Lincoln on Race and Slavery

By Abraham Lincoln; Henry Louis Gates Jr. et al. | Go to book overview

10

Speech to the Springfield Scott Club:
CW, 2:156–157

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, part of the compromise package constructed by Henry Clay and rammed through Congress by Stephen A. Douglas, aimed to quiet secessionist threats from the South. Other components of the compromise, especially the admission of California as a free state, were intended to mollify Northerners offended by the more extreme defenders of slavery. Contrary to expectations, the compromise pleased no one and within a short period of time appeared to offend everyone. The Northern antislavery movement, which had failed to gain anything other than a minority of adherents, suddenly appeared prescient. By violating elementary principles of justice, the extralegal system established to implement the 1850 law attracted new people to the antislavery movement who saw slavery as an inherent threat to their own rights and privileges. In his first speech in the U.S. Senate chambers, William Henry Seward of New York explained that the Fugitive Slave Law might be legal and constitutional, but Americans must answer to the “higher law” of equality embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln claimed to be unfamiliar with Seward's memorable address; if this is true, he may have been the only politician of his day not to have read it. The political fallout from the speech and its possible impact on voter perception of the Whig Party's presidential candidate for 1852, General Winfield Scott, hero of the Mexican War, deeply concerned Lincoln. Senator Stephen A. Douglas, to whom Lincoln would always refer as “Judge Douglas,” used Seward's remarks to attack the Whigs in a July speech in support of the Democratic candidate, the suave New Hampshirite Franklin Pierce. Lincoln sought to distance himself and the Whig Party from Seward, a man well known for his support of black rights and abolitionist rhetoric. Lincoln offered a calculating assessment, as he had done in 1848, of the necessity of carrying New York if the Whigs were

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