- Paperback: 205 pages
- Publisher: Stanford University Press; 1st New edition edition (30 Jun. 1970)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0804701202
- ISBN-13: 978-0804701204
- Product Dimensions: 13.7 x 1.5 x 21.6 cm
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,236,942 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850's Paperback – 30 Jun 1970
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" ... [The] paperback edition of Professor Fehrenbacher's study, first published in 1962, of Lincoln in the 1850s is a welcome reminder of what can be achieved by a fresh and searching investigation of often-asked questions... The book is lucidly and soberly written, and full of carefully considered argument. It is one more major contribution to the work of putting the slavery issue back where it has always belonged-at the very centre-of any discussion of the origins of the Civil War."-Journal of American Studies "This is a brilliant book. With thorough research ... and a fresh point of view, we have a study that will shape Lincoln scholarship for many years."-The Journal of Southern History "To say that 'this is just another Lincoln book' would be to demean a significant contribution with a well-worn cliche. This is an outstanding book; we need more like it."-The American Historical Review
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While it may have appeared that Lincoln was politically dormant in the early 50s, his behind-the-scenes political activity became obvious when he became a key anti-Nebraska activist in 1854. As a Whig, Lincoln lost a very close contest in the Illinois legislature for the U.S. Senate (legislatures elected senators in that era). From 1854 to 1856 it had become obvious that both the Whigs and the upstart Know-Nothings could not deal with the slavery issue, which led to their demise. By 1856 Lincoln had finished second in the running for the Vice-Presidential nomination at the first national Republican convention, and in the process had firmly established himself as a leading Republican in Illinois.
It was the continued Kansas crisis and the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision in March of 1857 and the reactions to them that put Lincoln on the national stage. The court decision had affirmed the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in the Kansas-Nebraska Act under a principle of Congressional non-intervention in territories. But Senator Stephen Douglas contended that his doctrine of popular sovereignty continued to hold. Both Lincoln and most Republicans found the indifference or neutrality of popular sovereignty to the spread of slavery to be repugnant. Thus began a series of exchanges and seven formal debates between Douglas and Lincoln before the elections of 1858.
As a senator from mostly anti-slavery Illinois, Douglas had been forced, at the end of 1857, to denounce the machinations of the proslavery element in Kansas in trying to force their constitution on a mostly slave-free territory. In a shrewd and unprecedented political move, Illinois Republicans nominated Lincoln for the U. S. Senate to counter the infatuation of Eastern Republicans with the newly recreated Douglas. Lincoln fired the first shot in the senatorial campaign with his famous "House Divided" speech where he insisted that a nation divided over slavery could not stand.
One of the more controversial ideas that emerged from the debates was Douglas' Freeport Doctrine. In skirting Lincoln's question of whether territorial legislatures could exclude slavery, Douglas claimed that such a legislature's failure to pass laws that favorably policed slavery was tantamount to formally excluding it. The Democratic illusion that non-intervention and popular sovereignty were benignly equivalent had been exploded. According to the author "Southerners could see the walls closing in on them, and the defection of Douglas vividly dramatized the growing isolation of slave society." Ignoring Dred Scott, the South began to insist on the enactment of positive slave codes for the explicit protection of slavery in territories.
Lincoln narrowly lost the senatorial contest in Illinois in 1858, but the issue of slavery had been discussed on the national stage, as it never had been before. While Lincoln had asked the hard questions about slavery, he remained a moderate in Republican circles, and, as such, perhaps the only Republican that could have been elected President in 1860. It is clear that Lincoln had no intention of attacking the institution of slavery in the South. The Southern demand for slave codes applicable to territories was simply irrational given the fact that it was generally agreed upon that no territories were even suitable for slavery. It is most clear from reading this book that had the extremists of the South permitted Lincoln to exercise the fundamental decency and strength of character that he had, that there would have been no reason to precipitate the destruction of an entire way of life.
The main thrust of "Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s" is the attempt to explain how that happened. This is not a biography - rather, it is a collection of interconnected essays exploring, among other things, the importance of Lincoln's Illinois background, his transformation from Whig to Republican, the House Divided speech, and above all, the contest between Lincoln and the most important politician of the 1850s, Stephen A. Douglas.
The late Don E. Fehrenbacher was one of the best scholars of American Law & Politics in the 19th century, and of its relations with slavery. He is best known for his study of the Pulitzer winning account of the Dred Scot Case, but has also written books about the Secession Crises in the United States and about the relations of the US Government to Slavery.
Those who have read Professor Fehrenbacher before will reencounter not only his masterful prose and careful analysis, but many themes that he has written about elsewhere - Slavery in the territories, the "Freeport doctrine", the Dred Scot Case, etc. But the greatness of Fehrenbacher was his ability to offer every time a new insight into these issues, widening and deepening your understanding of it.
This time, the focus is on the interplay between the ambitions and ideals of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A Douglas. We see the famous "House Divided" speech as Lincoln's attempt to distinguish between the Anti-Lecompton Douglas (the Lecompton constitution was a fraudulent pro slavery creation, which Stephen Douglas opposed because he felt it violated the principle of popular sovereignty) and the Republicans: Republicans saw slavery as evil, whereas Douglas treated it with indifference.
Fehrenbacher maintains that the 'House Divided' speech was less revolutionary then it sometimes appears. "The bright promise of ultimate extinction [of slavery] was one of the consequences expected to flow naturally from a settled policy of restrict[ing the expansion of slavery]" (p. 76). So Southerners could supposedly be satisfied that, beyond restricting its extension, no further steps against slavery were intended. Yet, as Fehrenbacher points out, Lincoln believed in a national policy against slavery, treating it as an evil (p. 148). For Southerners, who saw Slavery as a matter of the States, and who have come to appreciate it as a positive good, that was unacceptable.
Yet, at least with the benefit of hindsight, The South promoted the worst policy possible, if the defense of the "Peculiar Institution" was what it was after. By their insistence of the repeal of the Missouri compromise (forbidding slavery in the part of the Missouri territory north of the Mason Dixon line), a harsh fugitive trade law, and accepting the fraudulent Lecompton constitution, Southerners agitated the Northern public about the slavery issue, thus strengthening the Republican Party.
When Stephen Douglas, courting his Northern audience, adopted increasingly anti-Slavery positions (interestingly, Fehrenbacher here sees Douglas's position as entirely opportunistic. Later, in 'The Dred Scot Case' he saw Douglas's motives as a mix of calculation and principle, see Fehrenbacher, Dred Scot Case p. 465), the South's alienation from Douglas made it even more extreme - thus, the "Freeport doctrine", which said that the people of a territory had the ability to reject slavery by unfriendly legislation (essentially, the observation that unpopular laws are difficult to enforce), initially acceptable to the South, became anathema once it was identified with Douglas.
Lincoln's rise had much to do with Stephen Douglas. Without the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, he probably wouldn't have become president, at least not in 1860. But Lincoln's triumph in the Republican convention in Chicago was based on his apparent moderation - the leading candidate William H. Seward, was far too anti-Slavery; and his public opposition to nativism was also objectionable.
Lincoln was elected because he was a compromise candidate - his public profile of moderation, essential for winning over the lower Northern states, and being a representative of Illinois, one of the crucial states in the election. But he also won because of his careful political maneuvering. Lincoln certainly 'grew' as a president, but facing the most crucial presidency in American history, Lincoln was already the right man.
Lincoln was always a "work in progress", and this shows the ground work being laid.
Well written and therefore easy to read...a tour de force!
Lincoln's contradictions were not yet resolved by 1861 -- that would come only in the course of the war. He said slavery was morally wrong, yet would tolerate it for a hundred years, confined to its current limits, until its natural extinction. He would enforce the fugitive slave law despite his belief that Negroes ought to be free. He wants to free slaves but not give them the vote. He would not resist the Dred Scott decision but hopes the Court will overturn it.
The author criticizes the "revisionism" of some scholars, yet demonstrates the necessity of revisionism in his own corrections of other scholars. Historians build on the work of predecessors and on further study of original sources. Fehrenbacher's report on this investigation and the growth of historical understanding is as interesting as his study of the growth of Lincoln's patient, flexible, inflexible, political and moral understanding.