The Kansas-Nebraska Crisis

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Based on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, was the 1858 Republican Party abolitionist?

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The 1858 debates between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln focused on the slavery question. The nation was increasingly divided, and Kansas was the scene of intense conflict between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces. At the time, Douglas was the better-known figure, so Lincoln welcomed the opportunity to debate him. Douglas was a great speaker and the leader of the Democratic party, while Lincoln was still largely unknown. The winner would gain a US Senate seat and represent Illinois.

Lincoln was not an abolitionist, but he strongly opposed the expansion of slavery. Even though Lincoln was not an abolitionist, his views were certainly hostile to slavery. Southerners believed that slavery had to expand in order to survive, so they came to view Lincoln as a great enemy. Douglas wanted the people of new territories to decide whether or not to have slavery; this policy was known as popular sovereignty. Lincoln was eloquent and convincing during the debates. Nevertheless, Douglas won a close election. But Lincoln earned fameā€”and the respect of Douglas himself. After the election of 1858, Lincoln was well-placed for the presidency in 1860.

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The Republican Party in 1858 was not necessarily an abolitionist party, though many Whigs who did not like the party's noncommittal stance on the issue did join the party. Lincoln stated that the United States could not exist "half slave and half free" in his famous "House Divided" speech, but he did not imply that slavery should be abolished. Lincoln's suggestion was that slavery should not be allowed in the new territories. Lincoln called for the Union to stay together whether or not slavery existed.

Douglas, who would ultimately win the Senate campaign, stated that Lincoln was an abolitionist in the same mold as William Seward and others in Congress. Seward, in the debates over the Compromise of 1850, implied that ending slavery was "God's rule" and that Congress should not allow it into the territories. By implication, this meant that slaveholders existed outside the will of God. Seward was considered one of a group of ex-Whigs/Republicans who stirred disunion. Douglas also claimed that Lincoln was for the equality of the races, even interracial marriage. Lincoln never claimed this, and even late into his presidency, Lincoln still held back from saying that the races were equal. Given the debates in 1858, Lincoln was not a true abolitionist, but he would be considered a moderate the Republicans could support in 1860.

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The position on slavery set out by Lincoln in his famous debates with Douglas formed the basis of the Republican Party's platform in the 1860 election. The GOP had been founded in 1854 with the express aim of opposing the extension of slavery into the Western territories. However, this was not the same thing as proposing the outright abolition of slavery. Lincoln realized that such a policy would sow even greater division between North and South, undermining the stability of the Union in the process.

Yet during their debates Douglas accused Lincoln of being an abolitionist, referring to his famous "House Divided" speech in which he's said the following:

I believe this government cannot endure permanently half Slave and half Free.

What Lincoln was driving at, however, was the necessity of maintaining the nation's stability as a political entity. For him, that was always the number one priority. As he said himself, he would countenance the existence of slavery in every state if it meant holding the nation together. But still Douglas persisted, hammering away at his central charge. He tried to link the abolitionist cause with racial equality, something almost no white American at the time accepted, including Lincoln. Though some of the more radical Republicans were indeed outright abolitionists, the GOP mainstream endorsed Lincoln's more cautious approach.

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