On October 16, 1854, an obscure lawyer and Congressional hopeful from the state of Illinois named Abraham Lincoln delivers a speech regarding the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which Congress had passed five months earlier. In his speech, the future president denounced the act and outlined his views on slavery, which he called “immoral.”
Under the terms of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, two new territories—Kansas and Nebraska—would be allowed into the Union and each territory’s citizens would be given the power to determine whether slavery would be allowed within the territory’s borders. It was believed that the act would set a precedent for determining the legality of slavery in other new territories. Controversy over the act influenced political races across the country that fall. Abolitionists, like Lincoln, hoped to convince lawmakers in the new territories to reject slavery.
Lincoln, who was practicing law at the time, campaigned on behalf of abolitionist Republicans in Illinois and attacked the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He denounced members of the Democratic Party for backing a law that “assumes there can be moral right in the enslaving of one man by another.” He believed that the law went against the founding American principle that “all men are created equal.” Lincoln was an abolitionist at heart, but he realized that the outlawing of slavery in states where it already existed might lead to civil war. Instead, he advocated outlawing the spread of slavery to new states. He hoped this plan would preserve the Union and slowly eliminate slavery by confining it to the South, where, he believed, “it would surely die a slow death.”
Lincoln and his fellow abolitionists were dismayed when Kansans voted a pro-slavery candidate into Congress in November. As Lincoln’s political career picked up momentum over the next several years, he continually referred to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the seeming inevitability that Kansas should become a slave state as “a violence…it was conceived in violence, passed in violence, is maintained in violence, and is being executed in violence.”
Lincoln continued to actively campaign against slavery in Kansas and helped to raise money to support anti-slavery candidates in that state. Meanwhile he continued his law practice and ran for the U.S. Senate in 1859. Although he lost to Democrat Stephen Douglas, Lincoln began to make a name for himself in national politics and earned increasing support from the North and abolitionists across the nation. It was this constituency that helped him win the presidency in 1860.
READ MORE: What Abraham Lincoln Thought About Slavery