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In 1837, Lincoln took highly controversial position that foreshadowed his future political path. He joined with five other legislators out of eighty-three to oppose a resolution condemning abolitionists. In 1838, he responded to the death of the Illinois abolitionist and newspaper editor, Elijah Parish Lovejoy, who was killed while defending his printing presses from a mob of pro-slavery citizens in Alton, Illinois. In a statesmanlike manner, Lincoln gave a cautious speech at the Springfield Young Men's Lyceum, pointing out the violence done where democracy and the rule of law should be in place (Abraham Lincoln, 2005).
In 1840, with a keen political eye, Lincoln campaigned for the populist war hero and Whig candidate William Henry Harrison. Lincoln denounced Democratic candidate Martin Van Buren for having once voted to give free blacks the vote in New York. In taking this position, Lincoln clearly appealed to the racism of the overwhelming majority of Illinois voters. Like many other opponents of slavery, Lincoln at this point did not favor citizenship rights for blacks (Abraham Lincoln, 2005).
In 1844, Lincoln began his partnership with William H. Herndon. Although ten years younger than Lincoln, Herndon proved to be an exceptional and outstanding partner making the two of them worked well together in both law and politics. Herndon's biography of his famous partner known as Herndon's Lincoln is one of the classics of Lincoln literature (Fehrenbacher, 2006).
In 1846 Lincoln ran for the United States House of Representatives and remarkably won the election. He became known for his opposition to the Mexican War and to slavery (Norton, 1998). Lincoln served one term from 1847-1849 as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives (Stewart-Zimmerman, 2006). Meanwhile, ten days after the nomination America went to war with Mexico. During the months of the campaign, Lincoln said nothing about the Mexican-American War, which allowed him to win the district by a large majority. Once in office, however, Lincoln voiced his opinion regarding the war. Lincoln boldly challenged President James Polk's assertion that the Mexicans had started the war by attacking American soldiers on American soil. In a speech on the House floor, Lincoln scornfully denounced the Polk administration for taking the country to war. This misrepresentation regarding the war to the nation claimed that the conflict had begun on territory contested by the two sides. This was a blatant and public attack on a popular President by a young unknown congressman from a state that was solidly behind the war (Abraham Lincoln, 2005).
This opposition was not a function of internationalist sympathy for Mexico but the feeling that the Democratic president, James Polk, had violated the Constitution. Lincoln had been indifferent about the invasion of Texas, already a slave territory, but he opposed any expansion that would allow slavery into new areas (Stewart-Zimmerman, 2006). After his opposition, he decided not to run for Congress again instead he returned to Springfield where he practiced law from 1849 to 1854, becoming one of the more successful lawyers in the state, representing all kinds of clients, including railroad interests. Although elected in 1854 again to the state legislature, he promptly resigned to run for the U.S. Senate, losing on the ninth ballot in the state legislature (Abraham Lincoln, 2005).
Lincoln lost his interest in politics when the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed by Congress in 1854. This legislation opened lands previously closed to slavery to the possibility of its spread by local option (Stewart-Zimmerman, 2006). The measure created the two new federal territories of Kansas and Nebraska and left it up to the people to decide whether to permit or exclude slavery, a doctrine known as popular sovereignty. This measure set aside the Missouri Compromise, which had limited the expansion of slavery (Fehrenbacher, 2006). Thus, this act opens more doors to slavery.
Democrats, Whigs and Lincoln protested against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln believed that slavery is morally wrong, yet he respected the constitutional rights of slaveholders. He believed that if slavery could just be prevented from expanding, it might eventually die away in the Southern states. In this regard, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was a wrong move (Fehrenbacher, 2006).
Although Lincoln was not an abolitionist and thought slavery unassailably protected by the Constitution in states where it already existed, Lincoln also thought that America's founders had put slavery in such a way to ultimate extinction by preventing its spread or expansion to new territories. He saw Kansas-Nebraska Act, which had been sponsored by Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas, as a new and alarming movement (Stewart-Zimmerman, 2006).
Those opposed or do not believe in slavery's expansion began to form a political alliance against slavery. Lincoln became a leader of this anti-Nebraska movement in Illinois. In 1856, with the Whig Party breaking up, he helped organize the various anti-Nebraska groups into the Republican Party of Illinois. At the Republican National Convention in June 1856, Lincoln received strong support for the vice presidency. Although he did not win the nomination, he campaigned vigorously for the new party's presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, who was later defeated by Democrat James Buchanan (Fehrenbacher, 2006).
Two years after Fremont's defeat, Illinois Republicans nominated Lincoln to run for the U.S. Senate (Fehrenbacher, 2006). In his speech at Springfield in acceptance of the Republican senatorial nomination, Lincoln stated that Douglas, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, and Democratic presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan had connived to nationalize slavery. In the same speech he expressed the view that the nation would become either all slave or all free. His unwavering belief of anti-slavery brought more people believing in abolishing slavery. Lincoln joined the Republicans, a new political party that was opposed to slavery (Stewart-Zimmerman, 2006). The Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln for the U.S. Senate in 1858, and in his acceptance speech, he stated:
house divided against itself cannot stand... This government cannot endure, permanently half-slave and half-free... I do not expect the Union to be dissolved. I do not expect the house to fall but I do expect it will cease to be divided" (Stewart-Zimmerman, 2006).
This head on collision with the powerful senator Stephen A. Douglas, one of Lincoln's rivals from his days in the Illinois state capital, who was running for a third term as a Democrat (Abraham Lincoln, 2005). Being the underdog in the senatorial campaign, Lincoln wished to share Douglas's fame by appearing with him in debates. There followed a series of seven debates between Lincoln and Douglas in towns across Illinois over the next seventy days. Lincoln knew that Douglas now fighting the Democratic Buchanan administration over the constitution to be adopted by Kansas had alienated his Southern support; and he feared Douglas's new appeal to eastern Republicans now that Douglas was battling the South. Lincoln's strategy, therefore, was to stress the gulf of principle that separated Republican opposition to slavery as a moral wrong from the moral indifference of the Democrats, embodied in legislation allowing popular sovereignty to decide the fate of each territory. His vigorous showing against the famous Douglas, Lincoln won the debates and his first considerable national fame (Stewart-Zimmerman, 2006). This strategy made him recognized by people.
Several factors helped to attract national attention to the campaign battles. Primarily, Douglas, one of the key figures behind the Compromise of 1850, enjoyed a reputation as the "Little Giant" of the Democratic Party and its best stump speaker. Second, the national debate over slavery was reaching a boiling point. During the four years leading up to these historic debates, Americans had witnessed some incredibly violent and explosive events that were sharply dividing the nation. Responding to the fervor, journalists accompanied the candidates, writing articles detailing the debates and offering editorial commentary that was unprecedented in American political history making the whole country interested to watch this debates (Abraham Lincoln, 2005).
Underlying the debates was the momentous issue of slavery. Both men emphasized their basic principles. For Lincoln slavery was wrong because it denied to the slaves the rights stated in the Declaration of Independence. He stressed the point, but he did not intend to interfere with slavery in the states where it legally existed but he only opposed its expansion (Fehrenbacher, 2006). Therefore, Lincoln was against the spread of slavery into the territories but was not an abolitionist (Norton, 1998). On the other hand, Douglas' position was that democratic self-government, as expressed in his policy of popular sovereignty was more important than slavery (Fehrenbacher, 2006).
In those days, U.S. senators were elected by their state legislatures, not by a direct popular vote. The debates were designed to appeal to voters and help them decide who would be best elect of the state legislature, who would in turn elect the U.S. senator from Illinois. When the votes were counted, although Republican candidates won a slight plurality of the popular vote, the difference in proportion of legislative districts favored southern Illinois, where the Democrats were strongest. As a result, the Democrats retained their majority in the legislature and elected Douglas over…[continue]
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