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Lincoln and Kansas

Lewis E. Lehrman

It was Kansas that made Abraham Lincoln president of the United States in 1860. Six years early, Lincoln had been an obscure former congressman conscientiously practicing law when Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas forced passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln and Douglas had known each other for almost two decades, but the legislation to organize the vast northern section of the Louisiana Purchase turned them into national rivals for the hearts and minds of Americans.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act reopened the issue of slavery expansion by rescinding the prohibition against slavery above the 36' 30 parallel that had been established by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Douglas thought the change was necessary to organize the territories for settlement and allow construction of a transcontinental railroad. Lincoln thought the change reversed years of settled national policy that put slavery on the path to "ultimate extinction."

For Lincoln, the future of Kansas was irrevocably connected to the "equality clause" of the Declaration of Independence, America's founding document. Lincoln firmly believed that the Founders intended slavery to be terminated over time. Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act put slavery on the path to expansion rather than extinction. Because slavery was morally wrong, that was intolerable for Lincoln. Because it contracted the Declaration's principle that "all men are created equal," slavery was politically unacceptable.

From the time he spoke out in Illinois during the summer and fall of 1854, Lincoln's message against slavery's expansion was the persistent theme of his public remarks. In the period between his election as president in 1860 and his inauguration four months later, Lincoln opposed any compromise on slavery's expansion - even if it meant secession by southern states.

In early December 1859, Lincoln had spent a week in Kansas, which was preparing for territorial elections. Lincoln supported Republican candidates by giving his speeches for three days on his usual antislavery themes. Lincoln recognized that "Bleeding Kansas" had been a battleground for the application of popular sovereignty to slavery.

He told a Leavenworth audience that they had been subjected a doctrine that had brought violence to the territory: "You, the people of Kansas, furnish the example of the first application of this new policy. At the end of about five years, after having almost continual struggles, fire and bloodshed, over this very question, and after having framed several State Constitutions, you have, at last, secured a Free State Constitution, under which you will probably be admitted into the Union. You have, at last, at the end of all this difficulty, attained what we, in the old North-western Territory, attained without any difficulty at all."

Lincoln stayed in Leavenworth to observe the elections on December 6. "He was to be found on the street, in offices or workshops," reported one journalist of the ever-curious Lincoln, "and took especial delight in familiarizing himself with our people." In a final election-eve speech, Lincoln graphically described the difference between Republicans and "popular sovereignty" Democrats: "If a house was on fire there could be but two parties. One in favor of putting out the fire. Another in favor of the house burning. But these popular sovereignty fellows would stand aloof and argue against interfering. The house must take care of itself subject only to the constitution and the conditions of fire and wood."

Republicans won the elections, but Lincoln did not win their support in the territory for the presidential nomination. Instead, Kansas Republicans supported New York Senator William H. Seward over Lincoln at the May 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago. Residents could not vote in the presidential election because Kansas would not be admitted to the Union until 1860. Nevertheless, it was the issues surrounding expansion of slavery in Kansas that had catapulted Lincoln to public attention and to presidential victory.

Throughout the Civil War, Lincoln had to deal with feuding Kansas Republicans who threatened to set fire to their own party. By September 1864, however, the governor wrote: "We are now all united here for Mr. Lincoln's re-election." State voters were so strongly behind President Lincoln that they backed him for reelection by a 4-1 margin.

Lewis E. Lehrman is the author of Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point.

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