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Abraham Lincoln. Library of Congress, Words and Deeds in American History Collection Alternate: The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the cabinet

[Detail] The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln's Congressional Career: Debates over Slavery in the Territories

From 1834 to 1840, Lincoln served in the Illinois Legislature. During this time, he also did surveying to support himself and studied law, eventually opening a practice in Springfield in 1837. In 1840, he declined reelection and for the next five years focused on his law practice and on beginning a family. But in 1846, Lincoln was elected to the United States Congress as a Whig and served one term, from December 1847 to March 1849.

All of the battles of the Mexican War had been fought and peace negotiations were under way when Lincoln began his term in Congress. Nevertheless, within a few days of taking his seat, he questioned the constitutionality of the war and the way it was initiated in his "Spot Resolution." In making his argument, Lincoln demanded to know the exact spot where hostilities began, earning him the nickname "Spotty Lincoln" by Congressional Democrats and other supporters of the war. Search on Mexican War for a copy of the "Spot Resolution" as well as other items, such as a speech to Congress, a letter to John Mason Peck in which Lincoln defends his position, and Lincoln's second autobiography in which he summarizes his position.

  • What are the resolution's objections to the way the Mexican War was started?
  • How does Lincoln articulate these objections in the resolution?
  • What reasons might Lincoln and the Whig party have had for introducing the "Spot Resolution," given that the Mexican War was practically over?
  • In his autobiographical notes, Lincoln refers to his voting record in regard to the Mexican War. What does this suggest about how the resolution impacted his reputation?
  • What techniques did Lincoln use in his response to John Mason Peck?

The Mexican War heightened the tensions surrounding the issue of slavery. A letter from Anson G. Henry to Abraham Lincoln in December 1847 reflects the growing split within the Whig party over whether slavery should be allowed in the territories that would be ceded to the United States at the end of the Mexican War. In an effort to strike a compromise, Lincoln proposed a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia . Search on 1849 bill for a draft of the proposal as well as Howard's notes of his interview with Lincoln, in which Lincoln discussed the bill.

  • Why did Lincoln and his supporters want to abolish slavery in Washington, D.C.? Why didn't they call for the abolition of slavery in other states?
  • How might an abolitionist such as William Lloyd Garrison or Frederick Douglass have reacted to Lincoln's proposal? Why?
  • What can you infer about Lincoln's position on slavery from this proposal?
  • What practical measures does the bill propose for abolishing slavery in the capital? Why do you think that Lincoln included these measures?
  • How was the bill meant to create a compromise over the issue of slavery in the territories?
  • Why wasn't the bill ever officially introduced?

After serving one term in the House of Representatives, Lincoln retired from political life and seemed content to build his thriving law practice. But when Stephen A. Douglas, Illinois Senator and chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Bill in 1854, Lincoln reentered the political arena as a candidate for the Senate in 1855. The Kansas-Nebraska Bill nullified the ban on slavery in U.S. territories established by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and, in Lincoln's words, "aroused him as he had never been before."

Lincoln canvassed throughout the state and, according to his second autobiography, "his speeches at once attracted a more marked attention than they had ever before done." Nevertheless, Lincoln lost the election due to political maneuvering, which he explains in a letter to Congressman Elihu Washburne, who had supported Lincoln's candidacy:

"The agony is over at last; and the result you doubtless know.... I began with 44 votes, Shields 41, and Trumbull 5, — yet Trumbull was elected.... It was Gov'r Matterson's work. He has been secretly a candidate every since (before, even) the fall election. All the members round about the canal were Anti-Nebraska; but were, nevertheless nearly all democrats, and old personal friends of his. His plan was to privately impress them with the belief that he was as good Anti-Nebraska, as any one else.... We saw into it plainly ten days ago; but with every possible effort, could not head it off."

From "Abraham Lincoln to Elihu B. Washburne, February 9, 1855 (Senate) ."

Lincoln ran for the Senate again in 1858, against Democratic incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas. He ran as a Republican because the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act ultimately caused the dissolution of the Whig Party, its members joining the Democrats, the new Republican Party, or the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party. Lincoln got little attention at the beginning of the campaign and in a letter to Douglas, dated July 24, 1858, challenged him to debate the issues of the day.

"Will it be agreeable to you to make an arrangement for you and myself to divide time and address the same audiences during the present canvass? Mr. Judd who will hand you this is authorized to receive your answer; and if agreeable to you to enter into the terms of such arrangement."

From "Abraham Lincoln to Stephen A. Douglas, July 24, 1858 (Debates) ."

On the same day, Douglas, a noted debater, accepted Lincoln's challenge . Search on Douglas debates for pertinent materials, including a letter from Joseph Medill to Lincoln, recommending questions for the debate. Lincoln received it on the day of the second and most famous debate at Freeport. Here, Lincoln exposed Douglas's ambiguity on the issue of popular sovereignty. Search on popular sovereignty for a draft of a speech Lincoln wrote nearly a year before, attacking Douglas's stance on the issue.

Despite Lincoln's success in the debates, Douglas returned to the Senate for another term.

  • How does Lincoln define popular sovereignty, or self-government, in his speech?
  • How does he define Nebraskaism?