Abraham Lincoln in Illinois
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives

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March 3, 1837

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In what amounts to his first public enunciation on slavery, Abraham Lincoln joined with fellow Sangamon County legislator Dan Stone to denounce slavery.

By 1837, the abolition movement, which called for the ending of slavery, was starting in the North. Pro-slavery forces began to advocate that state legislatures in the North take a stand against abolitionists.

In January 1837, the General Assembly voted on a resolution that disapproved of abolitionists. The resolution also stated that the federal Constitution guaranteed the right to own slaves and that the federal government had no right to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. The state Senate passed the resolution unanimously. The House of Representatives passed it 77-6. Lincoln was one of the six voting against the resolution.

Six weeks later, Lincoln and Stone introduced into the record the attached protest. In the protest, they very clearly state that slavery is unjust. They temper that declaration by criticizing abolitionists as well. Lincoln and Stone also state that Congress has the right to eliminate slavery from the District of Columbia. The protest says nothing about eliminating slavery from the states, for despite stating that slavery was unjust, Lincoln and Stone agreed that it was constitutionally protected in the states where it existed.

The actions of Lincoln and the General Assembly during this debate demonstrate that in 1837 few in Illinois favored the abolition of slavery. Later in the year, Illinois abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy was murdered by a pro-slavery mob in Alton, again demonstrating that Illinois was not yet ready to embrace freeing the slaves in the South.

According to Paul Simon in his book Lincoln's Preparation for Greatness, Lincoln would refer to his protest as defining his position on slavery, both in 1837 and in 1860. As president, Lincoln signed legislation passed by Congress that did indeed free the slaves in the District of Columbia. He also went further than his 1837 protest, authoring the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in southern states in rebellion and championing the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery.

Points to Consider

If Lincoln feels slavery is unjust, why doesn't he call for its abolition?

Does Lincoln believe that Congress has the right to interfere with slavery in the states?

How were Lincoln's actions as president consistent with his 1837 protest and how were they different?

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