Lincoln on Race and Slavery

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

35

AL to Salmon P. Chase:
CW, 3:384

Organized resistance to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law across the North crippled the federal government's attempt to enforce it. Even secretary of state Daniel Webster's threat—that anyone who failed to obey the law would be charged with treason—failed to quell the outrage. “Why did all manly gifts in Webster fail?” Ralph Waldo Emerson asked. “He wrote on nature's grandest brow, For Sale.” Throughout the 1850s, in Boston, New York City, Syracuse, New York, and Christiana, Pennsylvania, across the Midwest, and on to California, black abolitionists and their white allies reenergized the underground railroad. If slave catchers happened to seize a runaway slave, rescue committees instantly swung into action, even if it meant raiding a federal courthouse. Salmon P. Chase had earned the sobriquet “Attorney General for Fugitive Slaves” for his legal work in Ohio defending black runaways. During the 1840s, Chase had joined the Liberty and Free Soil parties; he had served in the U.S. Senate from 1849 to 1855 and, at the time of this letter, was the Republican governor of Ohio. He became one of Lincoln's chief rivals for the presidential nomination in 1860 and later served as Lincoln's secretary of the treasury. Although Lincoln knew of Chase's antislavery principles, he warned him against the Ohio Republican Party's effort to fix a plank into its platform demanding repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law. “This is already damaging us here,” Lincoln admonished. If such a move occurred at the national convention, Lincoln advised, “it will explode it.” He wrote again to Chase on June 20, repeating his warning against opposing the controversial law. While he tried to avoid a debate with Chase, he asserted his belief that Congress had full authority “to enact a Fugitive Slave Law.” Indeed, Lincoln believed that enforcing the law was essential to preservation of the Union. Chase did not accept Lincoln's dire warnings and expressed his hope that even Illinois Republicans would move to repeal the hated measure. For the Lincoln-Chase exchange, also see: CW, 3:386.

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