Moribund Republican Party Saved by Lincoln

Lincoln reportedly gave a great deal of attention to the last half of his “House Divided” speech, a trumpet call to form ranks against a South which he claimed wanted to push slavery into the Northern States, when no such threat existed. With that paragraph, Lincoln “gently cut the [Republican] party loose from its old Whig moorings and warily charted its course to the port of the abolitionists.” This solidified his party of disunion, and forced the South to react.

Bernhard Thuersam,


Moribund Republican Party Saved by Lincoln

“Lincoln possessed political sagacity to a high degree and well understood the force of public opinion. When [he] sounded the “eventually all free” note in his campaign against [Stephen] Douglas, he had a very definite political object in view. His immediate purpose was to win enough votes to get elected to the United States Senate.

His ground for asking for the votes of his fellow Illinois citizens was that he would represent those who did not want slavery to spread into any of the national territories. However, at the time he was making this race for the Senate with Douglas, it was becoming increasingly clear that slavery did not have the ghost of a show for establishment in any of the unsettled lands then belonging to the nation because the economic basis for the system was lacking in all of them.

The defeat of the slave-State constitution in Kansas made it certain that none of the land which Douglas had opened to slavery north of 36-30 would become slave. In view of the economic circumstances it was becoming more evident that unless the Republican party acquired new tenets there was no reason for continuing its organization.

The purpose for which it had been organized, i.e., restoring the free status of the land north of 36-30, having been accomplished, it would fall to pieces unless it acquired new reasons to continue its existence.

[William] Seward, one of the leading lights of the party, and [Horace] Greeley, the leading editor of the party, were willing at this time to dissolve the party, but Lincoln was unwilling for the Republicans to disband their distinctive anti-slavery organization and have nobody to follow but Douglas, who did not care whether slavery was “voted up or voted down.”

Accordingly, in his debate with Douglas, he had to supply additional material for the sustenance of the party’s life; for the time was rapidly approaching when it would become obvious to everybody that the extension of slavery into the territories had been checked permanently by prevailing economic conditions.

In order to win victory at the polls in 1858 it would be necessary for a Republican candidate not only to hold persons already enrolled in the moribund political organization, but also gain additional recruits . . . [and] two groups from which new members could be drawn were the bona-fide abolitionists and the Henry Clay “Whigs,” who had hitherto refused to enroll themselves in the sectional political party.

The abolitionists supplied the soul of the anti-slavery movement of the north, but they had in general refused to vote for anybody who compromised on anything less than a declaration in favor of abolition of slavery in the slave States. The Henry Clay Whigs of the North opposed further acquisition of territory which could be devoted to slavery but desired ultimate abolition only under conditions equitable to the South. They had the most kindly feelings toward the Southern whites and like Clay preferred the liberty of their own race to that of any other race, although they were no friends of slavery.

Lincoln so skillfully calculated the wording of his famous House-Divided speech that it won converts to his following from both the above-mentioned groups. It carried water on both shoulders, so to speak, for it was so constructed that it was acceptable to both radicals and moderate conservatives.”

(The Peaceable Americans of 1860-1861, A Study in Public Opinion, Mary Scrugham, Columbia, 1921, pp. 17- 20)

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