One hundred and fifty years ago, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. But only five years prior, he was locked in an Illinois Senate race with Stephen Douglas, maintaining a position midway between those who would abolish slavery at once and those who would allow the “peculiar institution” to become a permanent feature of the expanding nation. While Douglas would allow the electorate in each newly forming western state to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery, Lincoln argued forcefully against allowing slavery into the new states.
Given the unique logical clarity Lincoln brought to his critique of slavery, students of history in our day often find Lincoln’s reluctance to embrace the abolitionist position confusing. Apparently certain of Lincoln’s contemporaries were also confused. In a short letter Lincoln wrote on October 18, 1858, he strove to clarify his position, by responding to an Illinois politician who had evidently asked Lincoln to explain whether his anti-slavery views implied support for “social and political equality between the black and white races.”
Lincoln penned a draft of the letter in a small notebook he carried about with him during the senate campaign, in which he affixed newspaper clippings reporting on his debates with Douglas, along with notes to himself to be reworked into speeches. It is interesting to compare the letter to J. N. Brown to other entries Lincoln made in his notebook during the fall of 1858, as well as to notes he wrote in 1854 and 1859. In these, Lincoln’s explanation of the principle of human equality admits none of the contradictions seen in the 1858 letter.
Read Lincoln’s notes on slavery:
Fragments on Slavery, April 1, 1854
Fragment: Notes for Speeches, October 1, 1858
Fragment: On Slavery, December 1, 1858
Fragment on Slavery, 1859