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Thursday, March 4, 2010 01:03 am

Abolition, the spark that ignited a revolution

A tumultuous time in Illinois, to be explored at history symposium March 7-9

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One hundred fifty years ago this year, Abraham Lincoln was elected president and the slavery question was threatening to dissolve the nation.

In Illinois, Lincoln’s allegedly “free” state, black laws discouraged African-Americans from entering and especially staying. A black person could be jailed and fined if he or she came to Illinois for longer than 10 days. If unable to pay the hefty fine (which was likely), the black person could be auctioned off to a person who would force him or her to work. If the African-American didn’t hit the road after that, the process could be repeated.

Everybody was talking about the morality and legality of slavery then, from capitals to churches to home kitchens. Some were doing more than talking: abolitionists were aggressively fighting slavery and trying to get Lincoln to do the same.

It was a tumultuous time and the Springfield-based Illinois State Historical Society (ISHS) is going to explore it in a symposium March 7-9 at Wheaton College in Wheaton (which, not coincidentally, was officially founded 150 years ago). The symposium theme is “Abolition: The Spark that Ignited the Second American Revolution.”

We’re going to “look at abolition in Illinois and how it affected the political, social, economic and ethical climate,” says ISHS Executive Director Bill Furry.

One session will look at abolition’s effects on churches. “The division of the churches (over abolition) has always been interesting to me,” says Furry, “how they fell apart or split over this decision of whether to support the law of the land or be aggressive in opposition to slavery.” As an example, he cites the symposium’s host, Wheaton College, which was associated with Wesley Methodists, who were staunch abolitionists. Even so, “they did not advocate war, they believed it was immoral,” Furry explains. “But they raised a company of soldiers from Wheaton College to fight (in the Civil War).”

Even Lincoln was conflicted about ending slavery. “Abolition was a very hot topic in 1860 and Lincoln had to divorce himself from the abolitionists so he could get elected,” says Furry. “He had to say, ‘I‘m not an abolitionist, I‘m a Republican and a Republican believes in the law of the land and abolition is against the law of the land.’”

Furry predicts the symposium’s session on Lincoln’s experience with the abolitionists will be very popular. It will be given by Daniel Stowell, director/editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, and two of his colleagues there. Lincoln’s relationship with abolitionists was complex, according to Stowell. While many wanted Lincoln to disregard the constitution and laws that legalized slavery, Lincoln felt he couldn’t do so.

“After 25 years as a lawyer, Lincoln was very committed to the constitutional rule of law, especially in wartime,” says Stowell. “Yet he also thought slavery was an evil that harmed American society…and harmed the influence of the nation in the world, but he felt constrained by the constitution in exactly what he could do to oppose it.” So he proceeded carefully, taking steps to abolish slavery that he felt were allowed under the constitution.

Lincoln was cautious for another reason — he so wanted to preserve “this hodgepodge coalition that was trying to win the war for the Union, which included not only his Republican supporters, but ‘war Democrats’ and border state slaveowners who were still loyal to the Union,” Stowell adds.

Lincoln had to walk a fine line between the various factions and the law. It seemed some could hardly be pleased. Certain abolitionists even criticized the Emancipation Proclamation, saying it wasn’t as “inspirational” as Lincoln’s other writings. But Lincoln had to write it a certain way, Stowell says, “so it would stand up in court in case it was challenged.”

Wheaton College is a perfect setting for the symposium because it was founded as an abolitionist college, according to David Maas’s new book, Marching to the Drum Beat of Abolitionism: Wheaton College and the Coming of the Civil War (Wheaton College, 2010). The college was established by Wesleyan Methodists who wanted their children to receive “a reform-oriented, antislavery education.” Its first president, Rev. John Cross, “was one of the most widely known abolitionists in Illinois…. He served so aggressively as a conductor on the Underground Railroad that he earned the title of ‘Superintendent’ in Illinois,” and he sheltered slaves at the college, making no attempt to hide them from the U.S. Marshall working there.

Furry hopes symposium participants will come away with “a little more knowledge about how volatile Illinois was in 1860 and that the election of Lincoln was not a given; he was not the hero of the state.”

Other topics that will be discussed at the symposium include: the Underground Railroad in the Midwest, Perceptions of Race and Society Before and After the Civil War, Women Abolitionists in the Old Northwest, and The National Amistad Research Center.

For more information, call the ISHS at 217/525-2781 or go to the ISHS Web site: www.historyillinois.org. The symposium will be held at Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center. Walk-in registrations are available.  

Contact Tara McClellan McAndrew at tmcand22@aol.com.
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