On this 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, which killed upwards of 620,000 Americans (nearly 2% of the population), I thought I would take a look at what could have prompted some Americans to leave the Union and others to fight them in this ghastly and most un-civil fratricidal conflict. When I was in school, I was taught that the Civil War was not fought over slavery but over States’ rights. These days, I find that explanation flat-out  ridiculous. But how did mid-19th Century Americans see it?

Pres. Jefferson Sets the Stage

In 1858, America was expanding fast. A half-century earlier, President Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of  the Louisiana Territories had more than doubled the country’a territory, and in 1818, then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams brought off a second diplomatic coup that added Florida and a swath of land  north of Mexico all the way to the Pacific. Fast-forward a generation to the Mexican-American War (1845-1848)—an unashamedly illegal land grab that Lincoln opposed, costing him his Senate seat. Wrong or not, the War brought us Texas, New Mexico, and the California Territories up to Oregon—a deal made still sweeter by the discovery of California gold.

32 states already!

32 states already!

Ironically, given Jefferson’s passion for individualism, his Louisiana Purchase strengthened the Federalists’ hand. Led by George Washington and Alexander Hamilton in the USA’s first days, the Federalist Party pushed for a strong central government and executive branch. Appalled, Jefferson fought back hard, going so far as to hire a yellow-journalist to smear his opponents—not excluding that great American icon of public virtue, George Washington. (So began our tradition of political ‘dirty tricks,’ but thereby hangs another tale.) But just a few years later,  President Jefferson found himself suddenly responsible for a massive wilderness. With no established leaders, institutions, or even boundaries, who was to set up local mechanisms of administration and enforce US law, if not the central government?

1858 Race for the Senate – Lincoln vs. Douglas

Averting our eyes from the wretched plight of the peoples already living in those lands, whose destruction caused hardly a bump in the path of America’s Westward march, we come to the 1850s.

By the end of the decade, the chairman of the New Territories Senate Committee, Sen. Stephen A. Douglas (D-IL), had personally overseen the conversion of 10 new territories into full-fledged states. Up for re-election in 1858, the hugely popular and influential Senator happily agrees to a series of debates with his obscure opponent, a local lawyer and former one-term Senator from the now-defunct Whig Party named Abraham Lincoln.
LINCOLN PORTRAITBoth men lived in Springfield. Both were trained in law. Both were renowned for their skill in oratory. Both were fanatically devoted to preserving the United States. Oddly, both courted Mary Todd (we know who won that one, if marrying Mary Todd can be called winning.)

But that’s where the similarity ends. The relatively unknown A. Lincoln was tall—a full 7’ in his stovepipe hat—and thin as a pine tree. Sen. Douglas, the “Little Giant,” was a bulldog of a man in both personality and stature. Illinois loved their ex-state Supreme Court Judge and took pride in his power in the Senate. Here was a man virtually impossible to unseat.

Never one to shy away from a hard truth, Lincoln summed up his situation in a letter to a friend:

“With me the race of ambition has been a failure, a flat failure. With him [Stephen Douglas], it has been one of splendid success. His name fills the nation, and is not unknown even in foreign lands.”   —A. Lincoln (1858)

And so it was that the two candidates for U.S. Senate from Illinois—one a Southern-sympathizing Democrat, the other from the newly formed abolitionist-leaning Republican Party—agreed to hold a series of public discussions of the issues now immortalized as the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.

It’s slavery, stupid!

The issue of the day was slavery, that indelible stain on our country’s honor that not even our clever Founders could remove. Like oil today, slavery meant big money. So much so that in the 1840s, when pretty much the whole world was roundly condemning our ‘peculiar institution,’ Charles Dickens visiting  Washington saw people penned like cattle, awaiting sale, in the shadow of the Capitol.

Lincoln's_Last_Warning to Slavery,_October_1862

Now, if you don’t come down, I’ll cut the Tree out from under you.

Don’t-rock-the-boat optimists held that slavery was not economical and could not last long. But with so much of their wealth bound up in slaves and the huge manpower required to harvest cotton, the Southern states were not about to give it up. Quite the contrary, the 1808 prohibition on slave imports only served to jack up the price of slaves already here, so that a half-century later, slaveholders were demanding the right to bring their human ‘property’ with them into the new territories. Far from having faded away by the 1850s, human trafficking in America was alive and flourishing.

The 1858 campaign the Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate took four long months, during which the candidates traveled an astonishing 10,000 miles and held 7 debates in 7 different cities across the state. In that pre-TV era, they drew up crowds that ranged from 1,500 (in a less populated area) to 15,000. Unlike today, both candidates were known for their wit. (After Douglas defended the Fugitive Slave Act, he quipped that he could navigate his way north by all of the effigies of him hung by day and burned by night.) Also unlike today, by campaign’s end, it was quite clear to everyone where each candidate stood.

Not surprisingly, though, both candidates waffled on the issues, with each sounded more pro-slavery in slave-leaning areas of the state. But even in  northern Illinois, Lincoln was no abolitionist. Many years later, just before signing the Emancipation Proclamation, he famously wrote:

If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.” (August 1862)

Focused, as he then was, on preserving the nation, Lincoln yet felt deeply that depriving others of their human rights was just plain wrong. In 1855, when the Know Nothing Party was riding a tide of anti-immigrant sentiment during the Irish potato famine to become (briefly) the most popular party in America, he wrote jokingly to a friend about his deep and quite serious devotion to universal human rights:

“I’m not a Know Nothing. 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 the No Nothings get control, it will read:  ‘All men are created equal except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ 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 alloy of hypocrisy.

The debates ended. The election was held. Judge Douglas narrowly retained his Senate seat. And Abraham Lincoln was now famous.

Two years later, the two faced off against each other again. This time, the race for the Presidency. Judge Douglas’s pragmatic stance about slavery–Revealed in the debates–was not appreciated in the South. The Democratic Party split into pro- and anti-slavery factions, and Lincoln won.

So much for the war not being about slavery.

If the South did not like Douglas, it hated Lincoln. Even before he reached Washington to be sworn into office, South Carolina had fired on Ft. Sumter. The South seceded from the Union, formed its own government, and the Civil War had begun.


Candidates’ Debate

For the 1858 Election of

 U.S. Senator from Illinois

Stephen A. (“THE LITTLE GIANT”) Douglas, (D) vs.

Abraham (“HONEST ABE”) Lincoln, esq., (R)



Abraham Lincoln, Esq. (R-IL)—A. Lincoln (49), a Springfield lawyer, served 4 terms in the lower house of the Illinois State Assembly, and 1 term (Whig Party, 1846-48) in the U.S. House of Representatives. With the Whig Party now dissolved, the new Republican Party has chosen Lincoln as its candidate for U.S. Senator.

 Sen. Stephen A. Douglas (D-IL)— Stephen Douglas (45), incumbent 2-term U.S. Senator, former 3-term U.S. Representative, state senator, and state Supreme Court Judge, famously skilled politician and orator. As Chairman of the Committee of New Territories, Douglas oversaw the entrance of Florida, Texas, Iowa, and Wisconsin into the Union. He is now overseeing the entry of California, Minnesota, Oregon, and New Mexico. Judge Douglas personally saw to it that railroad traffic passes through Chicago and negotiated a compromise allowing territories to vote whether to be slave states or free.


 Shall the New Territories be Slave or Free?

In the debates, Douglas argues that slavery is a dying institution that has reached its natural limits and cannot thrive. He thinks each state and territory should be allowed to vote up or down on the issue.

Lincoln regards slavery as a dynamic and expansionist institution, hungry for new territory. He argues that if allowed to spread into the territories, slavery will become a national institution, and all laborers—white and black—will be reduced to a state of virtual slavery.

Lincoln: The ‘Slave Powers’ threaten the values of republicanism and distort the values of the Founding Fathers, who clearly stated that all men are created equal.

 “Now . . . this is the true complexion of all I have ever said in regard to the institution of slavery and the black race. This is the whole of it; and anything that argues me into his idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse.

“I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

“I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two which, in my judgment, will probably forbid their ever living together upon the footing of perfect equality; and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. 

“I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence,—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas, he is not my equal in many respects,—certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowments. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal, and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.

—A. Lincoln, Columbus OH, 1859


Lincoln: Mr. Douglas’s ‘Popular Sovereignty Theory’ is a threat to the nation’s morality and an attempt to extend slavery to free states.

Douglas: By opposing the Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott decision, Mr. Lincoln is defying the authority of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Douglas: I hold to the theory of ‘Popular Sovereignty’ and seek only to let local settlers freely choose whether or not to allow slavery. Mr. Lincoln has joined the abolitionists.

Lincoln (5th Debate)“If you will take Douglas’s speeches and select the short and pointed phrases expressed by him as his declaration that he don’t care whether slavery is voted up or down, you will see at once that this is perfectly logical — IF you do  not admit that slavery is wrong. If you do admit that it is wrong, he cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do wrong.”



  1. Thanks for this history blog. I will be back!

  2. Hi there, I enjoy reading through your article.
    I wanted to write a little comment to support you.

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