Lincoln's Defense of Politics: The Public Man and His Opponents in the Crisis over Slavery

By Thomas E. Schneider | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
A Divided Lincoln?

In view of the sweeping changes that occurred during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, it is easy to forget the relatively moderate character of the platform that won him that office. No doubt the Republican nonextension program appears more moderate in retrospect than it did at the time. Many Americans did find Lincoln's party too radical; but others faulted it because its opposition to slavery did not in their view go far enough. Until Lincoln's election and the subsequent disruption of the Union, through a decade marked, in the words of Don E. Fehrenbacher, by “the submergence of other public business in the all-absorbing controversy over Negro slavery,” one thing did not change: “Constitutional restraints and political necessity confined the sectional controversy to narrow limits.” Despite its sectional basis, the Republican Party “proposed to circumscribe the slaveholding system, not destroy it.”1

What separated Lincoln's party from the Democrats was a constitutional question: did Congress have the lawful power to exclude slavery from the federal territories? The Republican Party, like its rival, disclaimed any power under the Constitution to interfere with slavery in the states. Lincoln personally took this position as early as 1854, before

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