|This Week in History
February 7 13, 1809
On Lincoln's Birthday: Recalling His Efforts To Unite the Republican Party Around a Moral Principle
There is no better way to mark Abraham Lincoln's birthday on Feb. 12 than to look at a lesser-known phase of his life, after his 1858 defeat in the campaign to win the U.S. Senate seat held by Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln had won the popular vote, but the Illinois Legislature cast its majority vote for Douglas. Rather than withdraw from politics at a time when a great crisis faced the nation, Lincoln dedicated himself to inspiring the Republican Party to face that crisis.
"The cause of civil liberty must not be surrendered at the end of one or even 100 defeats." "Never forget that we have before us this whole matter of right or wrong." Driving, often alone, in an open buggy across the prairies and plains, Abraham Lincoln made these statements, and others like them, to audiences in Iowa, Kansas, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio. It was the late winter and spring of 1859, and Lincoln was rallying Republicans in particular, and Americans in general, to keep fighting against the doctrine of "popular sovereignty," a term coined to mask the extension of slavery into every corner of the nation.
What worried Lincoln and others around him was that some members of the new Republican Party had become discouraged and were tempted to grasp at the coattails of Douglas, who was the leading national advocate of "popular sovereignty." Some Republicans were even speaking of supporting Douglas in the upcoming 1860 Presidential election, and had previously even considered backing him for the Senate against their own candidate, Abraham Lincoln.
The slippery Douglas, who was losing the support of Southern Democrats, was attempting to attract Republicans by telling them that he had opposed enacting a slave code that would protect slavery in the national territories. He also reminded them that he had fought against the reopening of the African slave trade. Lincoln feared that Douglas was positioning himself so that if he lost the Democratic nomination, he would "bolt at once, turn upon us, as in the case of Lecompton, and claim that all Northern men shall make common cause in electing him President as the best means of breaking down the Slave power."
Disputes over secondary issues were also erupting in the Republican Party, setting one potential candidate or state grouping against another. Lincoln set out to stop this bickering in its tracks, and to remind everyone of the overriding principles for which they were fighting. And although he was trying to establish party harmony, Lincoln did not hesitate to oppose sections of the party when their moral compass became clouded.
There was a strong nativist movement in Massachusetts, and when that state's Republicans endorsed a constitutional provision requiring a two-year waiting period before naturalized citizens could vote, Lincoln opposed it forcefully. "I have some little notoriety for commiserating the oppressed condition of the Negro," said Lincoln, "and I should be strangely inconsistent if I could favor any project for curtailing the existing rights of white men, even though born in different lands, and speaking different languages from myself."
Lincoln began his task of reminding the Republicans that they must unite to save the nation, by delivering a major speech in Chicago on March l, 1859, his first political speech since the end of his Senatorial campaign. After thanking his fellow Republicans for supporting his campaign, he referred to events during that contest which he wanted them to consider carefully:
"I understand that in some speeches I made I said something, or was supposed to have said something, that some very good people, as I really believe them to be, commented upon unfavorably, and said that rather than support one holding such sentiments as I had expressed, the real friends of liberty could afford to wait awhile.
"I don't want to say anything that shall excite unkind feeling, and I mention this simply to suggest that I am afraid of the effect of that sort of argument. I do not doubt that it comes from good men, but I am afraid of the result upon organized action where great results are in view, if any of us allow ourselves to seek out minor or separate points on which there may be difference of views as to policy and right, and let them keep us from uniting in action upon a great principle in a cause on which we all agree; or are deluded into the belief that all can be brought to consider alike and agree upon every minor point before we unite and press forward in organization, asking the cooperation of all good men in that resistance to the extension of slavery upon which we all agree.
"I am afraid that such methods would result in keeping the friends of liberty waiting longer than we ought. I say this for the purpose of suggesting that we consider whether it would not be better and wiser, so long as we all agree that this matter of slavery is a moral, political and social wrong, and ought to be treated as a wrong, not to let anything minor or subsidiary to that main principle and purpose make us fail to cooperate.
"There was a question amongst Republicans all the time of the canvass of last year, and it has not quite ceased yet, whether it was not the true and better policy for the Republicans to make it their chief object to re-elect Judge Douglas to the Senate of the United States. I have believed, that in the Republican situation in Illinois, if we, the Republicans of this State, had made Judge Douglas our candidate for the Senate of the United States last year, and had elected him, there would today be no Republican Party in this Union. I believed that the principles around which we have rallied and organized that party would live; they will live under all circumstances, while we will die. They would reproduce another party in the future. But in the meantime all the labor that has been done to build up the present Republican Party would be entirely lost, and perhaps 20 years of time, before we would again have formed around that principle as solid, extensive, and formidable an organization as we have, standing shoulder to shoulder tonight in harmony and strength around the Republican banner.
"Let the Republican Party of Illinois dally with Judge Douglas; let them fall in behind him and make him their candidate, and they do not absorb him; he absorbs them. They would come out at the end all Douglas men, all claimed by him as having endorsed every one of his doctrines upon the great subject with which the whole nation is engaged at this hourthat the question of Negro slavery is simply a question of dollars and cents; that the Almighty has drawn a line across the continent, on one side of which laborthe cultivation of the soilmust always be performed by slaves. It would be claimed that we, like him, do not care whether slavery is voted up or voted down. Had we made him our candidate and given him a great majority, we should have never heard an end of declarations by him that we had indorsed all these dogmas.
"Whenever, in any compromise or arrangement or combination that may promise some temporary advantage, we are led upon that ground, then and there the great living principle upon which we have organized as a party is surrendered. The proposition now in our minds that this thing is wrong being once driven out and surrendered, then the institution of slavery necessarily becomes national. Our only serious danger is that we shall be led upon this ground of Judge Douglas, on the delusive assumption that it is a good way of whipping our opponents, when in fact, it is a way that leads straight to final surrender.
"If we do not allow ourselves to be allured from the strict path of our duty by such a device as shifting our ground and throwing ourselves into the rear of a leader who denies our first principle, denies that there is an absolute wrong in the institution of slavery, then the future of the Republican cause is safe and victory is assured. You Republicans of Illinois have deliberately taken your ground; you have heard the whole subject discussed again and again; you have stated your faith, in platforms laid down in a State Convention, and in a National Convention; you have heard and talked over and considered it until you are now all of opinion that you are on a ground of unquestionable right. All you have to do is to keep the faith, to remain steadfast to the right, to stand by your banner. Nothing should lead you to leave your guns. Stand together, ready, with match in hand. Allow nothing to turn you to the right or to the left. Remember how long you have been in setting out on the true course; how long you have been in getting your neighbors to understand and believe as you now do. Stand by your principles; stand by your guns; and victory complete and permanent is sure at the last."