Four Great Americans  by James Baldwin

The Story of Abraham Lincoln

Part 4 of 4

XII.—The Question of Slavery

The great subject before the country at this time was slavery. It had been the cause of trouble for many years.

In the early settlement of the American colonies, slavery had been introduced through the influence of the English government. The first slaves had been brought to Virginia nearly 240 years before the time of which I am telling you.

Many people saw from the beginning that it was an evil which would at some distant day bring disaster upon the country. In 1772, the people of Virginia petitioned the King of England to put a stop to the bringing of slaves from Africa into that colony. But the petition was rejected; and the King forbade them to speak of the matter any more.

Washington, Jefferson, and other founders of our nation looked upon slavery as an evil. They hoped that the time might come when it would be done away with; for they knew that the country would prosper better without it.

At the time of the Revolution, slavery was permitted in all the states. But it was gradually abolished, first in Pennsylvania and then in the New England states, and afterwards in New York.

In 1787, a law was passed by Congress declaring that there should be no slavery in the territory northwest of the river Ohio. This was the territory from which the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin were formed; and so, of course, these states were free states from the beginning.

The great industry of the South was cotton-raising. The people of the Southern states claimed that slavery was necessary, because only negro slaves could do the work required on the big cotton plantations. Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana were admitted, one by one, into the Union; and all were slave states.

In 1821, Missouri applied for admission into the Union. The South wanted slavery in this state also, but the North objected. There were many hot debates in Congress over this question. At last, through the influence of Henry Clay, the dispute was settled by what has since been known as the Missouri Compromise.

The Missouri Compromise provided that Missouri should be a slave state; this was to satisfy the South. On the other hand, it declared that all the western territory north of the line which formed the southern boundary of Missouri, should forever be free; this was to appease the North.

But the cotton planters of the South grew more wealthy by the labor of their slaves. More territory was needed for the extension of slavery. Texas joined the United States and became a slave state.

Then followed a war with Mexico; and California, New Mexico and Utah were taken from that country. Should slavery be allowed in these new territories also?

At this time a new political party was formed. It was called the "Free Soil Party," and the principle for which it contended was this: "No more slave states and no slave territory."

This party was not very strong at first, but soon large numbers of Whigs and many northern Democrats, who did not believe in the extension of slavery, began to join it.

Although the Whig party refused to take any position against the extension of slavery, there were many anti-slavery Whigs who still remained with it and voted the Whig ticket—and one of these men was Abraham Lincoln.

The contest between freedom and slavery became more fierce every day. At last another compromise was proposed by Henry Clay.

This compromise provided that California should be admitted as a free state; that slavery should not be prohibited in New Mexico and Utah; that there should be no more markets for slaves in the District of Columbia; and that a new and very strict fugitive-slave law should be passed.

This compromise is called the "Compromise of 1850." It was in support of these measures that Daniel Webster made his last great speech.

It was hoped by Webster and Clay that the Compromise of 1850 would put an end to the agitation about slavery. "Now we shall have peace," they said. But the agitation became stronger and stronger, and peace seemed farther away than ever before.

In 1854, a bill was passed by Congress to organize the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. This bill provided that the Missouri Compromise should be repealed, and that the question of slavery in these territories should be decided by the people living in them.

The bill was passed through the influence of Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. There was now no bar to the extension of slavery into any of the territories save that of public opinion.

The excitement all over the North was very great. In Kansas there was actual war between those who favored slavery and those who opposed it. Thinking men in all parts of the country saw that a great crisis was at hand.

XIII.—Lincoln and Douglas

It was then that Abraham Lincoln came forward as the champion of freedom.

Stephen A. Douglas was a candidate for re-election to the Senate, and he found it necessary to defend himself before the people of his state for the part he had taken in repealing the Missouri Compromise. He went from one city to another, making speeches; and at each place Abraham Lincoln met him in joint debate.

"I do not care whether slavery is voted into or out of the territories," said Mr. Douglas. "The question of slavery is one of climate. Wherever it is to the interest of the inhabitants of a territory to have slave property, there a slave law will be enacted."

But Mr. Lincoln replied, "The men who signed the Declaration of Independence said that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. . . . I beseech you, do not destroy that immortal emblem of humanity, the Declaration of Independence."

At last, Mr. Douglas felt that he was beaten. He proposed that both should go home, and that there should be no more joint discussions. Mr. Lincoln agreed to this; but the words which he had spoken sank deep into the hearts of those who heard them.

The speeches of Lincoln and Douglas were printed in a book. People in all parts of the country read them. They had heard much about Stephen A. Douglas. He was called "The Little Giant." He had long been famous among the politicians of the country. It was believed that he would be the next President of the United States.

But who was this man Lincoln, who had so bravely vanquished the Little Giant? He was called "Honest Abe." There were few people outside of his state who had ever heard of him before.

Mr. Douglas returned to his seat in the United States senate. Mr. Lincoln became the acknowledged leader of the forces opposed to the extension of slavery.

In May, 1856, a convention of the people of Illinois was held in Bloomington, Illinois. It met for the purpose of forming a new political party, the chief object and aim of which should be to oppose the extension of slavery into the territories.

Mr. Lincoln made a speech to the members of this convention. It was one of the greatest speeches ever heard in this country. "Again and again, during the delivery, the audience sprang to their feet, and, by long-continued cheers, expressed how deeply the speaker had roused them."

And so the new party was organized. It was composed of the men who had formed the old Free Soil Party, together with such Whigs and Democrats as were opposed to the further growth of the slave power. But the greater number of its members were Whigs. This new party was called the Republican Party.

In June, the Republican Party held a national convention at Philadelphia, and nominated John C. Frémont for President. But the party was not strong enough to carry the election that year.

In that same month the Democrats held a convention at Cincinnati. Every effort was made to nominate Stephen A. Douglas for President. But he was beaten in his own party, on account of the action which he had taken in the repeal of the Missouri Compromise.

James Buchanan was nominated in his stead, and, in November, was elected.

And so the conflict went on.

In the year 1858 there was another series of joint debates between Lincoln and Douglas. Both were candidates for the United States senate. Their speeches were among the most remarkable ever delivered in any country.

Lincoln spoke for liberty and justice. Douglas's speeches were full of fire and patriotism. He hoped to be elected President in 1860. In the end, it was generally acknowledged that Lincoln had made the best arguments. But Douglas was reëlected to the Senate.

XIV.—President of the United States

In 1860 there were four candidates for the presidency.

The great Democratic Party was divided into two branches. One branch nominated Stephen A. Douglas. The other branch, which included the larger number of the slave-owners of the South, nominated John C. Breckinridge, of Kentucky.

The remnant of the old Whig Party, now called the "Union Party," nominated John Bell, of Tennessee.

The Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln.

In November came the election, and a majority of all the electors chosen were for Lincoln.

The people of the cotton-growing states believed that, by this election, the Northern people intended to deprive them of their rights. They believed that the anti-slavery people intended to do much more than prevent the extension of slavery. They believed that the abolitionists were bent upon passing laws to deprive them of their slaves.

Wild rumors were circulated concerning the designs which the "Black Republicans," as they were called, had formed for their coercion and oppression. They declared that they would never submit.

And so, in December, the people of South Carolina met in convention, and declared that that state had seceded from the Union—that they would no longer be citizens of the United States. One by one, six other states followed; and they united to form a new government, called the Confederate States of America.

It had long been held by the men of the South that a state had the right to withdraw from the Union at any time. This was called the doctrine of States' Rights.

The Confederate States at once chose Jefferson Davis for their President, and declared themselves free and independent.

In February, Mr. Lincoln went to Washington to be inaugurated. His enemies openly boasted that he should never reach that city alive; and a plot was formed to kill him on his passage through Baltimore. But he took an earlier train than the one appointed, and arrived at the capital in safety.

On the 4th of March he was inaugurated. In his address at that time he said: "In your hands, my dissatisfied countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. Your government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the government; while I shall have the most solemn one to protect and defend it."

The Confederate States demanded that the government should give up all the forts, arsenals, and public property within their limits. This, President Lincoln refused to do. He said that he could not admit that these states had withdrawn from the Union, or that they could withdraw without the consent of the people of the United States, given in a national convention.

And so, in April, the Confederate guns were turned upon Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, and the war was begun. President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 men to serve in the army for three months; and both parties prepared for the great contest.

It is not my purpose to give a history of that terrible war of four years. The question of slavery was now a secondary one. The men of one party were determined, at whatever hazard, to preserve the Union. The men of the other party fought to defend their doctrine of States' Rights, and to set up an independent government of their own.

President Lincoln was urged to use his power and declare all the slaves free. He answered:

"My paramount object is to save the Union, and not either to save or destroy slavery.

"If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it. If I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it. If I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that."

At last, however, when he saw that the success of the Union arms depended upon his freeing the slaves, he decided to do so. On the 1st of January, 1863, he issued a proclamation declaring that the slaves, in all the states or parts of states then in rebellion, should be free.

More than three millions of colored people were given their freedom.

But the war still went on. It reached a turning point, however, at the battle of Gettysburg, in July, that same year. From that time the cause of the Confederate States was on the wane. Little by little the patriots, who were struggling for the preservation of the Union, prevailed.

XV.—The End of a Great Life

At the close of Mr. Lincoln's first term, he was again elected President of the United States. The war was still going on, but the Union arms were now everywhere victorious.

His second inaugural address was very short. He did not boast of any of his achievements; he did not rejoice over the defeat of his enemies. But he said:

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Five weeks after that, on the 9th of April, 1865, the Confederate army surrendered, and the war was at an end.

Abraham Lincoln's work was done.

The 14th of April was Good Friday. On the evening of that day, Mr. Lincoln, with Mrs. Lincoln and two or three friends, visited Ford's Theatre in Washington.

At a few minutes past 10 o'clock, an actor whose name was John Wilkes Booth, came into the box where Mr. Lincoln sat. No one saw him enter. He pointed a pistol at the President's head, and fired. He leaped down upon the stage, shouting "Sic semper tyrannis!  The South is avenged!" Then he ran behind the scenes and out by the stage door.

The President fell forward. His eyes closed. He neither saw, nor heard, nor felt anything that was taking place. Kind arms carried him to a private house not far away.

At twenty minutes past seven o'clock the next morning, those who watched beside him gave out the mournful news that Abraham Lincoln was dead.

He was fifty-six years old.

The whole nation wept for him. In the South as well as in the North, the people bowed themselves in grief. Heartfelt tributes of sorrow came from other lands in all parts of the world. Never, before nor since, has there been such universal mourning.

Such is the story of Abraham Lincoln. In the history of the world, there is no story more full of lessons of perseverance, of patience, of honor, of true nobility of purpose. Among the great men of all time, there has been no one more truly great than he.