1860’s Politics: Common Ground? (2nd Edition)

Emerging Civil War 1860's Politics Header

This is a 2nd Edition article. When it was first published, blog readers noticed some historical errors. I removed the pieced, fixed the errors, and now share it again. My sincere apologies for the original mistakes. (Sarah Kay Bierle)

In 1860, President-Elect Lincoln received a letter from Alexander H. Stephens. Stephens was a Southerner politician who would eventually become vice president of the  Confederacy. Expressing concern for the situation in America, Stephens addressed the ever-looming question in the minds of Southern slave-owners. What was Lincoln really going to do?

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln

On December 22, 1860, Lincoln responded to Stephens. Expressing his initial belief that slavery would not be approved or meddled with, he tried to reassure the wary Southerner. (It wasn’t until 1862 that Lincoln started supporting emancipation in his political platform.)

At the conclusion of his letter, Lincoln wrote:

You think slavery is right and ought to be extended, while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That, I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.[i]

“The only substantial difference between us.” What a strange thing for a politician to say. Was it true?

It depends.

Lincoln and Stephens had some differences on government, slavery, and the Constitution. There’s no getting around that…so, at first glance, it looks like Lincoln isn’t living up to his “Honest Abe” moniker.

Alexander H. Stephens (1859)
Alexander H. Stephens (1859)

However – thinking more carefully – there were many similarities between Lincoln and Stephens. Both loved their country. Both originally supported the Whig political party. Both were excellent lawyers. Both enjoyed reading. Both were “self-made men” – although they pursued different end goals and were obviously influenced by the regions were they grew up. They were both Americans.

Lincoln and Stephens clashed because of their regionally-induced political differences. One can’t help wondering what might have happened if one of the men had grown up in the opposite region; perhaps they could’ve been best friends.

Politics can be divisive. Though both Lincoln and Stephens started their political careers as Whig party supporters, they eventually ended up in different political parties. Stephens watched the Whig party dissolve in the South, and, by the 1860 Election, had reluctantly aligned with Stephen Douglas, a Democrat. Lincoln joined the newly-formed Republican Party and ran for president.

In December 1860, during the Lincoln – Stephens correspondence, Alexander Stephens was a conditional unionist. He wasn’t a fire-eating secessionist. He wanted the states to remain united, but he also wanted to keep slavery which prompted the discussion with Lincoln.

Two American men. Both wanted national unity. Two different destinies because of their different viewpoints on slavery. In many ways, that was the “only substantial difference” between them.

One of the stand-out ideas reflected in the correspondence of Lincoln and Stephens is their respect for each other and willingness to communicate. In their own ways, they both wanted the best for the country.

Perhaps we can hope for a day or an election where candidates can and will sincerely acknowledge the strengths and some positive similarities in their opponent. Hopefully, candidates want the best for America…even if their viewpoints are different.


[i] Abraham Lincoln, The Original Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, As Reflected in His Letters and Speeches (edited by Jack Lang), 1941. Page 92, Letter to Alexander Stephens.

4 Responses to 1860’s Politics: Common Ground? (2nd Edition)

  1. Stephens was a long-time Whig, like Lincoln and an ardent Union man before the war. He was perhaps the strongest speaker against disunion at Georgia’s secession convention. His appointment as vice president of the Confederacy could be seen as a nod to Southern Union men, especially in Georgia, who were a majority right up the secession, when revolutionary fervor tilted the state towards secession. Jefferson Davis never really trusted Stephens, especially early in the war. Lincoln and Stephens had much in common before Georgia crossed the Rubicon.

  2. Great blog post, but, I’m curious about the phrase “die-hard Southerner.” Stephens was a Unionist up until Georgia left the Union. Evan as the war wore on, he became more and more disenfranchised with Davis and the Nationalist bent of the Confederate government. Does Stephens really fit the definition of a “die-hard Southerner?”

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