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Slavery, Secession, and States' Rights

Washington's association with the victorious and popular stance on issues of independence made him the unanimous choice for president in 1789. Conversely, Lincoln's careful stance on a variety of issues guided him to a meager victory in a year when the country, and its political parties, were ravaged by a maelstrom of complicated and volatile issues.

Sir,...
1st-- Suppose you should be elected President of the United States and the South would not submit to your inauguration: What would you do? --
2nd -- Are you opposed to slavery as it now exists in the slave states, and if so, do you believe that Congress has more power to remove it from those states than to protect it in the Territories?
3rd -- Were you in favor of J[ohn] Brown the Traitor, or do you now occasionally drop a silent tear or two in honor to his memory?

I am a voter and I want to know exactly every inch of ground you stand upon -- I want to know for I want to vote for the right kind of a man -- If you suit me I'll go for you -- If not away with you!!

From Thomas T. Swan to Abraham Lincoln, June 15. 1860

As Thomas Swan's letter shows, the 1860 presidential election turned on a number of issues including secession, treachery, the relationship between the federal government, states, and territories, as well as slavery and abolition. Candidates had to consider how to hold the nation together when its states were divided about slavery and states' rights; how to resolve questions about federal vs. state power; how to govern the Western territories; and how to respond to extremist abolitionists like John Brown.

Two opponents of slavery, Abraham Lincoln and William Seward, fought for the Republican nomination in 1860. Lincoln had recently lost the 1858 Senate race to Stephen Douglas, and was not in office at the time of the campaign. Seward, though a sitting Senator, lost favor with Republicans because of his political "insider" status and his more radical abolitionist opinions, as illustrated by the speech excerpted here. Republicans feared Seward could not carry states sympathetic to slavery.

"Slavery is not, and never can be, perpetual. It will be overthrown either peacefully or lawfully under this Constitution, or it will work the subversion of the Constitution, together with its own overthrow. Then the slaveholders would perish in the struggle. "

Lincoln advocated a more moderate party plank designed to preserve the Union. Though we remember Lincoln as the president who ended slavery, at the time of his campaign, he vowed not to restrict slavery in states where it was already present, but promised to prohibit expansion in the Western territories. Lincoln also disavowed John Brown. This more moderate position earned Lincoln the Republican nomination, but would it be enough to win the White House?

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