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John Brown

May 25, 2016

In 1860 Lincoln was antislavery, but he was not an abolitionist.  The distinction is important.  Abolitionists wanted to quickly end slavery everywhere.  Lincoln hated slavery, but he rightly believed the U.S. Constitution did not permit the Federal government to interfere with the institution except in the U.S. territories.  Eventually slavery would die out, or so he hoped.

John Brown was an abolitionist.  He was also a vigilante, perhaps even a terrorist.  Despite the evils of slavery no civil society could endure the likes of John Brown.  Lincoln said as much in his Cooper Union address.  There were probably no Southerners present at Cooper Union on February 27, 1860, but Lincoln hoped they would receive his words in print.

“You charge that we stir up insurrections among your slaves.  We deny it; and what is your proof?  Harper’s Ferry!  John Brown!  John Brown was no Republican; and you have failed to implicate a single Republican in his Harper’s Ferry enterprise.”

Of course, there would be slave masters who would say that although John Brown was not a Republican, he and others like him were certainly influenced by Republican rhetoric.  To this Lincoln countered: “We hold to no doctrine, and make no declaration, which were not held to and made by ‘our fathers who framed the government under which we live.’”  Once again Lincoln had taken the discussion right back to Stephen Douglas’s phrase, and once again Lincoln asserted that the Republicans and not the Democrats were following the Constitution.

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