Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney: Slavery, Secession, and the President's War Powers
The clashes between President Abraham Lincoln and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney over slavery, secession, and the president's constitutional war powers went to the heart of Lincoln's presidency. James Simon, author of the acclaimed What Kind of Nation, brings to vivid life the passionate struggle during the worst crisis in the nation's history, the Civil War
Sixteenth President 1861-1865
During the Civil War, telegraph wires were strung to follow the action on the battlefield but there was no telegraph office in the White House, so Lincoln went across the street to the War Department to get the news.
Fast Fact: Abhorring war, Abraham Lincoln accepted War as the only means to save the Union.
The government will not assail you.... You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect and defend it."
Lincoln thought secession illegal, and was willing to use force to defend Federal law and the Union. When Confederate batteries fired on Fort Sumter and forced its surrender, he called on the states for 75,000 volunteers. Four more slave states joined the Confederacy but four remained within the Union. The Civil War had begun.
The son of a Kentucky frontiersman, Lincoln had to struggle for a living and for learning. Five months before receiving his party's nomination for President, he sketched his life:
"I was born Feb. 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families--second families, perhaps I should say. My mother, who died in my tenth year, was of a family of the name of Hanks.... My father ... removed from Kentucky to ... Indiana, in my eighth year.... It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods. There I grew up.... Of course when I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher ... but that was all."
Lincoln made extraordinary efforts to attain knowledge while working on a farm, splitting rails for fences, and keeping store at New Salem, Illinois. He was a captain in the Black Hawk War, spent eight years in the Illinois legislature, and rode the circuit of courts for many years. His law partner said of him, "His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest."
He married Mary Todd, and they had four boys, only one of whom lived to maturity.
In 1858 Lincoln ran against Stephen A. Douglas for Senator. He lost the election, but in debating with Douglas he gained a national reputation that won him the Republican nomination for President in 1860.
As President, he built the Republican Party into a strong national organization. Further, he rallied most of the northern Democrats to the Union cause.
Lincoln never let the world forget that the Civil War involved an even larger issue. This he stated most movingly in dedicating the military cemetery at Gettysburg: "that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain--that this nation,
under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Lincoln won re-election in 1864, as Union military triumphs heralded an end to the war. In his planning for peace, the President was flexible and generous, encouraging Southerners to lay down their arms and join speedily in reunion.
The spirit that guided him was clearly that of his Second Inaugural Address, now inscribed on one wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C.:
"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds.... "
Why, Kansas is neither the whole, nor a tithe of the real question. "A house divided against itself can not stand"
I believe this government can not endure permanently half slave, and half free.
I expressed this belief a year ago; and subsequent developments have but confirmed me.
I do not expect the Union to be dissolved. I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and put it in course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawfull in all the states, old, as well as new. Do you doubt it? Study the Dred Scott decision, and then see, how little, even now, remains to be done.
That decision may be reduced to three points. The first is, that a negro can not be a citizen. That point is made in order to deprive the negro in every possible event, of the benefit of that provision of the U. S. Constitution which declares that: "The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all previleges [sic] and immunities of citizens in the several States."
The second point is, that the U. S. constitution protects slavery, as property, in all the U. S. territories, and that neither congress, nor the people of the territories, nor any other power, can prohibit it, at any time prior to the formation of State constitutions.
This point is made, in order that the territories may safely be filled up with slaves, before the formation of State constitutions, and thereby to embarrass the free state (sentiment, and enhance the chances of slave constitutions being adopted.)
(The third point decided is that the voluntary bringing of Dred Scott into Illinois by his master, and holding him here a long time as a slave, did not operate his emancipation -- did not make him free.)
Notes: Basler 2: 452-453, from the Nicolay-Hay edition of Lincoln's works with minor variations in paragraphing, emphases, capitalization and spelling, and expanded abbreviations. The portion in angled brackets comes from the same source. Basler dates this speech "[c. May 18 1858]" based upon the Alton Weekly Courier report of the May 20th. Nicolay-Hay dates the speech to "[October 1, 1858?]" which is too late since Lincoln delivered a later form of this "House Divided" speech at the Republican State Convention, June 16 of that year (Basler 2: 461-2 and 464). Current dating is based upon Don E. Fehrenbacher's hypothesis that this speech responds to Stephen A. Douglas's speech in the Senate of 1857 Dec. 9
Source: Gilder Lehrman Collection
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Presidential Vote Results by State 1860
Source: National Atlas . Gov
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United States White House
US National Park Service