The legacy of Abraham Lincoln has been mixed; there are some who believe that Lincoln was a man who adhered to the principles of the Founding Fathers and others who assert that Lincoln radically altered the meaning of the American Founding. Lincoln devoted a great deal of his political life to the subject of natural rights for America’s slaves. While the Founders sought to establish an independent and viable United States, the issue of slavery was never far from the minds of various Founding Fathers. The issue of slavery became far more central when Congress created territories and they were able to determine if slavery would be allowed to exist in the new territories. In particular, the Founding Fathers who survived until slavery emerged on the national scene as a divisive issue contributed to the public conversation and allow modern scholars to understand not only the Founders belief concerning slavery, but also to compare Lincoln’s understanding with the Founders. Lincoln, like many of the Founders, viewed slavery as an abstract injustice; also, he was in agreement with the Founders that slavery should be put on the path to ultimate extinction. Through Lincoln’s writings and deeds he presents a preservation of the Founding’s intentions in regards to the expansion of slavery into the territories, while expanding upon their basic understanding of how to limit the institution’s expansion as is evident through a consideration of the writings of various Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln.
The United States for the first few decades of the Republic existed peacefully with each other on the question of slavery and about the extension of slavery into new territories. It was viewed, and understood by many that slavery would die a natural death. In 1787 the Congress under the Articles of Confederation adopted the Northwest Ordinance, which made slavery illegal in the Northwest Territories; this law as readopted under the Philadelphia Constitution of 1787; the Northwest Ordinance declared in Article 6:
There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: Provided, always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.
However, in 1804 then President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France, a country that permitted slavery. It was under this understanding that Louisiana was allowed into the Union, that because France had permitted slavery then Louisiana would be allowed admission as a slave state. In like manner Kentucky and Tennessee were made slave states as they had originally been a part of Virginia and South Carolina, both states with slavery. Congress had precedence for both excluding slavery’s expansion and allowing for it.
Yet, in 1819 the Congress was once again addressing the slavery issue, and this time the Southern states refused to accept an absolute exclusion of slavery into new territories and the North refused to allow the admission of another slave state, this time much further North. From this crisis arose the Missouri Compromise, which allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state. The Compromise also made it illegal for any new slave state to be formed north of the southern border of Missouri, latitude 36 degrees and 30 minutes. The Missouri Compromise is unique in that it allows for the creation of a slave state and a free state, while at the same time excluding slavery south of the new slave state. Unlike Louisiana, Kentucky and Tennessee the territory that became Missouri had never had slavery. The action by Congress to allow slavery to be introduced into Missouri was completely unique, as it had never to that point allowed for the institution of slavery to exist in a region where it had never existed before. The Missouri Compromise began to drive a wedge between the North and South on the issue of slavery’s expansion, and as a result in the 1840’s a heated public conversation began with the question of Texas’s annexation as yet another slave state.
For three of America’s most distinguished political thinkers of the Founding generation, the question of the Missouri Compromise was important for the success and continuation of the Union. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison each adhered to the basic principle that slavery was unjust. Still further, each believed that slavery would die a natural death and each presented a different view on how to bring about that death. All three believe that it is within the Constitution powers of Congress to legislate against slavery into the territories. In this, Abraham Lincoln is in line with the Founding on the issue of slavery. However, the Founder’s ultimately rejected the Missouri Compromise as a dangerous precedent, where as Lincoln believed that the Missouri Compromise in light of the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act should be upheld. The Founders believed that preventing the extension of slavery was perfectly within the Constitutional right of Congress, but that the Missouri Compromise was an imprudent action by Congress as it allowed for slavery to extend to a region where slavery had never existed before.
In 1789 the First Untied States Congress adopted the Northwest Ordinance, originally passed by the United States and Congress Assembled in 1787. As a provision the Northwest Ordinance made it illegal to take slaves into the new territory. This territory was ceded to the United States by Great Britain. Then in 1804 President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from the French. Immediately the question was formed as to whether or not slavery should be permitted in the new territory. When Louisiana entered the Union it entered as a slave state. Both sides agreed to this for two reasons, first the Congress determined to allow Louisiana to be governed by the existing law and second Louisiana already had slavery. The remainder of the territory was left with the question of whether slavery would be permitted still to be settled. This changed in 1819 when a compromise was proposed that would bring Missouri in to the Union as a slave state, bring Maine into the Union as a free state, and forbid the extension of slavery north of Missouri’s southern border at 36 degrees 30 minutes.
At the time the Congress was discussing whether or not to adopt the Missouri Compromise, which it ultimately did in 1820, three of America’s most renowned Founding Fathers were providing their own opinions on the subject. What is clear about John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison is that none of them believed the Missouri Compromise to be unconstitutional; however they believed that the compromise lacked prudence and was a dangerous precedence for America. John Adams said in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, “The Missouri question, I hope, will follow the other waves under the ship, and do no harm. I know it is high treason to express a doubt of the perpetual duration of our vast American empire and our free institutions….” He believes that the same spirit that was driving the Missouri Compromise drove the spirits of Hamilton and Burr and might succeed in dividing the United States into, “as many nations in North America as there are in Europe.” Adams was horrified of the prospect that the Missouri Compromise could lead to a division within the United States like that of Europe. Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to John Adams, shared his concerns, “But the Missouri question, is a breaker on which we lose the Missouri country by revolt, and what more, God only knows. From the battle of Bunker’s Hill to the treaty of Paris, we never had so ominous a question.” Both Adams and Jefferson agreed that the Missouri Compromise was an imprudent act that could have the ramifications of ending the Union all together.
In the same spirit as Adams and Jefferson’s correspondence called into question the Missouri Compromise, James Madison also feared the end results of the Missouri Compromise. To Robert Walsh in 1819 Madison stated, “On the whole, the Missouri question, as a constitutional one, amounts to the question whether the condition proposed to be annexed to the admission of Missouri would or would not be void in itself, or become void the moment the territory should enter as a State within the pale of the Constitution.” The Missouri Compromises’ constitutionality rests on whether it would be void first, in and of itself, or whether it would become void when Missouri entered the Union. Madison was well aware of the arguments made for the Northwest Ordinance during the first Congress. The question of Missouri’s constitutionality would, as it appears in Madison’s letter, fall to the treaty by which American acquired the Louisiana Territory. Should it state slavery would be protected, or banned from the French territories than the compromise would have to be unconstitutional; however Madison admits to not knowing the answer. However, Madison feared that the Missouri Compromise would ultimately lead to parties, “founded on geographical boundaries and other Physical & permanent distinctions which happen to coincide with them, what is to controul those great repulsive Masses from awful shocks against a other?” The Missouri problem, he feared, might lead to such parties that would ultimately drive a wedge between geographic regions.
Adams refined his position against the Missouri Compromise in letters to others. To William Tudor he said, “Negro Slavery is an Evil of Colossal Magnitude and I am therefore utterly averse to the admission of Slavery into the Missouri Territory.” The Missouri Compromise’s imprudence was the allowing of slavery to extend into more territories. With Louisiana the subject was mute as the territory had already been exposed to slavery. Missouri on the other hand had not and Adams believed that the Missouri Compromise was imprudent by allowing slavery to extend. Allowing for the Missouri Compromise for Adams meant nothing less than possible disunion. Further, to his daughter-in-law he said, “I think the Southern gentlemen who it [the Louisiana Purchase] constitutional ought to not think it unconstitutional for Congress to restrain the extention[sic] of Slavery in that territory.”All three of the Founders expressed the same feelings about the extension of slavery into the territories. None of them believed that compromises were prudent for America as it only increased the chances of disunion. In addition, compromises also allowed for the extension of slavery into new territories, which raised the chances of a party divide along geographic lines.
By the time Lincoln emerged on the political landscape the question of slavery’s extension had already been in the public dialogue for some time. Yet during his single term in the House of Representatives, he was able to make a great contribution to the conversation about the extension of slavery into the new territories through the question of the annexation of Texas. Texas freed itself from Mexican rule in the 1830’s and subsequently asked for admission into the Union in 1845. With Texas came slavery and once again the question of the extension of slavery was raised. Unlike Missouri before, Texas would spark a perpetual national debate about the extension of slavery that would ultimately end with South Carolina’s secession in 1860. In a letter to Williamson Durley, “I think annexation an evil. I hold it to be a paramount duty of us in the free states, due to the Union of the States, and perhaps to liberty itself (paradox though it may seem) to let the slavery of the other states alone….” Annexation is referred to as an evil because, “we should never knowingly lend ourselves directly or indirectly, to prevent that slavery from dying a natural death- to find new places for it to live in.” Lincoln, like the Founders before him, believed that the territories ought to be totally off limits to slavery but that slavery should be left untouched in the states where it already existed. But unlike the Founders with regards to Louisiana, there was much more debate over whether Texas despite already having slavery should be allowed to enter the Union as a slave state. As Madison had predicted, the Missouri Compromise opened the door to parties on a geographic level. The question over Texas’s annexation was divided more along the lines of North and South, free vs. slave.
Yet, the ensuing Mexican-American War ended with Mexico’s defeat and America acquiring all of Texas, and present-day New Mexico, Arizona and California. Before the ink was dry on the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, a battle was stirred in the United States Congress. The question of slavery into these territories was far less clear cut than with Texas or Louisiana. Whigs, to which Lincoln was a member, supported the Wilmot Proviso, which would have excluded slavery into the new territories. The Wilmot Proviso failed to win enough support to be made law, and Congress went on until 1850 was a fierce battle over slavery’s extension into the territories. The Compromise of 1850 allowed popular sovereignty into Utah and New Mexico, while banning the slave trade in Washington D.C. and giving the South a much stronger Fugitive Slave Act. Yet even this could not and did not stop the struggle over slavery’s extension and as a result in 1854 Stephen Douglass proposed and pushed through Congress the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In this act, the Missouri Compromise was repealed and both Kansas and Nebraska were permitted through popular sovereignty to either accept or refuse slavery.
Lincoln addressed Stephen Douglass and the Kansas-Nebraska Act at Peoria on October 16, 1854. In the address Lincoln called for the restoration of the Missouri Compromise, and here is where he differs from the Founders. Lincoln in the address supports the Missouri Compromise, whereas Adams, Jefferson and Madison rejected it as the source of partisanship. However, Lincoln’s view that slavery ought to be excluded from the territories is in line with the Founding. He states in the address:
I think, and shall try to show, that it is wrong; 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.
The Constitution gave Congress power to regulate the slave trade, and Lincoln believed that that power extended to Congress’s power to exclude the slave trade from the territories. He asserted the Northwest Ordinance as proof that the Congress according to the Founders had the authority of excluding slavery from the territories. Lincoln did admit that he knew not how to end slavery, although he believed that the extension of slavery should be stopped. More importantly, in the Peoria address Lincoln took on a tone of abolition, however slight it might have been. He no longer simply argued for the extension of slavery to be halted, but argued against the justice of slavery. Like the Founders, Lincoln believed that by stopping the extension of slavery on the basis that slavery is unjust would ultimately lead to it’s natural death. The Kansas-Nebraska Act and Stephen Douglass dragged Lincoln out of the private life in Illinois into a national dialogue once again.
A year later Lincoln wrote to Owen Lovejoy, “Not even you are more anxious to prevent the extension of slavery than I….” Lincoln was, however, a realist and believed the extension of slavery as a peaceful end to the institution was quickly dissipating. “I think, that there is no peaceful extinction of slavery in prospect for us…..That spirit which desired the peaceful extinction of slavery, has itself become extinct, and with the occasion, and the men of the Revolution.” Lincoln at this point in 1855 was becoming quickly aware that the simple exclusion of slavery in the territories would not be the answer to ending slavery all together. To Joshua Speed Lincoln stated, “In my humble sphere, I shall advocate the restoration of the Missouri Compromise, so long as Kansas Remains a territory; and when, by all these foul means, it seeks to come into the Union as a Slave-state, I shall oppose it.” The extension of slavery south of the Missouri line could not be touched, by his willingness to restore the Missouri Compromise Lincoln assents to slavery’s extension in the southern states. As he alluded, the era of the Revolution ended and the ability to exclude slavery’s extension into all the territories ended. By 1855 Lincoln was aware that at best he could hope to restore the Missouri Compromise.
In 1856 Lincoln campaigned for Fremont as president against Buchannan. Among his arguments in favor of Fremont, Lincoln campaigned on the fact that Fremont was against the extension of slavery. The year 1856 also stands as the year Lincoln officially joined the Republican Party, up until this point Lincoln had maintained he was an old Whig. The question of the election was not simply Democrat vs. Republican, but rather whether the Constitution allows slavery or it grants Congress the power to abolish it. While Fremont lost the election, 1856 established Lincoln as a major contender for the Republican nomination in 1860 partly due to being from Illinois. In his speech, Lincoln attempts to appeal to the passions of his audience to support Fremont and the Republican party who sought to limit the extension of slavery:
Have we not interest in the free Territories of the United States- that they should be kept open for the homes of free white people? As our Northern States are growing more and more in wealth and population, we are continually in want of an outlet through which it may pass out to enrich our country. In this we have an interest- a deep and abiding interest. There is another thing, and that is the mature knowledge we have- the greatest interest of all. It is the doctrine, that the people are to be driven from the maxims of our free Government, that despises the spirit which for eighty years has celebrated the anniversary of our national independence.
Lincoln understood that his argument against the extension of slavery on the basis that slavery was unjust to black people could not be made to most Americans, especially in 1856. Thus, Lincoln appeals to racial pride in the people to suggest that the territories should be left open to whites only for their prosperity.
As a result of Kansas-Nebraska, the United States was quickly engulfed in the question of slavery and in particular the extension of slavery into the territories. Up until 1856 the question had been primarily resolved by Congress through a series of compromises beginning in 1819. In 1857 the United States Supreme Court entered the conversation when it decided in the Dred Scott case that not only were slaves not citizens, and thus unable to sue in Federal court, and furthermore a slave cannot be made free simply by taking it into a free state or territory and in addition Congress did not have the authority to exclude slavery from the territories. In response Lincoln delivered his address on the House Divided, a time for choosing speech in which Lincoln argued that the North needed to wake up and realize that slavery was quickly being nationalized. Lincoln charged a conspiracy to establish slavery throughout all the country by President Buchannan, Senator Douglass, and Justice Taney. In it, the three conspirators arranged to have the Kansas-Nebraska Act past allowing slavery to enter past the Missouri Compromise line, and Chief Justice Taney delayed the Dred Scott case until after the election. Dred Scott accomplished the one thing Lincoln and many of the old Whigs believed Congress had the authority to do: prevent the extension of slavery into the territories. Furthermore, Lincoln sincerely believed that it was only a matter of time before the Supreme Court ruled that States could not forbid slavery. The Supreme Court violated the long established understanding that the legislature held the authority to end slavery, “In those days, by common consent, the spread of the blackman’s bondage to new countries was prohibited; but now, Congress decides that it will not continue the prohibition, and the Supreme Court decides that it could not if it would.” In essence, Lincoln’s fear that the age of peaceful extinction of slavery was over since both the Congress and Supreme Court ruled slavery could and must be extended into the territories. The Dred Scott Case was the fulfillment of Madison, Jefferson and Adams’s prediction that by allowing for the extension of slavery into Missouri, a levy was broken open and slavery’s proponents would push to have the institution extended into all territories.
As 1858 came and the midterm elections drew closer, Abraham Lincoln who was a candidate for the Senate challenged incumbent Senator Judge Stephen Douglass in a series of seven debates. The Lincoln-Douglass Debates offer a view of Lincoln’s understanding of the extension of slavery as the Civil War approached. By this point Lincoln’s argument had switched tones, at the time of Texas’s Annexation he argued for preventing slavery’s extension as a means of confining slavery to bring about it’s natural death. In his debates with Judge Douglass, Lincoln’s argument became centered around preventing the extension of slavery on the simple basis of the evil of slavery. The Founder’s maintained that slavery’s ultimate end would be achieved by preventing slavery from extending into the territories, but always upheld that slavery should be stopped because of its inherent evil. At Freeport Lincoln and Douglass discussed the extension of slavery. Lincoln answered Douglass’s charges that Lincoln had pledged against allowing in any addition slave states, to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia and that Congress should exclude slavery from the territories among others. To the last point Lincoln stated, “I answer, I am impliedly, if not expressly pledge to the belief in the right and duty of congress to prohibit slavery in all the United States territories.” And yet Lincoln was not, “pledged against the admission of any more slave states into the Union.” Lincoln would allow for the admission of more slave states, should Congress prohibit slavery during the territorial period and had the people chose to have slavery upon becoming a state. In opposition, Douglass supported Popular Sovereignty, which allowed each territory to decide for itself whether or not to allow slavery. Lincoln rebuked Douglass’s claim about Popular Sovereignty pointing to the failed attempt to add an amendment to the Kansas-Nebraska which would have explicitly allowed the territories to exclude slavery. Had Douglass truly believed that a territory may exclude slavery, he would have voted for the amendment according to Lincoln. In essence, as Lincoln said at Ottawa, “But I think lately that [Douglass] and those who have acted with him have placed that institution on a new basis, on that looks to the perpetuation and extension of it.”Lincoln seems to have contradicted himself during the Lincoln-Douglass debates from his previous comments earlier in the 1850’s. At that time Lincoln called for the reinstitution of the Missouri Compromise, which allowed slavery’s extension south of Missouri’s southern border. Yet with Dred Scott and his debates with Douglass, Lincoln seems to have taken the opinion that slavery should be excluded completely including against the Missouri Compromise.
Also at Freeport Lincoln made his fullest articulation against the extension of slavery and the value gained from excluding slavery in the territories:
I must add in regard to this, that if slavery shall be kept out of the territory during the territorial existence of any one given territory, and then the people should, having a fair chance and clear field when they come to adopt a constitution, if they should do the extraordinary thing of adopting a slave constitution uninfluenced by the actual presence of the institution among them, I see no alternative, if we own the country but we must admit it into the Union.
Lincoln was well aware of the election, and of the possibility of running for President in 1860 that he stood by the position of allowing a territory to enter in a state with a slave constitution so long as Congress was allowed to exclude slavery from the territory before applying for statehood. Yet, one may also argue that Lincoln did believe in the sovereignty of the states to make laws governing the state and the citizens of that state. The Constitution at the time allowed for slavery in the states, and thus Lincoln (who believed that whatever was in the Constitution he was bound to uphold) could not based on his opinions of the Constitution deny the right of a territory meeting the required steps to become a state to enter the Union.
Throughout the debates Douglass continuously returned to Lincoln’s House Divided speech. Douglass charged that Lincoln wished to see the equality between whites and blacks, while the Founding Fathers had created a house divided. But as Allen Guezlo states, “There was no sense in which his warning against a ‘house divided’ over slavery meant that it was the task of Congress to wipe out all variation and diversity across the Republic.” Douglass’s argument was effective against Lincoln. However, Lincoln understood very well that a division of the country between North and South along the lines of slavery, as John Adams predicted almost forty years prior, would lead to disunion and possibly civil war. The question of equality for Lincoln was unimportant, all persons in his opinion, including slaves, were protected by natural rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To stop the expansion of slavery or further to abolish slavery was a matter of justice and not equality for Lincoln. In his Peoria address Lincoln stated, “Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.” And so Lincoln understood his position of excluding the extension of slavery and the ultimate end of bring about the natural death of the institution as not a means of making blacks and whites equal in all senses politically and socially, but rather equal in their natural rights; the right to be free and independent and not subject to the rule of another.
In the 1860 election Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th President of the United States. As the President-elect, Lincoln was forced to deal with the promise of secession from some of the Southern states and efforts to keep them in the Union through compromise on the extension of slavery. In a letter to William Kellogg in December of 1860 Lincoln said on the issue of compromise, “Entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery. The instant you do, they have us under again; all our labor is lost, and sooner or later must be done over.” At this point in his career, elected President of the United States, Lincoln gave up on compromise that he held to during the Kansas-Nebraska debates. At that point Lincoln upheld the Missouri Compromise while rejecting outright the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He came full circle in his speech from the period of the annexation of Texas, where he argued against the extension of slavery through Texas’ acquisition, to 1860 where he threw out the door any desire for compromise. Lincoln in a letter to John Defrees also from December of 1860 asserted once again his opposition to slavery and the extension of the institution through Popular Sovereignty, “I am sorry any republican inclines to dally with Pop. Sov. of any sort. It acknowledges that slavery has equal rights with liberty, and surrenders all we have contended for.”Lincoln’s view on slavery and its extension did not change from the time before his election to after.
However, Lincoln’s words in opposition to slavery would mean nothing had he not actually put them into practice. At two different points in his presidency, Abraham Lincoln helped abolish slavery. In 1861 as he took office as the sixteenth President of the United States, slavery was officially made illegal in all of the territories. Then in 1863, Lincoln freed all the slaves living in states that were in rebellion. While he did not, and could not prudently free the slaves in the Border States, he successfully ended slavery in the Deep South. Lincoln’s understanding of Congress’s power exceeded that of most of the Founders or Lincoln’s own contemporaries. As President he encouraged the Congress to use those expansive powers to end the practice of slavery in the District of Columbia, the territories and the states in rebellion. Lincoln’s willingness to sign into law an exclusion of slavery from the territories was completely in accordance with his own views and those of the Founders.
On April 16, 1862 Lincoln signed into law a bill abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia. In a letter to Congress informing them of the act Lincoln stated, “I have never doubted the constitutional authority of Congress to abolish in this District; and I have ever desired to see the national capital freed from the institution in some satisfactory way.” That satisfactory way included provisions for compensation up until ninety days after the law became effective, and a plan for colonization of the slaves. The act represented an important step as Congress took action for the first time since the Northwest Ordinance to exclude slavery and for the first time banned the practice in a region where it already existed. By signing this bill into law, Lincoln both upheld the spirit of the Founding by limiting the extension of slavery but also expanded the Founding’s understanding of Congress’s authority by eliminating slavery altogether from an area it already existed in. Although the latter could be refuted because Congress alone has authority over the District of Columbia and the Founders all believed that the States had power to exclude slavery from their borders; thus Congress would also have the power to exclude slavery from its borders in the District of Columbia.
The Founding Fathers established in the Constitution the power for Congress to regulate the slave trade after twenty years. Prior to the adoption of the Constitution, the Congress under the Articles of Confederation voted to adopt the Northwest Ordinance, which forbad the slavery in the new territories. In 1819 three of America’s Founding Fathers voiced their concerns over the Missouri Compromise, not because it was unconstitutional but because it was not prudent to allow slavery a chance to expand. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison represent intellectual elite among America’s founders. From their actions in Congress, it is clear that the Founding Fathers and in particular the Framers of the Constitution believed it was perfectly within Congressional authority to ban slavery in the territories, specifically those where it had never existed before. Abraham Lincoln did preserve the Founding’s understanding of Congress’s authority to legislate against slavery. Lincoln’s understanding of Congress’s authority to legislate against slavery in the territories expanded upon the Founders’ understanding by granting Congress the power to exclude slavery even in territories where it once existed such as with Texas. Abraham Lincoln did both preserve the Founding and expand upon the Founding in his quest to stop the extension of slavery into the territories.
James Madison, The Writings of James Madison, comprising his Public Papers and his Private Correspondence, including his numerous letters and documents now for the first time printed, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1900). Vol. 9. Chapter: 1819 – TO ROBERT WALSH. mad. mss. Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/1940/119244 on 2009-11-16