By Dr. Daniel Worthington
On October 1, 2022, the Papers of Abraham Lincoln will enter an exciting new phase of its mission to share all known Lincoln documents online. Project editors will begin a year-long initiative to edit and publish 500 documents from March 1856 to October 1858, a pivotal period in Lincoln’s private life and public career.
As March 1856 opens, Lincoln is concentrating on his law practice and nursing his wounds after failing to get elected to the United States Senate in February 1855. Politics is never far from his mind, however, and by May, Lincoln shifts part of his focus to state and national affairs. The political correspondence and speeches of this period follow Lincoln as he participates in the creation of the Republican Party, agonizes over the Dred Scott decision and “Bleeding Kansas,” and grapples with pro-slavery ideology and growing sectional antagonism.
It also sees him accept the Republican Party nomination for the United States Senate and clash with Stephen A. Douglas on the debate stage at Ottawa, Freeport, and five other Illinois towns.
Sculptures at the site of the Lincoln-Douglas debate in Jonesboro.
While pre-occupied with politics, Lincoln has a family and law practice demanding his attention. Personal letters during the period offer a revealing look at Lincoln as a husband and father as he seeks more lucrative legal fees and enlarges the Lincoln home to accommodate and provide for his wife and sons. Lincoln’s growing reputation leads to higher profile legal cases, and legal documents chronicle his work as an attorney as he rides the Eighth Judicial Circuit and tackles two of his most famous cases: People v. Armstrong (known as the Almanac Trial) and Hurd v. Rock Island Bridge Company (the Effie Afton case in which a steamboat hit a railroad bridge). Lincoln’s life-long fascination with science and technology manifests itself in his lecture on “Discoveries and Inventions,” which he first delivers in April 1858, beginning a short-lived venture as a professional lecturer that continues in 1859 and 1860.
As Lincoln juggles his domestic life and thriving legal practice with a burgeoning career as a Republican politician, he plunges into a maelstrom of conflict over the future of the Union. His notes and memoranda on democracy, government, and slavery indicate Lincoln grappling intellectually with the unfinished work of the nation. Abraham Lincoln and his Northern contemporaries saw themselves as heirs to the founding fathers, tasked not only with sustaining the Union but creating “A More Perfect Union” centered on liberty, justice, freedom, and equality -- at least for white men.
By 1856, many Northerners viewed slavery and slaveholders as the chief threats to the Union and America’s experiment with republican government. Southern slaveholders and their Northern allies, however, viewed themselves as the rightful heirs to the founding fathers, and saw the Republican Party and abolitionists as imperiling the Union and their cherished rights under the U.S. Constitution, which they interpreted as a proslavery document. Lincoln became a national voice advocating for restricting slavery within the bounds of the U.S. Constitution, which he fundamentally viewed as an antislavery document. Lincoln and his correspondents wrestle with issues that would later dominate Lincoln’s presidency: abolitionism, citizenship, civil rights, equality, human progress, property rights, and America’s place in the world as a bastion of democracy.
The late-1850s were a proving ground for Lincoln -- a dress rehearsal for dismantling slavery and building a more just and equitable society, with civil rights and citizenship for formerly enslaved people, while protecting against disorder and turmoil and preserving the rule of law and constitutional governance. Online access to documents from March 1856 to October 1858 promises to enhance understanding of the complex constitutional, political, cultural, social, economic, and moral issues facing Lincoln and his fellow citizens during this important period of America’s history.
Part of a note Lincoln wrote to clarify his thinking on pro-slavery theology. He mockingly calls slavery “the only good thing which no man ever seeks the good of, for himself.”
The Papers of Abraham Lincoln has released all Lincoln documents up to February 1856, covering his childhood, legislative career and time in Congress. It is in the midst of editing and publishing 3,800 documents from the period when he was often campaigning for U.S. Senate seats and then the presidency. The next step in that process is releasing these 500 documents from March 1856 to October 1858.
Ultimately, the project expects to release 70,000 documents by or to Lincoln, along with thousands of supporting documents providing important context.
PAL employees can devote themselves full-time to editing and publishing this treasure trove of materials to The Papers of Abraham Lincoln Digital Library thanks to ongoing and generous financial support from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). They have been enthusiastic backers of the project’s mission to identify, image, transcribe, annotate, and publish online all documents written by or to Abraham Lincoln during his lifetime (1809-1865).
The project is especially excited to receive part of its federal funding from the NEH’s “A More Perfect Union” initiative, a multi-year effort to demonstrate and enhance the critical role the humanities play in our nation and support projects that will help Americans commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The Papers of Abraham Lincoln is proud to join other projects that seek to strengthen Americans' knowledge of our principles of constitutional governance and democracy and explore, reflect on, and tell the stories of the nation’s quest for a more just, inclusive, and sustainable society.
Click here For more on the “A More Perfect Union” initiative.
Daniel Worthington is director of the ALPLM's Papers of Abraham Lincoln.