Political Life Case A

MS-1845.10.03 – Lincoln to Williamson Durley about fusion of Liberty Party and Whigs

Lincoln’s Anti-Slavery Tightrope

In the spring of 1864, Abraham Lincoln said “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.” The contours of that lifelong opposition, however, were complex, as were his ideas on what actions could or should be taken against slavery.

This letter finds Lincoln almost two decades earlier walking a fine line between anti-slavery politics and what he worries is radical abolitionism. Still a Whig, he had not yet placed opposing slavery’s expansion at the center of his political identity. Instead, Lincoln is writing to a member of the abolitionist Liberty Party, urging him to support the Whigs because not doing so empowers Democrats to enact their proslavery agenda. Lincoln would continue to juggle his commitment to the rule of law and his opposition to slavery for the rest of his life.

Label Audio

Abraham Lincoln to Williamson Durley, 3 October 1845

Springfield, Octr 3. 1845

Friend Durley:

When I saw you at home, it was, at my suggestion, agreed that I should write to you and your brother Madison– Until I then saw you, I was not aware of your being what is generally called an abolitionist, or as you call yourself, a Liberty man, though I well knew there were many such in your county– I was glad to hear you say that you intend to attempt to bring about, at the next election in Putnam, a union of the whigs proper, and such of the liberty men, as are whigs in principle on all questions save only that of slavery– So far as I can perceive, by such union, neither party need yield any thing, on the point in difference between them– If the whig abolitionists of New-York had voted with us last fall, Mr Clay would now be president, whig principles in the ascendent, and Texas not annexed; whereas by the division, all that either had at stake in the contest, was lost– And, indeed, it was extremely probable beforehand, that such would be the result– As I always understood, the Liberty-men deprecated the annexation of Texas extremely; and, this being so, why they should refuse to so cast their votes as to prevent it, ever to me, seemed wonderful– What was their process of reasoning, I can only judge from what a single one of them told me– It was this: "We are not to do evil that good may come"– This general proposition is doubtless correct; but did it apply? If by your votes you could have prevented the extension, &c.[etc.] of slavery, would it not have been good and not evil so to have used your votes, even though it involved the casting of them for a


slaveholder? By the fruit the tree is to be known– An evil [trees?] tree can not bring forth good fruit– If the fruit of electing Mr Clay would have been to prevent the extension of slavery, could the act of electing have been evil?

But I will not argue farther– I perhaps ought to say that individually I never was much interested in the Texas question– I never could see much good to come of annexation; inasmuch, as they were already a free republican people on our own model; on the other hand, I never could very clearly see how the annexation would augment the evil of slavery– It always seemed to me that slaves would be taken there in about equal numbers, with or without annexation– And if more were taken because of annexation, still there would be just so many the fewer left, where they were taken from– It is possibly true, to some extent, that with annexation, some slaves may be sent to Texas and continued in slavery, that otherwise might have been liberated– To whatever extent this may be true, I think annexation an evil– I hold it to be a paramount duty of us in the free states, due to the Union of the states, and perhaps to liberty itself itself (paradox though it may seem) to let the slavery of the other states alone; while, on the other hand, I hold it to be equally clear, that we should never knowingly lend ourselves directly or indirectly, to prevent that slavery from dying a natural death—to find new places for it to live in, when it can no longer exist in the old– Of course I am not now considering what would be our duty, in cases of insurrections among the slaves– To recur to the Texas question, I understand the Liberty men to have viewed annexation as a much


greater evil than I ever did; and I, would like to convince you if I could, that they could have prevented it, without violation of principle if they had chosen–

I intend this letter for you and Madison together; and if you and he, or either, shall think fit to drop me a line, I shall be pleased–

Yours with respect

A Lincoln




SPRINGFIELD Ill.[Illinois]

OCT[October] 4


Mr Williamson Durley



Letter Audio

Social Links