LINCOLN, Abraham. Autograph letter signed ("A. Lincoln") to Hon. Indiana Congressman Schuyler Colfax, Springfield, Illinois, 6 July 1859. 2½ pages, 4to (9¾ x 7¾ in.), written on rectos only of three sheets. In very fine condition.
"WE SHOULD LOOK BEYOND OUR NOSES": LINCOLN CONSIDERS REPUBLICAN STRATEGY FOR THE UPCOMING "CONTEST OF 1860," DECLARING THAT "TO PREVENT THE SPREAD AND NATIONALIZATION OF SLAVERY IS A NATIONAL CONCERN, AND MUST BE ATTENDED TO BY THE NATION "
One of the most revealing letters written by Lincoln in this critical period. The Republican Party--which had passed over Lincoln as a Vice-Presidential candidate in their 1856 national convention--was scheduled to hold its second national convention in Chicago the following May, and influential party members had already begun to formulate strategies for the convention and for the Presidential race of 1860. Colfax (1823-1885) an influential Indiana Congressman, who later served as Grant's Vice-President (1869-73) was known to favor Edward Bates for the Republican presidential nomination. Here, Lincoln succinctly encapsulates what he recognized as the greatest danger facing the Republicans in the 1860 elections, the tendency to adopt a platform too narrow and too radical to appeal to a large segment of the electorate.
Lincoln was clearly anxious to avoid the mistakes of the 1856 campaign, in which the divided anti-slavery vote and the party's failure to appeal to moderates resulted in the election of James Buchanan. The letter vividly testifies to Lincoln's sophisticated understanding of the current national political scene, especially the bitter divisions over the issues surrounding slavery, the problems inherent in uniting the Republican's local constituencies to successfully mount a national campaign, and the simple "nuts and bolts" of American elective politics.
He writes: "I much regret not seeing you when you were here among us. Before learning that you were to be at Jacksonville on the 4th I had given my word to be at another place. Besides a strong desire to make your personal acquaintance, I was anxious to speak with you on politics, a little more fully than I can do in a letter. My main object in such conversation would be to hedge against divisions in the Republican ranks generally, and particularly for the contest of 1860."
"The point of danger is the temptation in different localities to 'platform' for something which will be popular just then, but which, nevertheless, will be a firebrand elsewhere, and especially in a National convention. As instance, the movement against foreigners in Massachusetts; in New Hampshire, to make obedience to the Fugitive Slave law, punishable as a crime; in Ohio, to repeal the Fugitive Slave Law; and squatter sovereignty in Kansas. In these things there is explosive matter enough to blow up half a dozen national conventions, if it gets into them; and what gets very rife outside of convention is very likely to find its way into them. What is desirable, if possible, is that in every local convocation of Republicans, a point should be made to avoid everything which will distract republicans elsewhere. Massachusetts republicans should have looked beyond their noses and then they could not have failed to see that tilting against foreigners would succor us in the whole North-West [Massachusetts Republicans had endorsed a Constitutional amendment requiring naturalized citizens to wait two years before they were allowed to vote] -New Hampshire and Ohio should forbear tilting against the Fugitive Slave law in such way as [to] utterly overwhelm us in Illinois with the charge of enmity to the Constitution itself--Kansas, in her confidence that she can be saved to freedom on 'squatter-sovereignty'--ought not to forget that to prevent the spread and nationalization of slavery is a National concern, and must be attended to by the Nation. In a word, in every locality we should look beyond our noses; and at least say nothing on points when it is possible we shall disagree."
In closing, he adds: "I write this for your eye only; hoping however that if you see danger as I think I do, you will do what you can to avert it. Could not suggestions be made to the leading men in the State and Congressional Convention; and so avoid, to some extent at least, their apples of discord?"
In his reply to Lincoln, on July 14, Colfax agreed about the difficulties in uniting the anti-slavery voters under one banner, and added that "he who could accomplish it, is worthier than Napoleon or [Victor] Emmanuel."
Lincoln's concern for party unity was to prove prophetic. But it was the Democrats, not the Republicans, who became victims of inter-party strife in 1860. At their April 1860 convention, Stephen A. Douglas was chosen as the presidential candidate, but after failing in efforts to adopt a platform calling for Federal protection of slavery in the territories, southern extremists bolted the party. Christening themselves the National Democrat Party, this faction held its own convention in June and nominated John C. Breckinridge for President, while a small group of old-line Whigs and former Know-Nothings, calling itself the Constitutional Union Party, fielded its own candidate, Senator John Bell of Tennessee. In the November elections, the voting reflected the deep sectional divisions: the Republican Presidential ticket won with only 40 of the popular vote, carrying all but one of the free states; Douglas polled some 29 of the popular vote but carried only the state of Missouri, while Breckinridge and Bell divided the remaining southern states.
Published in Basler, 3:390-391.
Provenance: Anonymous owner (sale, Sotheby's, 26 October 1983, lot 81).