-- Dilemmas of Compromise --

Problem 1

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What Lincoln Did

Lincoln determined to make no public statements about the secession crisis during this period of time. And with only minor exceptions, he held firm to his purpose. He explained that his views were known or could be deter mined from previous public statements. He also claimed that statements issued at this time would likely be misinterpreted or used for evil purposes by southern radicals. Further, he felt that the constant demands by the South and northern political opponents for his views were an effort to bully him into concessions.

In private correspondence and interviews with political leaders, however, Lincoln made clear his opposition to any compromise on the issue of slavery expansion. He categorically rejected the idea of dividing territories into slave and free areas, which was the basis of the Crittenden proposal and Weed's recommendation. "Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery. If there be, all our labor is lost, and, ere long, must be done again . . . Have none of it. Stand firm. The tug has to come, and better now than at any time hereafter," he wrote to a key Republican senator.

On other issues separating North and South, Lincoln indicated more moderation. He was willing to support a constitutional amendment forever protecting slavery in its present limits. He would enforce a fugitive slave law, though he wanted modifications of the present one, and he favored the repeal of state laws-- called personal liberty laws-- which posed obstacles to the enforcement of fugitive slave acts. And if it would put sectional antagonism permanently to rest, he would even accept the admission into the Union of the New Mexico territory, most likely as a nominal slave state, so long as the further extension of slavery ceased.

Lincoln's refusal to compromise on the fundamental issue of slavery expansion was owing to a number of considerations:

  1. In order to assure the ultimate end of slavery and the future of America as a free society, slavery could be not be permitted to expand.

  2. To permit slavery to expand would encourage diplomatic and paramilitary activities to annex new, potential slaveholding areas to the United States, such as Cuba.

  3. To make concessions to the South under the threat or reality of secession would be to violate the principle of majority rule and government by the people. The people had spoken in the election of 1860, and if they were forced to make concessions because of a minority's threat to destroy the Union, orderly and democratic government was subverted.

  4. Compromise of the basic Republican Party platform would disappoint the majority of Republicans, thereby demoralizing and weakening the party itself. Since the Republican Party was the primary restraint against the spread of slavery, its destruction would be a disastrous loss to freedom.

  5. After standing firm on the principle of non-expansion, compromise would blemish Lincoln's personal prestige and make him an ineffectual President.

  6. Rejecting compromise did not necessarily worsen the secession crisis or hazard war. Holding firm against concessions would inspire southern unionists to remain loyal and would pressure secessionists to retrace their steps. Concessions to the South, on the other hand, would encourage southern radicals and, in effect, make conflict more likely.

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