On the same day that Texas seceded (February 1, 1861), President-Elect Abraham Lincoln, still resident in Springfield, Illinois, wrote a letter to William Seward, Lincoln’s one-time rival for the 1860 Republican nomination and soon to be his Secretary of State. The letter is quite indicative of Lincoln’s position about slavery at that time. To whit, that while he firmly opposed the spread of slavery, Lincoln believed in non-interference with the institution where it already existed.
The February 1 letter is not long, so here it is in full.
(Private and confidential.)
SPRINGFIELD, ILLINOIS, February 1, 1861.
My dear Sir: On the 21st ult. Hon. W. Kellogg Republican member of Congress of this State, whom you probably know, was here in a good deal of anxiety seeking to ascertain to what extent I would be consenting for our friends to go in the way of compromise on the now vexed question. While he was with me I received a despatch from Senator Trumbull, at Washington, alluding to the same question and telling me to await letters. I therefore told Mr. Kellogg that when I should receive these letters posting me as to the state of affairs at Washington, I would write to you, requesting you to let him see my letter. To my surprise, when the letters mentioned by Judge Trumbull came they made no allusion to the “vexed question.” This baffled me so much that I was near not writing you at all, in compliance to what I have said to Judge Kellogg. I say now, however, as I have all the while said, that on the territorial question–that is, the question of extending slavery under the national auspices–I am inflexible. I am for no compromise which assists or permits the extension of the institution on soil owned by the nation. And any trick by which the nation is to acquire territory, and then allow some local authority to spread slavery over it, is as obnoxious as any other. I take it that to effect some such result as this, and to put us again on the highroad to a slave empire, is the object of all these proposed compromises. I am against it. As to fugitive slaves, District of Columbia, slave-trade among the slave States, and whatever springs of necessity from the fact that the institution is amongst us, I care but little, so that what is done be comely and not altogether outrageous. Nor do I care much about New Mexico, if further extension were hedged against.
Yours very truly,
Lincoln’s position on the “vexed question” is well known to anyone with a serious interest in the Civil War. Yet from my experience as a history professor, some college students have a hard time reconciling the Abraham Lincoln of early 1861 with the “Great Emancipator” he would become. They want the Civil War to be from the beginning what it eventually developed into–a war of liberation. And so for them the cause of the Civil War must be that Lincoln launched the war to free the slaves. That they believe in this fallacy is not really their fault. Lincoln’s transformation into a martyred saint after his assassination obscures the canny politician determined in the wake of the 1860 election to give his political base what it wanted. A frontier reserved for white people, with slavery quarantined in the South out of the national sight and mind, where someday in the indeterminate future it would quietly die a natural death.
Clearly, freedom for the slaves was not on Lincoln’s agenda (or most white Northerners) during the secession winter of 1861. But just as clearly, as Lincoln’s letter to Seward shows, slavery was as much on the mind of northern leaders as it was for southern leaders, and at the heart of the developing conflict.