Chapter Eight: The Birth of a Political Party
In the course of history there sometimes arises a man who has a marvelous power of attaching others to himself. He commands devotion and enthusiasm that it is impossible fully to understand. Such a man was Henry Clay. And Lincoln was fascinated by him. From childhood to maturity, Clay had been Lincoln’s idol, and Clay’s party, the Whig party, was very popular in American politics. It was therefore no easy matter for Lincoln to leave the Whig party. Nothing could have made him do this except the overmastering power of his noble emotion — his deep desire to end slavery.
Lincoln hated slavery. The fact that Kentucky was a slave state was one reason why his father wanted to move to Indiana. And what Lincoln saw during his own journeys down the Mississippi River had given him a stronger feeling against slavery.
Though Clay himself and a majority of the Whig party were against slavery, there were still pro-slavery men in its ranks in big enough numbers to prevent any real change on the slavery question.
On the other hand, while the Democratic Party was overwhelmingly pro-slavery, there were many anti-slavery Democrats who were not to be overlooked. If the anti-slavery men from other parties were to be united, it would have to be under another organization. A new party would have to be formed.
Newspapers took up the battle. A number of papers printed editorials calling for a convention. The men interested in forming a new party – the Republican party – met on Washington’s birthday in February 1856. The meeting included Whigs, Democrats, Free-Soilers, Abolitionists, and Know-Nothings (yes, there really was a political party called the “Know-Nothings”). Said Lincoln: “Of strange, discordant, even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds.”
“Let bygones be bygones; let past differences as nothing be; and with steady eye on the real issue, let us reinaugurate the good old ‘central ideas’ of the republic. We can do it. The human heart is with us; God is with us. We shall again be able to declare, not that ‘all states as states are equal,’ nor yet that ‘all citizens as citizens are equal,’ but to renew the broader, better declaration, including these and much more, that ‘all men are created equal.’”
It was upon the wisdom of this plan that, four years later, Lincoln held the enemies of slavery united, while the enemies of freedom were divided among themselves. It was this that carried the Republican Party to its first victory and made him president.
Lincoln’s main opponent was Stephen Douglas. The admiring friends of Douglas had given him the nickname of “the little giant.” Physically he was very little. Intellectually he was a giant. In 1858, Douglas was perhaps the most well known man in the United States. He was the unquestioned leader of the Democratic Party. He had been so long in public life that he was familiar with every public question. Lincoln was a giant physically, and it soon became evident that he was no less intellectually. These two men soon were to come together in a series of joint debates. This would be a battle of intellectual giants. No other such debates had ever occurred in the history of the country.
In 1858, the senatorial term of Douglas was about to expire and a successor would be chosen. Douglas was the candidate of his own party. The Republicans turned naturally to Lincoln, for it would be no light task to defeat so strong an opponent.
At the Republican convention, he said, “We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object and confident promise of putting an end to the slavery agitation. In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Un,ion to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”
Lincoln wrote Douglas a letter proposing a series of debates. Douglas accepted the proposal. They arranged for seven discussions, the locations being scattered fairly over the entire territory of the state.
The speechmaking ability of the two men is shown by the remark of a woman who heard them speak, and said: “I can recall only one fact of the debates, that I felt so sorry for Lincoln while Douglas was speaking, and then so sorry for Douglas while Lincoln was speaking.”
The men were well matched in speechmaking, but Douglas did win that election for senator. It would, however, not be the men’s last battle.
Based on the book by Henry Ketcham
Edited by Deborah Carroll
YOUR QUESTION OF THE DAY
This chapter lists a number of different political parties, each with their own stands on a variety of issues. Make up your own idea for a political party. What causes would it adopt?
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