to be consummated? They tell us that the Union is in danger. Who will divide it? Is it those who make the charge? Are they themselves the persons who wish to see this result? A majority will never dissolve the Union. Can a minority do it?
"When this Nebraska bill was first introduced into Congress, the sense of the Democratic Party was outraged. That party has ever prided itself, that it was the friend of individual, universal freedom. It was that principle upon which they carried their measures. When the Kansas scheme was conceived, it was natural that this respect and sense should have been outraged. Now I make this appeal to the Democratic citizens here. Don't you find yourself making arguments in support of these measures, which you never would have made before? Did you ever do it before this Nebraska bill compelled you to do it? If you answer this in the affirmative, see how a whole party have been turned away from their love of liberty!
"And now, my Democratic friends, come forward. Throw off these things, and come to the rescue of this great principle of equality. Don't interfere with anything in the Constitution. That must be maintained, for it is the only safeguard of our liberties. And not to Democrats alone do I make this appeal, but to all who love these great and true principles. Come, and keep coming! Strike, and strike again! So sure as God lives, the victory shall be yours." (Great cheering.)