When Erick Foner introduces us to Abraham Lincoln, the future president is in his mid-career. He has been elected by the Illinois voters to their Lower House. In the 1840s he had served for one term as an up-and-coming Whig. Lincoln had also established himself as a successful lawyer in Springfield, the capital of Illinois. By 1860, he was in a position to seek elected office as the Senator representing his home state. At this point in our constitutional history, U.S. Senators were not elected directly by the voters, but rather by the State Senates.
Politicians of all strips, at this point in time, needed to establish themselves in relation to the most important issue of the day, the future of slavery in the American polity. Lincoln was not a fervent abolitionist. He was primarily concerned about the institution spreading into new territories that would subsequently enter the Union as slave states. That was an issue, because the land west of the Mississippi River, acquired in the Mexican War (1846-1848), was filing up with settlers.
As a result of the Missouri Compromise (1820), the question of whether slave or free was to be determined by a popular vote. The admissions were in pairs –one a “free state” paired with one ”slave.” That hadn’t worked out in recent admissions, particular Kansas. Journalists and knowable politicians talked about “bleeding Kansas.”
Lincoln’s father and mother were from Kentucky. Their arrival in Illinois was an opportune time in terms of the economic history of Illinois. Most of the trade and immigration had been on an east to west pattern, and mostly raw cotton and other agricultural products traded for industrial goods produced in or imported into states along the Atlantic seaboard. But with the acquisition of lands on both sides of the Mississippi River, trade patterns shifted to a north-south pattern. New Orleans and Galveston became the most important ports in exporting cotton to the New England and European textile mills.
Slavery was the major labor force in the production of raw cotton. Without this “peculiar institution” to provide agricultural labor, a new supply would have to be found. Hence the labor supply remained problematic and would have to require some thought from the state’s politicians. Lincoln had also to keep in mind the importance of the South as a market for Northern manufactures. Politicians had to seek out a solution to slavery short of interfering with that market.
There must also be a concern for the unity of the nation, avoiding succession and civil war. Lincoln would not support any resolution that could lead to a division of the country into slave and free. Slavery, it was assumed, would eventually die a natural death. The country was changing rapidly; it would be a matter of time and eventually abolition would come as a natural resolution of the labor constraint.
Abraham Lincoln ultimately became a political legend, and thus the students of history are particularly interested in significant events in his career, such as the Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates. They brought both men to the notice of the northern states and both became figures of national prominence.
Those German and Irish immigrants were being utilized in the newly established mill sector in the North. That north-south dichotomy was also true of the state of Illinois, the southern part being pro-slave, the north (including the Chicago and the Great Lakes) was becoming more-and-more pro-emancipation in their political views.
Well, what to do with Illinois’s slave population if and when it was emancipated. One resolution of that quandary was to establish colonies in Africa. They would, however, have to be supported financially by the U.S. government. The leadership of the emancipation movement pointed out, however, that former black slaves, while not necessarily equal to whites in the scheme of things, were long since not Africans, and hence colonization was not an appealing alternative for them, though Lincoln did for a time espouse that option.
The problem of labor was already on the way to a solution, Irish and German immigrants were filling a new industrial work force. And soon southern Negroes were beginning to move north and to join that work force. Industrial labor was also – at least males – made it clear that they had political agendas that were separate from other minorities.
Citizenship for African-Americans was not an alternative, at least not at this time. Lincoln was never in favor of bringing about a social equality, let alone a political one. Though five states did allow black males to vote.
The issue of slavery was complicated by U.S. Supreme Court decisions. In the Dread Scott case, the Court had ruled that because the northern states had mostly ended slavery, a slave passing through those states would automatically become a free man –leaving aside whether she or he was equal in all senses of the term.
Lincoln was not a radical abolitionist, but rather, like other Illinoisans, being forced to consider alternatives.