Monday, March 3, 2008

"Founded on Both Injustice and Bad Policy"

Slavery, 1837

I think the advertisement pictured at the top of this post is extremely interesting. It reads:

OUTRAGE. Fellow Citizens, AN ABOLITIONIST, of the most revolting character is among you, exciting the feelings of the North against the South. A seditious Lecture is to be delivered THIS EVENING, at 7 o'clock, at the Presbyterian Church in Cannon-street. You are requested to attend and unite in putting down and silencing by peaceable means this tool of evil and fanaticism. Let the rights of the States guaranteed by the Constitution be protected. The Union forever!

When was the advertisement placed in the newspaper?

On the eve of the Civil War? No, much earlier.

Just after John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry? No, earlier still.

How about during the heated debate following the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act? No, even earlier.

This advertisement was placed in the newspaper on February 27, 1837. Why were proslavery men concerned with abolitionists in 1837?

Six years earlier, outspoken abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison began publishing his radical newspaper, The Liberator. A few months later, a Virginia slave named Nat Turner led a slave revolt that eventually claimed the lives of 57 white men, women, and children. Southern slave holders saw a correlation between Northern abolitionists such as Garrison and bloody slave insurrections like the one Turner led.

Southerners, as well as many Northerners, identified abolitionists as the problem. After all, the institution of slavery was protected by the constitution itself, yet these radicals continued to preach their troubling gospel. Thus, the abolitionists were enemies of law and order, they were agents of instability. These radicals were enemies of Southern rights; they were enemies of the state. For some unprovoked reason, they hated their own country and were plotting to tear it apart. So you see, for the sake of the Union, the abolitionists must be resisted.

By 1837, Northern legislators and governors received letters and public resolutions from the Southern states, calling on them to publicly condemn abolitionism. In Illinois, for instance, the governor called on the legislature to issue a series of sympathetic resolutions. The legislature responded favorably. In January 1837, the legislature condemned abolitionists and reminded the population that slavery was indeed protected by the constitution. These resolutions passed the Illinois state legislature by an overwhelming vote of 77 to 6.

Abraham Lincoln was a member of the state legislature. He was one of the six members who voted against the resolution. But that was not the end of the story.

On this date in 1837, Lincoln, along with fellow Whig Daniel Stone, issued a protest statement to explain why they opposed Illinois' anti-abolitionist resolutions:

March 3, 1837

The following protest was presented to the House, which was read and ordered to be spread on the journals, to wit:``Resolutions upon the subject of domestic slavery having passed both branches of the General Assembly at its present session, the undersigned hereby protest against the passage of the same.

They believe that the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy; but that the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than to abate its evils. They believe that the Congress of the United States has no power, under the constitution, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the different States.

They believe that the Congress of the United States has the power, under the constitution, to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia; but that that power ought not to be exercised unless at the request of the people of said District.

The difference between these opinions and those contained in the said resolutions, is their reason for entering this protest.''



Representatives from the county of Sangamon.

It was the first time Lincoln had gone on the record and defined his position on slavery. As you can see, his position was complicated. First, at 28, Lincoln was anti-slavery, but he was no abolitionist. Second, radical abolitionists were indeed a threat to the American experiment in popular government because their militancy often led them to disregard the law. Lincoln was a lawyer and he absolutely believed that reformers must work within the political system.

Third, I view the protest statement much like a photograph; it is merely a snapshot of Lincoln's slavery stance during a particular moment in time. In this case, the statement defines Lincoln's stance in 1837, but notice, it does not necessarily bind him in the future.

However, Lincoln liked to point out how consistent his political views remained. In his 1860 campaign biography, he explained that the protest statement, "briefly defined [my] position on the slavery question; and so far as it goes, it was then the same as it is now."

Is that true? Did Lincoln's views on slavery really remain consistent for the next quarter-century?

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