What was Abraham Lincoln’s position on slavery when he campaigned in 1860?

By the time of the 1860 campaign, Abraham Lincoln had articulated his position that he was morally and personally opposed to slavery. Lincoln wanted to stop the spread of slavery but did not go so far as to agree with the abolitionists who wanted to end slavery completely.

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After his performance in the debates with Stephen Douglas during the 1858 campaign, Abraham Lincoln rose to national prominence. Until the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1912, senators were not elected. State legislatures appointed representatives to the United States Senate, and Stephen Douglas retained his position...

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After his performance in the debates with Stephen Douglas during the 1858 campaign, Abraham Lincoln rose to national prominence. Until the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1912, senators were not elected. State legislatures appointed representatives to the United States Senate, and Stephen Douglas retained his position by appointment. Though not achieving his goal of becoming a United States senator, the debates were widely published in newspapers across the US, earning Lincoln an invitation to speak to several large gatherings of Republican party leaders and local officials.

The issue of slavery was prominent in the debates between Lincoln and Douglas. From the primary source evidence in letters and speeches before the debates, historians generally have concluded Lincoln was personally opposed to slavery. Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd, was from a family of slaveholders. There is no evidence that Lincoln addressed the issue with his wife's family. During the years that Lincoln was actively practicing law (1830–1840), he represented clients on both sides of the issue. In general during this time, Lincoln believed the US Constitution supported the institution of slavery as legal. Lincoln's position on the legality of slavery was consistent with other prominent political leaders and the public during this time.

Primary source materials such as letters support the view that Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery but did not go so far as to support abolitionists' positions. In an 1854 speech, Lincoln spells out his moral, economic, and legal perspective about slavery concluding in the address that while he is in principled opposition to slavery, he has no answer to what should be done. Like many in his day, the Dred Scott decision in 1857 influenced his legal opinion. By the 1858 debates, Lincoln's position on slavery became more lucid and more nuanced. During the fourth debate in 1858, Lincoln said, "I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races." Later he reiterated his objection to slavery on moral grounds but did not go so far as to state slavery should be entirely abolished.

By 1860, Lincoln began expressing more often and more vehemently his moral opposition to slavery. Lincoln started to focusing less on abolishing slavery altogether but instead stopping its spread into other territories and states. In a September 1859 speech, Lincoln writes, "I think Slavery is wrong, morally, and politically. I desire that it should be no further spread in these United States, and I should not object if it should gradually terminate in the whole Union." In later speeches and personal letters, he continued to emphasize stopping the spread of slavery was his primary goal.

Lincoln, in 1860, struck a compromise and conciliatory tone towards the issue of slavery. He opposed slavery on moral issues while acknowledging the problematic legal and political matters an outright ban on slavery presented. His position on the issue of slavery in 1860 gradually changed over time reflecting Lincoln's unique character and ability to seek compromise on difficult issues affecting American society.

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