Lincoln on Race and Slavery

By Henry Louis Gates Jr.; Donald Yacovone et al. | Go to book overview

1

Protest in Illinois Legislature on Slavery:
CW, 1:74–75

Although Illinois abolished slavery in its 1818 constitution, the state remained hostile to African Americans throughout the nineteenth century. Its 1848 constitution, for instance, barred black immigration and remained the law until 1865, although officials did not rigorously enforce it. The state's white citizens demanded exclusion of new black settlers and threatened to “take the matter into their own hands, and commence a war of extermination.” In January 1837, the Illinois legislature passed a resolution stating that “we highly disapprove of the formation of abolition” societies, “and of the doctrines promulgated by them,” while admitting that slavery was indeed an “unfortunate condition of our fellow men, whose lots are cast in thralldom in a land of liberty and peace.” The legislature, however, asserted that “the General government has no power to strike their fetters from them.” The phrasing indicated the complexity of the slavery question for whites who generally disdained slavery and the slave. Throughout his career, Lincoln freely confessed to opposing the institution of slavery but remained equally opposed to the agitation of antislavery societies. Since the explosive debates surrounding the 1820 Missouri Compromise, the future of slavery remained the single greatest threat to the Union. Lincoln followed the example of his political hero Henry Clay and dedicated his career to preserving the Union and diminishing the strength of slavery. Lincoln, with state legislator Daniel Stone, a Whig lawyer originally from Vermont, went on record with this protest of the legislature's resolution. Although Lincoln clearly agreed with its principles, he criticized the phrasing of the original legislation, perhaps reflecting his desire to distinguish himself among his peers and to appeal to residents from New England, rather than those from the South who dominated Illinois. Lincoln and Stone characterized slavery as an “injustice” and “bad policy,” but underscored their belief in

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