Prelude to Greatness
Lincoln in the 1850's
by Don E. Fehrenbacher

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Stanford University Press: 1962
205 pages

July 2004

Abraham Lincoln in the 1850's

The leading half of this book's title, Prelude to Greatness, might easily be taken in cynical moods or times to indicate a partisan puff-piece, a latter-day campaign pamphlet. It is not.

Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850's by Don E. Fehrenbacher is a probing, scholarly analysis of some of the very interesting questions related to Abraham Lincoln's rise to prominence. Many of his conclusions run counter to what long had been established historical understanding. Fehrenbacher possesses substantial expertise in the social and political issues of the era immediately before the American Civil War. He has written and edited other books on Lincoln; a historical overview, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government's Relations to Slavery; and his monumental The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics.

Why was it Abraham Lincoln who took such a defining role at center stage in the impending sectional crisis? Why did this happen in Illinois? Fehrenbacher begins by sensitively analyzing the situation in Illinois, and its larger resonances:

The striking thing about the political pattern in Illinois was its resemblance to the situation on the national scene, where a belt of border free states held the balance of power in the electoral college and in Congress. Of particular importance were New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois, which gave their votes to Buchanan in 1856. Without substantial gains in these states, the Republicans could not hope to capture the presidency in 1860. Here, then, was a zone of decision like the middle counties of Illinois ...

Why Lincoln versus Douglas?

The Lincoln-Douglas debates were a watershed in several ways. Fehrenbacher points out:

The nomination of a senatorial candidate by a state convention had no precedent in American politics.

Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, arguably the leading Democrat of the 1850s, like Lincoln is shown from angles which are not all obvious:

Unquestionably the most vibrant and controversial public figure of his time, Douglas drew the attention of the nation to Illinois and to the lawyer-politician who pre-empted the role of his chief local adversary. Lincoln achieved prominence without election to office by making a career of opposing the famous Little Giant. His speeches through the decade constituted one long running rebuttal to what Douglas said and what Douglas did.

And when the latter was compelled in 1858 to acknowledge him formally as a rival, Lincoln at last began to acquire a national reputation. Indeed, it would be no great exaggeration to say that Douglas for a number of years was unwittingly engaged in clearing Lincoln's path to the White House.

Party disintegration & reformation

The old Whig party disintegrated in the stresses of the 1850s. Several new national parties struggled to define themselves and coalesce. Fehrenbacher points out that the American political system in the 1850s was more anarchic than today:

The national party itself was really little more than a loose federation of state and local units, functioning as an entity only during presidential campaigns. This pronounced decentralization, while it undermined party discipline and made doctrinal consistency virtually impossible, did foster a vigorous grass-roots participation in the democratic process.

The workings of the political convention, which by now had become the accepted method of nominating candidates for nearly every public office from coroner to president, drew great numbers of ordinary citizens into active political service at the community level. Everything, in fact, began with the local convention. Here campaigns were launched, party credos were rough-drafted, and the first set of delegates was started up the ladder of representation. Here, where the pulse of popular opinion beat sturdily, and the voice of the individual could be plainly heard, the Republican party was born.

A house divided against itself

Americans were well aware that the slavery question could break apart their country. The struggle in "bleeding Kansas" between Free State men and Slave State men was not abstract, and helped radicalize sectional politics in the years before the Civil War. The choice of a pro-free or pro-slavery constitution for Kansas Territory to join the Union as a state inevitably roiled national politics, and was very fresh in memory in 1858. Senator Douglas had reversed himself, at least partly, to now oppose the extension of slavery into the Territories:

With his slashing attack upon the Lecompton constitution [— the pro-slavery alternative in Kansas —] Douglas brought extraordinary confusion to American politics because the strokes of his blade actually cut two ways. From one point of view, he had dealt a heavy blow to the slave power and disrupted the Democratic party; but from another, he had set out to rehabilitate himself and his party in the North by stealing thunder from the Republicans.

This hints at the complexity of 1850s politics. Fehrenbacher brings clarity and subtlety to delineating some key issues and the reasoning of practical leaders who wrestled with moral issues and political tactics.

He devotes an excellent chapter to Lincoln's famous and provocative "House Divided" speech, 17 June 1858:

"A house divided against itself cannot stand."

I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. ...

Douglas attacked this as "revolutionary", while many of Lincoln's own "friends considered it more eloquent than wise." Fehrenbacher looks at both the origin and the purpose of this speech, finding it rather less prescient than purposeful; less radical than reasonable; and in its design, eminently practical and effective as both moral and political campaigning. We end with a sharper and finer awareness of the "House Divided" speech as well as of Lincoln as speech writer and strategist.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates

There are two chapters on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, a major watershed in American political history. Fehrenbacher analyzes some surprising ins and outs of Douglas' Freeport Doctrine on slavery in the Territories, and rates it as less distinctive in doctrine than generally portrayed; less important in the campaign give-and-take between the Senatorial candidates; and less important in sectional divisiveness and national politics leading up to 1860.

Of course these great and premonitory events are covered in detail elsewhere. The best source for the debates and related speeches plus contemporary comments is Created Equal? The Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, edited by Paul M. Angle. For a history of the debates, see The American Conscience: The Drama of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, by Saul Sigelschiffer.

The antebellum election climax

Fehrenbacher finishes with a chapter on the climax of 1850s politics. The Democratic Party split three ways in the 1860 election, and this is traditionally presented as the effective cause of Abraham Lincoln's winning the Presidency with a plurality of the popular vote.

But is that what the election numbers really tell us? What if the bitter Democratic division had been healed?

If the popular votes given Douglas, Bell, and Breckinridge had been concentrated on one candidate, the Republicans would have lost only eleven electoral votes and retained their majority. Thus in order to win, the hypothetical single nominee would have had to poll more votes than all three of Lincoln's opponents put together, and, more specifically, he would have had to carry several free states while wearing the endorsement of the entire South — something which, in the circumstances, was very nearly impossible.

Actually, the Democrats divided were in some ways more formidable than if they had been united, because a Douglas untainted with the support of the slaveholders probably had a better chance of winning enough electoral votes in the North to prevent Lincoln's election. It is therefore reasonable to argue that Lincoln became president in spite of the split in the Democratic party, rather than because of it.


© 2004 Robert Wilfred Franson

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