Lincoln on Race and Slavery

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

8

Remarks and Resolution introduced in United States
House of Representatives Concerning Abolition of
Slavery in the District of Columbia:
CW, 2:20–22

At the close of 1848 when Abraham Lincoln returned to Congress after campaigning for the presidency of Zachary Taylor, some two thousand slaves lived in the District of Columbia. Congressmen like John Gorham Palfrey, a Free Soiler from Massachusetts, and Daniel Gott, a New York Whig, lamented that one could see the warehouse of the nation's largest slave trader standing in the shadow of the Capitol. To help repair the nation's image, the two men often presented bills to abolish slavery in the federal district. Lincoln, on the other hand, consistently voted against such resolutions, despite his personal distaste for the sight of chained humans, fearing that such a measure would agitate Southern Whigs and divide his party. In an effort to maintain party unity, Lincoln prepared a compromise proposal, which met with the approval of only a few antislavery congressmen. A critical element of the new measure, which had been part of his 1837 Illinois “protest,” remained Lincoln's insistence that nothing regarding the institution of slavery could be done without the approval of whites living there, despite his belief that Congress possessed the power to legislate in all matters regarding the District. His proposal offended several antislavery congressmen who opposed legitimizing the institution of slavery by offering federal dollars to compensate slaveowners for the freedom of their “property.” Southerners, on the other hand, rallied against Lincoln's bill, seeing it as a covert step toward abolishing slavery nationwide. On January 13, Lincoln stated that he intended to introduce the bill himself, but found himself “abandoned by [his] former backers” and, “having little personal influence,” dropped the measure.

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