Realignment of 1850s


Lincolns in 1847

William Gienapp’s interpretation (2002)

“Lincoln’s political activities after 1849 were quite limited compared with earlier years.  He did not participate in local meetings to endorse Henry Clay’s compromise package, which passed Congress in 1850.  Two years later he served as Whig national committeeman from Illinois, but deeming the party’s chances hopeless, his participation in the election was half-hearted.  He declined to run again for the legislature and discouraged talk of nominating him for governor, which would have entailed considerable time and expense with no likelihood of victory.” (Gienapp, Lincoln, p. 40)

Key DocumentLincoln’s Eulogy on Henry Clay (1852)

[Henry Clay] ever was, on principle and in feeling, opposed to slavery. The very earliest, and one of the latest public efforts of his life, separated by a period of more than fifty years, were both made in favor of gradual emancipation of the slaves in Kentucky. He did not perceive, that on a question of human right, the negroes were to be excepted from the human race. And yet Mr. Clay was the owner of slaves….His feeling and his judgment, therefore, ever led him to oppose both extremes of opinion on the subject. Those who would shiver into fragments the Union of these States; tear to tatters its now venerated constitution; and even burn the last copy of the Bible, rather than slavery should continue a single hour, together with all their more halting sympathisers, have received, and are receiving their just execration; and the name, and opinions, and influence of Mr. Clay, are fully, and, as I trust, effectually and enduringly, arrayed against them. But I would also, if I could, array his name, opinions, and influence against the opposite extreme—against a few, but an increasing number of men, who, for the sake of perpetuating slavery, are beginning to assail and to ridicule the white-man’s charter of freedom—the declaration that ‘all men are created free and equal.'”

Discussion Question

  • Did Lincoln really withdraw from politics between 1849 and 1854, or did he just withdraw from the Whig party?


I was losing interest in politics, when the repeal of the
Missouri Compromise aroused me again.
–Abraham Lincoln, December 20, 1859


Lincoln in 1854

KEY DOCUMENT: Lincoln to Richard Yates, August 18, 1854

Hon. R. Yates, Springfield,
Jacksonville, Ill. August 18, 1854.
My dear Sir:

I am disappointed at not having seen or heard from you since I met you more than a week ago at the railroad depot here. I wish to have the matter we spoke of settled and working to its consummation. I understand that our friend B. S. Edwards is entirely satisfied now, and when I can assure myself of this perfectly I would like, by your leave, to get an additional paragraph into the Journal, about as follows:

“To-day we place the name of Hon. Richard Yates at the head of our columns for reelection as the Whig candidate for this congressional district. We do this without consultation with him and subject to the decision of a Whig convention, should the holding of one be deemed necessary; hoping, however, there may be unanimous acquiescence without a convention.”

May I do this? Answer by return mail.
Yours, as ever, A. LINCOLN.


“HON. RICHARD YATES. Has yielded to the solicitation of his friends and consented to be a candidate for re-election to Congress, subject to the decision of a convention should one be held.”
–(Springfield) Illinois Daily Journal, August 22, 1854, p. 2:1.

Discussion Question

  • Which important word is missing from the actual newspaper announcement of Richard Yates’ candidacy?
  • Why was joining the new Republican party considered such a radical departure for so many Northern politicians like Lincoln?


Scott family

KEY DOCUMENT: Lincoln speech at Springfield, June 26, 1857

Chief Justice Taney, in his opinion in the Dred Scott case, admits that the language of the Declaration is broad enough to include the whole human family, but he and Judge Douglas argue that the authors of that instrument did not intend to include negroes, by the fact that they did not at once, actually place them on an equality with the whites. Now this grave argument comes to just nothing at all, by the other fact, that they did not at once, or ever afterwards, actually place all white people on an equality with one or another. And this is the staple argument of both the Chief Justice and the Senator, for doing this obvious violence to the plain unmistakable language of the Declaration. I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity….They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.

Speech by Abraham Lincoln, June 26, 1857 at Springfield, Illinois

1858 // Lincoln, Douglas and Buchanan (Class of 1809)

1858 campaign

William Gienapp’s interpretation (2002)

“Douglas’s dramatic break with Buchanan put Illinois Republicans in a difficult position.  The senator’s opposition to the Lecompton bill undercut the Republicans’ traditional accusation that Douglas and northern Democrats favored the expansion of slavery, and that popular sovereignty was merely a device to accomplish this end.  Moreover, a number of eastern Republicans, led by Horace Greeley, the editor of the vastly influential New York Tribune, urged Illinois Republicans to support Douglas’s reelection to the Senate.” (Gienapp, Lincoln, p. 59)

Discussion Question

  • Why was the Lecompton controversy such an important key to understanding the unprecedented nature of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas senatorial campaign?

Further Reading