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Setting the Stage

By 1860 Abraham Lincoln was on his way to national fame and the presidency of the United States. But in the early 1850s Lincoln did not hold an elective office and wasn't interested in seeking one. Lincoln had already held a variety of elected offices in the 1830s and 1840s and by the 1850s he was focusing on his prosperous legal career and raising his family. He never totally strayed from politics, however--and gave speeches in support of other candidates. While the national slavery debates were still controversial in the nation--Lincoln and many others were relying on a fragile political peace to keep the country from civil war. That peace was maintained through a series of compromises designed to hold a balance of power between states that allowed slavery and those that prohibited it. These compromises included the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had admitted Maine as a free state, Missouri as a slave state, and prohibited slavery in the old Louisiana Purchase Territory north of a line marked by the latitude of 36º 30'. Another measure to keep the peace, was the "Compromise of 1850." This series of agreements allowed for, among other things, the admission of California as a free state; it ended the slave trade in the District of Columbia, the nation's capital; and it mandated the return of runaway slaves regardless of where they might be (free or slave state). This last mandate became known as the Fugitive Slave Act.

The nation's tenuous balance of power was tipped in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This legislation was championed by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas as a way to end the ongoing debates in Congress on admission of a state that prohibits or allows slavery. This act allowed the inhabitants of the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide the slavery issue through election. The Kansas-Nebraska Act superseded the Missouri Compromise of 1820 by potentially allowing slavery north of the latitude of 36º 30'. This infuriated many in the north who considered the Missouri Compromise to be a long-standing, binding agreement. Lincoln stated that the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused him as he had never been before.

Lincoln returned to political life where he might work towards changing the effect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He was elected to the Illinois legislature in 1854, but resigned that seat so that he could run for the United States Senate. The Senate had long been Lincoln's ultimate political goal. Never-the-less, as part of a strategy designed to prevent the election of a rival who supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he withdrew his name from consideration in this race to support another candidate.

Lincoln traveled extensively over the next several years giving political speeches. In 1858, he again ran for the U.S. Senate, this time against Stephen A. Douglas, the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln did well against Douglas, but lost the Senate race and shortly after wrote of his efforts, "I believe I have made some marks which will tell for the cause of civil liberty long after I am gone."¹

Lincoln resumed his travels during the next two years giving speeches throughout the country. His efforts and the notoriety he received during the debates with Douglas caught the attention of Republican Party leaders who began considering him for the presidency in the 1860 election. On May 18, 1860, Lincoln was chosen as the Republican nominee for the presidency at the Republican National Convention in Chicago and received the official notification of his nomination in the parlor of his Springfield home. Later that year, on November 6, 1860, Lincoln won the election, becoming the 16th President of the United States.

¹ Roy P. Basler, Ed. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 Volumes, Abraham Lincoln to Anson G. Henry, November 19, 1858, Vol. 3, p. 340.

 

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