Correcting the Historical Record about Lincoln’s First Battle With Slavery

In 1837, the Illinois legislature overwhelmingly passed resolutions on slavery. One of the resolutions supported the preservation of slavery in the District of Columbia. Then-legislator Abraham Lincoln, along with a colleague, filed a written protest against the resolutions. The protest showed Lincoln’s support for D. C. emancipation – if the District’s Whites approved. A modest stance, but not proslavery like what the legislature had adopted. And it marked the first time in his career that Lincoln publicly confronted the issue of slavery. It also foreshadowed his later attempts to get rid of slavery in the nation’s capital, culminating in wartime D. C. emancipation legislation in 1862.

However, there is some misunderstanding about this historical record, because many historians have mistakenly claimed that the 1837 legislature approved of emancipating the District’s slaves with the consent of the White residents – which would have been a similar position to Lincoln’s. But this interpretation of events is mistaken. To clarify the situation, it’s necessary to describe parliamentary maneuvering in some detail, but hopefully this will make the situation clearer.[i]

Let us go back to 1837, and Round One in what became Lincoln’s lifelong battle against slavery.

The abolitionist movement of the 1830s, calling for immediate freedom for the slaves and the right of freed people to live in the United States, had provoked anger in the South.[ii] A  major part of the abolitionist campaign was to demand that Congress free the enslaved in the District of Columbia, where Congress constitutionally “exercise[d] exclusive Legislation.”[iii]

In early 1836, at least three slaveholding states – Mississippi, Alabama and Virginia –  asked for the censorship of the abolitionists and recognition of slave states’ authority over slavery. Copies of these resolutions were sent to the Northern states.[iv] At the end of 1836, Illinois Governor Joseph Duncan forwarded these resolutions (and a couple others) to the legislature (meeting in the state capital of Vandalia). The Illinois House of Representatives – of which Lincoln was a member – and the state Senate appointed a Joint Select Committee to consider these slavery petitions from sister states.[v]

On January 12, 1837, the joint committee issued a report and proposed several legislative resolutions, with the report and recommendations being inserted in the legislative journal. The committee wanted the legislature to give a polite “no” to the Southern demands for Northern censorship of abolitionists. But it would be a very polite “no.” The Select Committee report said that abolitionist groups’ activities harmed enslaved Blacks by impeding African colonization schemes, which the committee held forth as the method by which a true “Christian and philanthropist” would deal with slavery. But the abolitionists had sabotaged the colonizationists’ work, “forg[ing] new irons for the black man,” “scatter[ing] the firebrands of discord and disunion,” and “arous[ing] the turbulent passion of the monster mob.” Implicitly rejecting censorship of abolitionists, the committee said that it was “public opinion” which would counteract abolitionism.[vi]

Then the joint committee recommended that the legislature pass several resolutions. The first of the joint committee’s proposed resolutions would have “highly disapprove[d]” of abolitionist groups and their “doctrines.” The second proposed resolution would have declared that “the right of property in slaves, is sacred to the slave-holding States by the Federal Constitution” and that the federal government could not abolish slavery in the states. The third of the proposed resolutions would have said: “Resolved, That the General [i. e. federal] Government cannot abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, against the consent of the citizens of said District without a manifest breach of good faith.” Copies of the report and resolutions were to be sent to the states which had communicated with Illinois in the first place about slavery.[vii]

Many historians have confused the Joint Committee’s report and proposed resolutions, which were printed in the legislative journal, with the final legislative resolution.[viii] But in fact, on January 13 the Illinois House referred the joint committee report to a new committee consisting of five men. This new committee, rejecting the Select Committee’s proposed resolutions, proposed new resolutions on January 20. Unlike the case with the earlier joint committee, the new committee did not get its proposed amendments published in the legislative journal, which may have contributed to later confusion.[ix]

The legislature adopted the new resolutions. It also recommended that copies of the new resolutions be sent to those states which had requested action on slavery. The Select Committee’s lengthy report, minus the Select Committee’s rejected resolutions, would also be sent.

The new resolutions, as adopted by the legislature, denounced abolitionists and said that power to enslave people was “secured” (not “sacred”) to the states. On the key issue of abolition in the District of Columbia, the legislature’s resolution rejected the Select Committee’s willingness to allow D. C. emancipation. Here is what the legislature now had to say:

“…we are fully convinced that the disturbance or abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia by Congress, would be unwise, injudicious, and highly inexpedient, and that we therefore would much regret to see this institution abolished in that district, and particularly under circumstances threatening danger to the general safety of the slaveholding states.”[x]

Nothing in this resolution mentioned the possibility of D. C. emancipation, not even with approval from the local Whites. Thus, the legislature’s final resolution rejected the recommendations of the joint committee.

The vote to approve all of this was 77 to 6. Lincoln and his Sangamon colleague Daniel Stone were among the six “Nay” votes. Lincoln had attempted to insert into the resolutions a statement supporting emancipation in the District if the local whites asked for it, but as with the Select Committee recommendation, the legislature overwhelmingly rejected Lincoln’s proposal.[xi]

On January 26 and 28, the Illinois House learned that the state Senate had approved the House resolutions, and that the resolutions had thus been duly passed.[xii]

Lincoln’s main focus in this legislative session was not slavery, but state infrastructure projects and the relocation of the state capital to Springfield in his home county of Sangamon. The legislature approved these measures (though the initially-popular bond issues culminated in repudiation and decades-long financial problems for the state).[xiii]

After the Springfield bill had passed, Lincoln on March 3 joined Daniel Stone in filing a written protest against the legislature’s slavery resolution from January (the other four Nay voters did not join the protest). The protest, which was entered in the legislative journal, denounced both slavery and abolitionism, and declared that the federal government could not interfere with slavery in the states.[xiv]

Concerning slavery in the District of Columbia, the protest said:

“They [Lincoln and Stone] believe that the Congress of the United States has the power, under the constitution, to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia; but that that power ought not to be exercised unless at the request of the people of said District.”[xv]

Lincoln and Stone added: “The difference between these opinions and those contained in the said resolutions, is their reason for entering this protest.”[xvi]

Lincoln had issued a condemnation of abolitionists – he was closer to the colonizationist position until the middle of the Civil War – but he coupled his anti-abolitionism with an unambiguous denunciation of slavery. He accepted the then-mainstream constitutional doctrine that the federal government could not abolish slavery in the states. But most significantly, and in contrast to the legislative resolution from which they dissented, Lincoln and Stone offered a method for slavery to be abolished in the District of Columbia.[xvii]

The courage of Lincoln’s dissent looks even greater when we consider the anti-Black, and even proslavery, prejudices of many Illinoisans. Illinois had seriously debated the idea of becoming a slave state. Although Illinois voters rejected that idea, the state allowed de facto enslavement of Blacks under the guise of long-term indenture “contracts.” Free Blacks were viewed with hostility by public opinion and the law.[xviii] No wonder Lincoln was one of only a few lonely dissenters when he made his first public attack on slavery.

In 1849, when he was in the U. S. House of Representatives, Lincoln sought to effect emancipation in D. C. consistently with his 1837 protest, i. e., with the consent of D. C.’s white voters. His proposed measure sweetened the deal with compensation to the slaveholders if the White vote went against slavery. Lincoln originally had some support from the District’s leaders, but they dropped that support under proslavery pressure, and Lincoln’s proposal died. On April 12 and July 12, 1862, President Lincoln signed legislation to free those who were held in slavery in the District of Columbia – this time without permission from the white residents.[xix]

Thus did Lincoln triumphantly end the issue which had spurred his first intervention into the conflict over slavery, a quarter century previously. In 1837, he had shown that there were circumstances when he would approve the abolition of slavery in the national capital, contrary to his colleagues who would “much regret” such an eventuality. Historical confusion has obscured this important point, but perhaps now our understanding of the episode can be updated.

Sources and Notes:

[i] See note viii below for numerous examples of historians who made the mistake I described.

[ii] Lacy K. Ford, Deliver Us from Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 70-73, 201-02, 301-318, 481-82, 495.

[iii] In 1837, the District of Columbia included an area south of the Potomac which had formerly been part of Virginia, including the city of Alexandria. In 1846, Congress gave this area back to Virginia, reducing the District to its present boundaries. The retrocession to Virginia was motivated in good part by a desire to protect slavery and the slave trade from Congressional interference. A. Glenn Crothers, “The 1846 retrocession of Alexandria: Protecting Slavery and the Slave Trade in the District of Columbia,” in Paul Finkelman and Donald R. Kennon, eds., In the Shadow of Freedom: The Politics of Slavery in the National Capital (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, Published for the United States Capitol Historical Society, 2011), 141-68.

[iv] Journal of the Illinois House of Representatives, 1836-37, 241; Flag of the Union (Tuscaloosa, Alabama), March 19, 1836, p. 2 [publishing the Mississippi resolution], Alabama Legislative Acts, 1835-1836, 174-75; Acts of the General Assembly of the State of Virginia, 1835-36, 395-96.

[v] Illinois House of Representatives Journal, 134, 241.

[vi] Ibid, 241-43. The committee presumably meant to suggest peaceful manifestations of “public opinion.” Later in the year, public opinion was manifested in a more violent way when a mob in Alton, Illinois attacked the headquarters of Elijah Lovejoy’s antislavery newspaper, killing Lovejoy when the latter tried to resist. Ken Ellingwood, First to Fall: Elijah Lovejoy and the Fight for a Free Press in the Age of Slavery (New York: Pegasus, 2021).

[vii] Illinois House of Representatives Journal, 243-44.

[viii] See Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume One (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 122; Ronald C. White, Jr., A. Lincoln: A Biography (New York: Random House, 2009), 76; Ron J. Keller, Lincoln in the Illinois Legislature (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 2019), 74; Fred Kaplan, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer (New York: Harper, 2008), 108; Sidney Blumenthal, A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1849 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016). For earlier examples of this confusion, see Paul Simon, Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years (Urbana:  University of Illinois Press, 1971), 132-33; Arvarh E. Strickland, “The Illinois Background of Lincoln’s Attitude Toward Slavery and the Negro,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 56, no. 3 (1963), 474–94, at 481.

[ix] Illinois House of Representatives Journal, 249, 309.

[x] Ibid, 249, 309. The Liberator, May 19, 1837, p. 1, quoting an undated issue of the Philanthropist (another antislavery paper); The African Repository, April 1837, 109-11. These papers were presumably acting independently of each other in reporting the legislative text, since abolitionists (publishers of the Liberator and the Philanthropist) and colonizationists (publishers of the African Repository) had no love for each other. The Philanthropist text (or the Liberator’s reprint) refers to “the disturbance of abolition of slavery,” but the African Repository text has the much more plausible “the disturbance or abolition of slavery” (emphasis added). The Alabama resolution had opposed abolition in the District “unless by the desire of its own citizens.” So the Illinois legislative resolution was actually more pro-slavery than the Alabama legislature (Though the Virginia legislature, in its resolution, had denied Congressional power to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia (or in the federal territories)). Virginia and Alabama legislative journals, op. cit. Even before the Illinois legislature passed its resolution and presumably had it sent to Mississippi, the governor of Mississippi told his legislature about messages from other Northern states which seem to have taken a stand similar to that of Illinois. Approving the resolutions’ acknowledgement of exclusive state jurisdiction over slavery, Mississippi’s chief executive was nonetheless disappointed at Northern refusal to censor the abolitionists. Vicksburg Whig, Jan 18, 1837, 2.

[xi] Illinois House of Representatives Journal, 309-11. Also rejected, overwhelmingly, was another member’s proposal that abolishing slavery in the District be declared “unconstitutional” as well as “unwise.” The member who thus failed in branding D. C. emancipation unconstitutional was Ninian W. Edwards, one of Lincoln’s colleagues from Sangamon County. Edwards later encouraged Lincoln to marry Edwards’ relative by marriage, Mary Todd. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 84-85, 93. The only change the House accepted to the new committee’s report was some clarifying language offered by “Mr. Douglass” – Stephen Douglas. Illinois House of Representatives Journal, 310.

[xii] Ibid., 391, 414-15.

[xiii] Simon, 48-53, 57-60.

[xiv] Illinois House of Representatives Journal, 817-818; Simon, 133. At the time, Article II, Section 9 of the Illinois Constitution said: “Any two members of either house, shall have liberty to dissent and protest against any act or resolution which they may think injurious to the public or to any individual, and have the reasons of their dissent entered on the journals.”

[xv] Illinois House of Representatives Journal, 817-818.

[xvi] Ibid., 818.

[xvii] Michael Vorenberg, “Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of Black Colonization.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 14, no. 2 (1993): 22–45.

[xviii] M. Scott Heerman, The Alchemy of Slavery: Human Bondage and Emancipation in the Illinois Country, 1730-1865 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018); Suzanne Cooper Guasco, Confronting Slavery: Edward Coles and the Rise of Antislavery Politics in Nineteenth-Century America (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press).

[xix] Donald, 136-37; Kenneth J. Winkle, Lincoln’s Citadel: The Civil War in Washington, DC (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013), 262-79. The Civil War measure gave compensation only to loyal slaveholders.

2 Responses to Correcting the Historical Record about Lincoln’s First Battle With Slavery

  1. The interwoven nature of slavery in mainstream America, even in states north of the Mason-Dixon Line, makes one wonder that slavery was ever successfully brought to an end. The ratification of the Constitution of the United States even hinged on “a Devil’s bargain” that tolerated the existence of slavery (in order to get the votes to adopt the otherwise remarkable document) while contained in the fabric of that document were obvious allusions to the “eventual, and soon” ending of slavery.
    The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is another entity that attempted to end slavery; and when Pennsylvania ratified the Constitution in 1787 she had for seven years operated under the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. In 1790 the Capital of the United States was sited in Philadelphia: a city that then housed fewer than 500 slaves; and that number was declining year after year.
    In the Year of 1800 the National Capital was relocated to the District of Columbia; the land “donated” by Maryland and Virginia came from slave states, so slavery was permitted in the New Capital. And over the next sixty years, slavery would prove to be as slippery as an eel: remove it in one district, only to have it emerge (often through some legislative trick) someplace else. Lincoln and his ilk wrestled with the eel, believing the key to ending slavery in America was to first eliminate it in the National Capital. (Illinois was formed out of the Northwest Territory, where slavery was prohibited; and yet at the time of Illinois becoming a State in 1818… slavery existed in Illinois.)
    However the moral blight of slavery was to be ended, it would be an uphill battle…
    Thank-you to Max Longley for adding this bit of clarity.

  2. Thanks to the Missouri Compromise Illinois had the distinction of having slave states on two sides. The result being southern IL having distinctive anti-abolition sentiment. (Seems to me that abolitionism followed what is today I-90 from Boston westward.) In this timeframe I don’t think Chicago had the degree of influence in state gov’t that would come later. That Lincoln would have even this nuanced position I think makes him an outlier.

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