What was Lincoln’s attitude toward slavery as a public character and political leader? The first significant public act of his life, in the Illinois legislature at the age of twenty-eight, was the recorded protest against resolutions asserting the “sacred” right of property in slaves, a claim which Lincoln always resented as profanation. The protest, so moderate that it now appears apologetic, was then so bold that but one colleague could be found to stand with him. Illinois was still pro-slavery, with a “black code” of unsparing severity, and but a few years removed from an attempt to make it a slave state. This was the year of Lovejoy’s murder by the Alton mob, uncondemned and unpunished by Illinois, when nothing but the timely appearance of Wendell Phillips saved Faneuil Hall from capture by the apologists for that crime against humanity.
In his single term in Congress Lincoln stood with the most advanced opponents of slavery, joining in all their denunciations of the Mexican war, which he stigmatized in his “spotresolutions” then celebrated but now forgotten, voting ” at least forty times,” as he said, for the Wilmot Proviso, and finally introducing a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. This measure, wrenched out of the setting of 1849 m which it belongs, has been supposed to show a tenderness toward slavery. Moderate and guarded as it was, there is no doubt that Lincoln risked his political future in presenting it. As a direct step toward abolition in the only place where slavery existed within reach of Federal power, an act finally accomplished after many years only by stress of war, when it was Lincoln’s privilege to seal it with his official approval, it branded him in politics as an abolitionist, and many of his friends believed that his open hostility to slavery had sacrificed all hope of political advancement.
Indeed, when Lincoln returned from Congress he seems to have regarded himself as through with public affairs. There are signs at this time of his temperamental depression. The revelation had not come to him. But the Compromise of 1850 stirred him uneasily and would not let him rest. He said to his friend Stuart, “The time will come when we must all be Democrats or Abolitionists. When that time comes, my mind is made up. The slavery question can’t be compromised.” This set him to brooding deeply upon slavery and its bearing upon the fate of the nation, on which it is now historic that he became the clearest and profoundest thinker of his time. It took possession of him. He “moused around the li- braries,” absorbing the history of the institution and pondering every phase of the subject in long fits of silent abstraction. A manuscript fragment of this period, of which it is said that he usually carried a hatful, goes to the roots of slavery and gives a glimpse at the working habit and logical precision of his mind: —
“If A can prove, however conclusively, that he may of right enslave B, why may not B snatch the same argument and prove equally that he may enslave A? You say A is white and B is black. It is color, then; the lighter having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule you are to be slave to the first man you meet with a fairer skin than your own. You do not mean color exactly? You mean the
whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and therefore they have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule you are to be slave to the first man you meet with an intellect superior to your own. But, you say, it is a question of interest, and if you
make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.”