National Politics

Search for Advancement

After four terms in the Illinois legislature, Lincoln wanted own office with greater prestige. He had served the Whig Party well, and election to Congress became his goal. In 1840, Lincoln made a speaking tour of the state for William Henry Harrison, the Whig candidate for President. He campaigned on the issue of sound central banking system, speaking out in favor of rechartering the Bank of the United States. Lincoln believed his service had earned him the nomination for Congress from his district. In 1843, and again in 1844, the nomination went to other candidates. Lincoln wanted for the election of Henry Clay, the Whig presidential candidate in 1844. During this campaign, Lincoln focused on the need for a tariff, which would raise the cost of imports and aid American industrial growth. Two years later, Lincoln received his reward and won the Whig nomination for the US House of Representatives. His opponent in the election was Peter Cartwright, a well-known Methodist circuit rider. The Whigs controlled Lincoln’s district, and he got 6,340 of the 11,418 votes cast.


Lincoln took his seat in Congress on December 6, 1847. By the time, the United States had won the Mexican War, although a peace treaty between Mexico and the United States hadn’t yet been signed.

Lincoln joined his fellow Whigs in blaming, President James K. Polk for the war. Lincoln said of Polk, “The blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to heaven against him”.

But he wouldn’t abandon US troops on the battlefield and voted to supply them with equipment.

Lincoln failed to make the reputation he had hoped for in Congress.

He gave notice that he intended to introduce a bill to free the slaves in the District of Columbia, but he never did. He emphasized his position on slavery by supporting the Wilmot Proviso, which would have banned slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico.

Throughout his term, Lincoln supported the Whig policy of having the federal government pay for internal improvements.

He made several speeches in support of this policy, and once reproved President Polk for vetoing funds to make rivers and harbors more navigable and thus increase commerce.

Lincoln worked for the nomination and election of Zachary Taylor, the Whig Candidate for President in 1848.


Return of Law

Lincoln’s term ended on March 4, 1849. He tried to get an appointment as Commissioner of the General Land Office. The Administration offered to appoint him secretary, then governor, or Oregon Territory.

But Lincoln refused both offers. He returned to Springfield. He practiced law more earnestly than ever before. He continued to travel the circuit, but appeared more important cases.

The Corporations and big businesses were becoming important in Illinois and neighboring states. Lincoln represented then in lawsuits, and soon prospered. The largest fee he ever received, $5,000, was for his successful defense of the Illinois Central Railroad in an important tax case. After 1849, Lincoln’s reputation grew steadily. In the 1850s, he was known as one of the leading lawyers of Illinois.

Reentry into Politics

A sudden change in national policy toward slavery brought Lincoln back into the center of political activity in Illinois. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had prohibited slavery in new territories of an east-west line that was an extension of Missouri’s Southern boundary. Early in 1854, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois introduced a bill to organize the territories of Kansas and Nebraska.

As approved by Congress, thus Kansas and Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise. It provided that the settlers of new territories should decide for themselves whether they wanted slavery. Lincoln and many others had believed that slavery had been permanently limited and would in time die. He believed that the new policy gave new life to slavery, and it outraged him.

Lincoln revered the Founding Fathers, and believed they had written a promise of freedom and equality into the Declaration of Independence. During his early years in politics, Lincoln had looked up to Henry Clay as an ideal politician. But he looked to Thomas Jefferson for his Democratic political principles and to Alexander Hamilton for his economic principles.

Lincoln opposed slavery, but never became an abolitionist. He believed that the bends holding the nation together would be strained if Americans made a rapid break with the past. Lincoln granted that slavery should have the protection that the Constitution gave it. But he wanted the people to realize that slavery was evil, and should be put on the road to extinction. Stephen Douglas to admit that slavery was wrong. He said he didn’t care whether the people of new territories voted for or against slavery. Lincoln believed that the nation stood for freedom and equality. He felt it must not be in different to the unjust treatment of any person. Lincoln resolved to do what he could reverse the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861)

was an American politician from Illinois and the designer of the Kansas–Nebraska Act. He was a member of the House of Representatives, the United States Senate, and the Democratic Party nominee for president in the 1860 election, losing to Republican Abraham Lincoln. Douglas had previously defeated Lincoln in a Senate contest, noted for the famous Lincoln–Douglas debates of 1858. He was nicknamed the “Little Giant” because he was short in physical stature, but a forceful and dominant figure in politics.

Douglas was well known as a resourceful party leader, and an adroit, ready, skillful tactician in debate and passage of legislation. He was a champion of the Young America movement which sought to modernize politics and replace the agrarian and strict constructionist orthodoxies of the past. Douglas was a leading proponent of democracy, and believed in the principle of popular sovereignty: that the majority of citizens should decide contentious issues such as slavery and territorial expansion. As chairman of the Committee on Territories, Douglas dominated the Senate from 1850 to 1859. He was largely responsible for the Compromise of 1850 that apparently settled slavery issues; however, in 1854 he reopened the slavery question with the Kansas–Nebraska Act, which opened some previously prohibited territories to slavery under popular sovereignty. Opposition to this led to the formation of the Republican Party.

Douglas initially endorsed the Dred Scott decision of 1857. But during the 1858 Senate campaign, he argued its effect could be negated by popular sovereignty. He also opposed the efforts of President James Buchanan and his Southern allies to enact a Federal slave code and impose the Lecompton Constitution on Kansas.

In 1860, the conflict over slavery led to the split in the Democratic Party in the 1860 Convention. Hardline pro-slavery Southerners rejected Douglas, and nominated their own candidate, Vice President John C. Breckinridge, while the Northern Democrats nominated Douglas. Douglas deeply believed in democracy, arguing the will of the people should always be decisive.[4] When civil war came in April 1861, he rallied his supporters to the Union cause with all his energies, but he died of typhoid fever a few weeks later.

At turning Point

In Lincoln’s life came with the rise of slavery controversy. Fighting against what he termed the “cancer” of bondage, he rose to the presidency and directed a bloody Civil War that would put an end to what he saw as an evil institution. But first, many political battles had to be fought. Lincoln entered the congressional election campaign of 1854, to help a candidate who opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. But when Senator Stephen A. Douglas returned to Illinois to justify the new law, Lincoln opposed him wherever he could. At Springfield, Peoria, and Chicago, Lincoln delivered such powerful speeches that he became known as the leader of the Illinois forces opposing the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

He was again elected to the Illinois legislature, but resigned in order to run for the United States Senate. At that time, the legislature elected senators. On the first ballot, Lincoln received 45 votes, which was 50 short of a majority. On each succeeding ballot, his vote dwindled. Finally, to keep a Douglas supporter from being elected, Lincoln persuaded his followers to vote for Lyman Trumbull, who had started with only 5 votes. Trumbull was elected.

Then the Whig Party began falling apart during the 1850’s, largely because party members in various parts of the country couldn’t agree on a solution to the slavery problem. In 1856, Lincoln joined the antislavery Republican Party, then only two years old. During the presidential election campaign that year, he made more than a handed speeches in behalf of John C. Fremont, the Republican Candidate. Fremont lost the election to Democrat James Buchanan. But Lincoln had strengthened his own position in the party through his unselfish work.

The Debate with Douglas

In 1858, Lincoln was nominated to run against Douglas for the US Senate. He accepted the honor with a speech that caused severe criticism.

Many people thought his remarks stirred up conflict between the North and South. After a few speeches, Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of debates. Douglas accepted, and named seven places for the meetings.

The First Debate was held at Ottawa, Illinois, on August 21, 1858. The last was at Aton, Illinois, on October 15, 1858. Each candidate spoke for an hour and a half. Large crowds attended each debate except the one at Jonesboro, in the Southern most part of the State. Newspapers reported the debates, and the two men drew national attention.

The debates centered on the extension of slavery into free territory. Douglas defended the policy of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He called this policy popular sovereignty. Opponents ridiculed it as squatter sovereignty. Lincoln argued that the Supreme Court of the US, in the Dred Scott Decision, had opened the way for slavery to enter all the territories. In the debate held at Freeport, Illinois, Douglas denied this argument.

He contended that the people of any territory could keep slavery out of that territory simply by refusing to pass local laws protecting it. The positron became known as the Freeport Doctrine. Lincoln insisted that there was a fundamental difference between Douglas and himself. Douglas ignored the moral question of slavery, but Lincoln regarded slavery “as a moral, social, and political evil”.

In addition to the debates, both men spoke almost daily to meetings of their own. Each traveled far and wide. Before the exhausting campaign ended, Douglas deep bass voice had become so husky that it was hard to understand him. Lincoln’s high, penetrating voice still reached the limits of a large audience. In the election, Lincoln candidates for the legislature received more votes than their opponents. But the State was divvied into districts in such a way that Douglas was reelected by a vote of 54 to 46.

The debates made Lincoln a national figure. Early in 1860, he delivered an address at Cooper Union in New York City. The speech ended with the famous plea, “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it”. This address and others delivered later in New England made a strong impression on many influential eastern Republicans.

Election of 1860

The Republican National Convention met in Chicago on May 16, 1860. Abraham Lincoln was by no means unknown to the delegates. The week before, at the Illinois State Republican Convention, his supporters had nicknamed him “The Rail-splitter”. This nickname recalling the days when Lincoln had split rails for fence’s, helped make him even better known to the delegates. But other part leaders had larger followings. Senator William H. Seward of New York had the strongest support, but also had many enemies. Senator Salmon P. Chase of Ohio lacked the united support of even his own state. Lincoln had never held a prominent national office, and had no bitter enemies. He held moderate views on the slavery question.

His humble background could be courted on to arouse great enthusiasm among the voters. On the first ballot, Seward received 173 ½ votes, Lincoln 102, and Chase 49. Lincoln gained the support of Pennsylvania and Indiana on the second ballot, and received 181 votes to 184 ½ for Seward. Doing third ballot, Lincoln continued to gain strength. Before the result was announced, Ohio switched four votes from Chase to Lincoln. This gave Lincoln more than the 233 votes needed to win the nomination. The delegates nominated Senator Hannibal Hamlin of Main for Vice President.

Like other presidential candidates of his period, Lincoln felt it was undignified to campaign actively. He stayed quickly in Springfield during the election campaign. His followers more than made up for his inactivity. The Democratic Party broke into two factions, which helped Lincoln immensely. Senator Douglas, the nation’s leading Democrat, had angered the proslavery wing of his party. Northern Democrats nominated him for President. The Southern faction of the Democratic Party chose Vice resident John C. Breckinridge. A fourth party, calling itself the Constitutional Union Party, nominated former Senator John Bell of Tennessee. Lincoln won the election, receiving 10 electoral votes to 72 for Breckinridge, 39 for Bell, and 12 for Douglas. But more Americans voted against Lincoln than for him. The people gave him, 1,865,908 votes, compared to a combined total of 2,819,122 for his opponents. All Lincoln’s electoral votes, and nearly all his popular votes, came from the North.

Lincoln’s Administration (1861-1865)

South Secedes

During the months before Lincoln’s inauguration, many Southern leaders threatened to withdraw their states from the Union if Lincoln should win the election. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina passed an Ordinance of Secession that declared the Union dissolved as far as that state was concerned. By the time Lincoln became President, six other Southern States had withdrawn from the Union. Four more States followed later. The seceded states organized themselves in the Confederate States in America.

First Inauguration

Lincoln said farewell to his Springfield neighbors on February 11, 1861. “Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now, leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine being whoever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fall. Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be every where for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To his care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell”.

The long trip to Washington DC, had been planned to include stops at most large Eastern cities. This allowed many thousands of people to see the man who would be their next President. In Philadelphia, Lincoln heard a report of an assassination plot. In Harrisburg, PA, his advisers persuaded him to cut short his trip. Lincoln continued secretly in Washington, arrived early on the morning of February 23 1861. On March 4th, 1861, Lincoln took the oath of office and became the 16th President of the United States. In his inaugural address, Lincoln denied that he had any intention of interfering with slavery in states where the Constitution protected it. He urged the preservation of the Union. Lincoln warned that he would use the fall power of the nation to “hold, occupy, and possess” the “property and places” belonging to the federal government. By “property and places”, he meant forts, arsenals, and custom houses. Lincoln’s closing passage had great beauty and literary power. He appealed to “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land”. Lincoln announced his Cabinet the day after his inauguration. Two members William H. Seward and Salmon P. Chase, had been his principal rivals for the presidential nomination. The Cabinet members represented many shades of opinion within the Republican Party. On the whole, they were an exceptionally able group.

Fort Sumter and War

 As the Southern States seceded they seized most of the federal forts within their boundaries. Lincoln had to decide whether the remaining forts should be strengthened and whether to try to retake the forts already in Southern hands.

Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, became a symbol of an indivisible Union. Major Robert Anderson commanded the Union garrison there.

If Lincoln withdrew the troops a storm of protest would rise in the North. If he reinforced Fort Sumter, the South would consider it an act of war. As a compromise, Lincoln decided to send only provisions to Anderson, whose supplies were running low.

He informed South Carolina of his intention. Leaders of the stage regarded the relief expedition as a hostile act, and demanded Anderson’s surrender. Anderson refused, until April 12, 1861, General Pierre G.T. Beauregard ordered Confederate artillery to fire on the fort. Anderson surrendered the next day. The attack on Fort Sumter marked a start of the Civil War.

President Lincoln met the crisis with energetic action. He called out the militia to suppress the “insurrection”.

He proclaimed a blockade of Southern ports, and expanded the army beyond the limit set by law. Southern sympathizers living in the North were obstructing the war effort. As a result, Lincoln suspended the privilege of habeas corpus in areas where these Southern sympathizers were active. In addition, Lincoln ordered the spending of federal funds without waiting for congressional appropriations.

Lincoln believed all these actions to be within the war powers granted the President by the Constitution. He justified his acts when Congress met for the first time in his Administration in July 1861. The message Lincoln delivered to Congress ranks as one of his greatest state papers.

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had attacked Lincoln bitterly for suspending habeas corpus.

Lincoln felt that the breakup of the American nation would be a tragedy. Not only Americans, but ultimately all people, would suffer. To him, the United States represented an experiment in the people’s ability to govern themselves. If it failed, monarchs, dictators, and their supporters could say that people weren’t capable of ruling themselves, and that someone must rule them. Lincoln regarded the fate of the world democracy as the central issue of the Civil War.