Lincoln at the intersection of principle and politics
Abraham Lincoln’s difficult passage through the politics of race
It’s February, the month in which we celebrate President’s Day, and so once again the stores are full of books about Abraham Lincoln. Among this year’s crop are a pair with disarmingly similar titles – Douglass and Lincoln and Lincoln and Douglas.Skip to next paragraph
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The books treat two very different relationships – from separate vantage points – but study the same phenomenon: Lincoln’s uneasy balance between principle and politics. Neither book celebrates Lincoln as a hero, but both depict him as an intelligent, caring man forced to find a way through the 19th century’s ugly thicket of slavery, race, and politics.
In “Douglass and Lincoln” (about Lincoln’s relationship with black leader Frederick Douglass) Paul Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick call Lincoln “a reluctant liberator.” In “Lincoln and Douglas” (about Lincoln’s famed debates with rival politician Stephen A. Douglas), Allen C. Guelzo depicts Lincoln as sincerely devoted to emancipation but restricted by politics.
Lincoln, Guelzo makes clear, was a politician who needed votes and was not above pandering to popular prejudices to get them. While abolitionist lecturers and antislavery journalists were free to condemn white supremacy, Lincoln was not.
In 1858, Lincoln was running for the US Senate against incumbent Stephen Douglas. Douglas, a white supremacist, thought the answer to slavery was “popular sovereignty.” Local electorates in the new western territories would vote for or against slavery, leaving Congress out of the picture. Lincoln viewed “popular sovereignty” as unworkable and amoral.
The Lincoln-Douglas campaign, and the series of seven Illinois debates between these ambitious men, often “skidded to new levels of nastiness,” notes Guelzo. Douglas was not shy about playing “the race card”: “[T]his government of ours is founded on the white basis,” he claimed.
Playing on the deepest fears of some voters of his time, Douglas told the audience at the famous Freeport debate about seeing Frederick Douglass in a carriage with a beautiful, young white woman. The senator's point was clear: a vote for Abraham Lincoln meant equality for "negroes," who might then marry voters' daughters. The senator referred to Lincoln's "friend" Douglass 15 times during the debates. Such racial assaults placed Lincoln in a tough position politically.
But with his trademark combination of common sense, political acuity, and oratorical skills, Lincoln fought back.
It was at the Freeport debate that Lincoln doomed Douglas's presidential hopes for 1860 by pointing out the inconsistency between "popular sovereignty" and the idea that slaveholders had a "property right" in their slaves, enforceable wherever they went (as asserted in the Supreme Court's infamous "Dred Scott" decision of 1857. If slaves were property in one locale but not another, what were those property rights worth? Douglas's appeal in the South was dead after Freeport.