Inflexible on the Territorial Question

As the month began, President-elect Abraham Lincoln was in Coles County, Illinois, saying goodbye to his stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln. “She embraced him when they parted” and cried because she believed “his enemies would assassinate” him, and “she would never be permitted to see him again.” Lincoln tried to console her: “No, no, Mama, they will not do that… trust in the Lord and all will be well. We will see each other again.” The president-elect left before dawn on the 1st.

When he returned to Springfield that afternoon, Lincoln responded to a letter he had received in January from Senator William H. Seward, his secretary of state-designate. Seward had warned that “absent something of concession or compromise” with the South, more states would secede. Seward urged Lincoln to adopt a course of action that might inspire southern Unionists to resist the secession movement.

Lincoln replied that he was willing to accept southern demands for stronger fugitive slave laws, the allowance of slavery in the District of Columbia, and non-interference in the interstate slave trade, adding that “whatever springs of necessity from the fact that the institution is among us, I care but little.” Lincoln even backtracked on his refusal to allow the expansion of slavery by supporting making the New Mexico Territory a slave state. However, he would not bend on expanding the institution any further:

“I say now… as I have all the while said, that on the territorial question—that is, the question of extending slavery under the national auspices,—I am inflexible. I am for no compromise which assists or permits the extension of the institution on soil owned by the nation. And any trick by which the nation is to acquire territory, and then allow some local authority to spread slavery over it, is as obnoxious as any other. I take it that to effect some such result as this, and to put us again on the high-road to a slave empire is the object of all these proposed compromises, I am against it.”

Influential New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley came to Springfield early this month to give a scheduled lecture. Since Greeley had endorsed Lincoln in his newspaper, the president-elect felt obliged to pay a visit to him at the Chenery House. Greeley strongly urged Lincoln to keep a “strict adherence to an anti-compromise policy,” and Lincoln gave “gratifying assurances” that he would.

Greeley wrote that Lincoln believed the southern states would return to the Union when they realized that his administration would be no threat to them: “His faith in Reason as a moral force was so implicit that he did not cherish a doubt that his Inaugural Address, whereon he had bestowed much thought and labor, would, when read throughout the South, dissolve the Confederacy as frost is dissipated by a vernal sun.” The president-elect also asked the editor’s views on cabinet positions. Greeley recommended that Salmon P. Chase of Ohio be included, while Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania be excluded.

Cameron’s political enemies accused him of vast corruption, and not without evidence. Lincoln had offered a position to Cameron but then took it back when presented with said evidence. Ever since, Cameron’s backers had been pressuring Lincoln to reinstate the offer. Lincoln owed a political debt to Pennsylvania, so he expressed willingness to bring Cameron back in, but he warned the backers: “If, after he has been appointed, I should be deceived by subsequent transactions of a disreputable character, the responsibility will rest upon you gentlemen of Pennsylvania who have so strongly presented his claims to my consideration.”

Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin braved an “intensely cold” weather front to call on Lincoln on the 4th. The president-elect gave him a letter regarding his upcoming journey to Washington: “I expect, on my winding way to Washington, to make brief stops at Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Harrisburg; and I shall be glad to meet you at any or all of those places; or in fact, at any other place.” That same day, Lincoln also met with New York Senator Edwin D. Morgan. The president-elect agreed to stop in Morgan’s state on the way to the capital as well, adding: “Please let ceremonies be only such as to take the least time possible.”

Lincoln tended to other business as well, which included inviting the public to a farewell reception at his Springfield home before he left for Washington. But his foremost priority was drafting his inaugural address. Henry Villard, the New York Herald reporter assigned to cover the president-elect, wrote that “it is understood that during the remainder of Mr. Lincoln’s stay in this place his time will be principally absorbed by it.” Cabinet appointments were to be “altogether suspended for the time being, owing to the commencement of the message.” Due to time constraints, Lincoln restricted public access to him to just 90 minutes per day, from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.

An editor of a Louisville newspaper, who did not want to be at the mercy of “the murderous mutilations of the telegraph,” asked Lincoln for a personal copy of the inaugural. Lincoln replied: “I have the document already blocked out; but in the now rapidly shifting scenes, I shall have to hold it subject to revision up to near the time of delivery. So soon as it shall take what I can regard as it’s final shape, I shall remember, if I can, to send you a copy.” He would have another month to finalize the document.


  • Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years. New York: Doubleday, 1967.
  • Holzer, Harold, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter of 1860-1861. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, Reprint Edition, 2008.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.

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