College of LAS « Illinois

Lincoln: America’s “First and Only Choice”

By Vernon Burton
Dr. Burton is a professor emeritus of history, sociology, and African American studies at U of I and is the author of Age of Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln

This year commemorates the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth; and while that rightly is getting much press, it is also the sesquicentennial of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Those debates probably changed the direction of history. Moreover, if eastern Republicans had had their way, there would have been no need for the debates.

In 1858, some eastern Republicans misread Democrat Stephen Douglas’ support of popular sovereignty to be antislavery. To the dismay of Abraham Lincoln, some of these Republican leaders, including Horace Greeley and William Seward, suggested that Illinois Republicans support Douglas for re-election to the Senate in 1858.

Lincoln complained to Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull about Greeley’s newspaper the New York Tribune constantly “eulogizing and admiring and magnifying Douglas.” Lincoln wondered if eastern Republicans had decided that “the Republican cause, generally, can be best promoted by sacrificing us here in Illinois? If so, we would like to know it soon; it will save us a great deal of labor to surrender at once.”

Instead, Lincoln’s friends and supporters, William Herndon and others, took bold action. Not waiting for the fall elections to the state legislature where the nominee would be determined along party lines, they arranged—for the first time on a state legislative level—a party convention, where on June 16, 1858, Lincoln was proposed as the “first and only choice” for the Republican party’s candidate “as the successor of Stephen A. Douglas” for Illinois senator. Without that somewhat startling endorsement, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas would not have needed the famous seven debates to garner political support for their differing positions as Douglas would have been the shoo-in candidate.

This is a contingency point in American history; one can only imagine the results if Illinois had followed the suggestions of the eastern leaders of the Republican party. The Lincoln-Douglas debates presented Illinois and America with two visions of democracy. Douglas and the Democrats proffered pure white supremacy, while Lincoln proffered a more inclusive vision of liberty and democracy.

If the Illinois Republicans had not taken the forthright initiative in 1858, Lincoln would not have been the nominee for the Republican party and Douglas would most likely have been elected president on his white supremacy platform. Quite possibly South Carolina would not have seceded from the Union; Civil War would have been avoided, but at the price of institutionalizing white supremacy. Indeed, if Lincoln had not been elected president, America would be a much different country.

Next: The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Read the other monthly essays in this special commemorative series.

October 2008

Lincoln Bicentennial Events at U of I

October 13
Lincoln’s Rhetorical Worlds, Professor Michael Leff
November 11
Lincoln Lecture, Professor Robin Blackburn