History

The Case of Abraham Lincoln: how the Republican Party was created from the wreckage of the fractured Whig and Democratic parties

by Carol White

The Case of Abraham Lincoln: A Story of Adultery, Murder, and the Making of a Great President
by Julie M. Fenster

Julie Fenster’s new book is not only a fascinating look at a side of Abraham Lincoln—his daily life as an influential Illinois lawyer in the years before he became president—but an illuminating study about how he and his abolitionist associates succeeded in fusing anti-slavery Democrats and Whigs and to create the Republican party. Lincoln’s role as a wartime president tends to overshadow the fact of his crucial involvement not only in exposing his arch rival Stephen Douglas, author of the infamous Kansas-Nebraska act that opened the western territories of the United States to slavery—but in the nitty-gritty, day-to-day politicking that preceded, and was crucial to the party’s victory at the polls in the 1860 presidential election.

These days there is a lot of hand-wringing about how the internecine struggle in the present election campaign may fracture the Democratic Party and even allow Republicans to salvage victory from what seemed like a sure defeat. I find that highly doubtful considering the rate of the economic meltdown which—along with the Iraq war—should finally and unequivocally establish Bush’s legacy as the worst president in U.S. history and doom his would-be Republican successor; but even if this were not the case, I suggest that the way in which the Republican party came to power offers a hopeful model for a long overdue shakeup in the American political scene.

Fenster has an eye for the telling detail and she has shaped her story on an 1856 murder trial, which captured the attention of the people living in Springfield at the time, and the Illinois legal community. Lincoln took part in the high-powered defense team, although he was offered good money to help the prosecution. According to recollections of a fellow lawyer, Thomas Lewis, “Lincoln accepted. He said he would sooner defend the woman for nothing—she was accused of being an accomplice to the poisoning of her husband—than prosecute her for $200.” The book is enlivened by stories like this, as well as details about his family life culled from gossipy letters of the period such as the recollection by a neighbor that when he was home from his travels on the law circuit, he would happily do the marketing and “put on a large blue apron, and do whatever was needed,” to help with the cooking.

But this is not a book about the homely details of Lincoln’s life nor the more bizarre moments of his highly successful legal practice. For Lincoln and his law partner William Herndon, it was the contentious political issues of the day that were paramount, with the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska law taking first place. Thirty years before the Missouri Compromise had divided the nation between slave and free states. Now with further westward expansion the South had forced a change in the rules, allowing new western states to decide the slavery question for themselves, and border clashes between pro-and anti-slavery forces were becoming a fact of life.

Fenster has accomplished the nearly impossible task of taking a fresh look at Lincoln’s life by juxtaposing his legal practice and his increasing re-involvement in politics following his abortive try for a Senate seat in 1855. At that time his collaborators in the Illinois legislature chose to put forward the anti-slavery Democrat Lyman Trumbull as their candidate, seeing him as more likely to garner votes from fellow Democrats and win the appointment than Lincoln, who still identified with the increasingly defunct Whigs.

While the Democrats remained the largest national political party, it housed Douglas Democrats who espoused direct democracy as exemplified by the Kansas-Nebraska act, southern Slave Democrats, Anti-Nebraska Democrats, Free Soil Democrats—in other words the party was on the verge of shattering. Things were even worse with the Whigs, who were aligning themselves with the various breakaway tendencies in the Democratic Party.

By 1856, Lincoln was willing to break with the Whigs and participate in forming the new Republican party (as yet without a name), and he was at the forefront of the political struggle. Militant opponents of the 1854 law were known as the Anti-Nebraskans, but unlike Lincoln and Herndon, they were against the expansion of slavery into the western territories but not necessarily anti-slavery per se.

To complicate things still further, a new secretive anti-immigrant political force that was threatening to replace the populist wing of the two fractured major parties was organizing, with a program reminiscent of today’s anti-immigrant populists. The “Know Nothings”—their name derived from their refusal to answer questions considered to be prying, except to reply “I know nothing”—were gaining power throughout the country. By 1856 they had shown themselves to be a political force, electing nine governors and 43 congressmen on a ticket opposing Catholic immigration. In the northeast they also came out in favor of freedom for slaves.

For Lincoln the challenge was how to create an anti-slavery coalition out of all of these disparate groups that would be strong enough to defeat the pro-slavery expansionists while holding the union together. How he went about this, despite the apparently heavy odds against success, is a gripping story. It has many lessons to teach today—the importance of persevering against the odds and not despairing at setbacks, the need to navigate carefully while remaining uncompromising on fundamental principles.

As someone who has always believed that Lincoln was a principled opponent of slavery, I was particularly interested in Fenster’s documentation establishing that he was associated with the abolitionist section of the movement in 1856, although he did not support radical abolitionists who he felt would abort the possibility of forming a winning coalition.

She quotes from a letter written by Lincoln to his close friend Joshua Speed which shows him to be an uncompromising opponent both of slavery and of the anti-immigrant sentiments being stirred up by the Know Nothings. This from Lincoln:

I am not a Know Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base allow of hypocracy. [Lincoln’s spelling]

In 1856 Lincoln set about trying to organize an anti-Nebraska political force that would include former Whigs and Democrats and anti-Nebraska people who supported the Know Nothing party. These were people who were not necessarily anti-slavery but who were not prepared to accept the extension of slavery in the west. He threw his support to William Bissell, a former Democrat who would was chosen to run for Governor of Illinois, but initially he opposed the choice of the radical abolitionist John C. Fremont as the candidate for president, believing him to be unelectable. On both counts he was proven right. Bissell did win, while Fremont lost. Illinois went for Democrat Buchanan, with a vote of 105,528 (44% of those voting); Fremont (running as a Republican) received 96,278 votes (15.7%) and Fillmore (a Know Nothing) came in third with 37,521 (15.7%).

In one of his 1856 campaign speeches, Lincoln contrasted himself with Senator Stephen Douglas:

Twenty-two years ago Judge Douglas and I first became acquainted. We were both young then; he a trifle younger than I. Even then, we were both ambitious; I, perhaps, quite as much so as he. With me the race of ambition has been a failure—a flat failure, with him it has been one of splendid success. His name fills the nation; and is not unknown, eve, in foreign lands. I affect no contempt for the high eminence he has reached. So reached, that the oppressed of my species, might have shared with me in the elevation, I would rather stand on that eminence, that wear the richest crown that ever pressed a monarch’s brow.

In 1858, Lincoln again tried for a seat in the Senate. This time he ran as a Republican against the incumbent, Democrat Stephen Douglas. Although he did not win that election, in the seven debates between them on the question of the extension of slavery Lincoln established his national reputation and prepared the ground for his election to the presidency two years later.

It’s good now and again to step back from the passions of the moment and take a longer view of how historical processes unfold. I strongly recommend Julie Fenster’s new book.

2 replies »

  1. Carol,

    Thanks for taking the time to post this for us. I kept thinking as I read the review, “Gee. I didn’t know that.”

    Good work. 🙂

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