Lincoln on Race and Slavery

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

16

AL to George Robertson:
CW, 2:317–318

In Congress on February 18, 1819, Kentucky representative George Robertson argued against allowing slavery in Arkansas, the newest Southern territory. He invoked slavery as the “most delicate and formidable of all the vexatious subjects” that threatened to ruin the fledging Union in 1787. By the 1850s, the Kentuckian had become a college professor and befriended Lincoln as a legal adviser. When visiting Springfield, the retired congressman left Lincoln his book, Scrap Book on Law and Politics, Men and Times, a collection of his speeches and essays. Lincoln responded in this letter and referenced Robertson's 1819 speech that had helped generate the Missouri Compromise, forged by Henry Clay to preserve the Union and threatened by Stephen A. Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln's position regarding the 1820 Compromise is reminiscent of Robertson's, focusing on the Founding Fathers' intention to place the institution of slavery on a gradual road to extinction. But Lincoln expressed uncharacteristic pessimism on the current generation's willingness to fulfill the Founders' intentions. The “peaceful extinction of slavery” now appeared all but impossible to Lincoln, and he believed that the nation must decide whether it could endure half slave and half free. This question, which Lincoln posed at the end of his letter, became the foundation for his famous “House Divided” speech delivered three years later. George Robertson, Scrap Book on Law and Politics, Men and Times (Lexington: A. W. Elder, 1855), 21–25.

-73-

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