The Importance of the Slavery Question

Lincoln's New Haven speech makes slavery the question of the time. This seems an extraordinary step for a candidate for president, and one wonders how he could have been elected had the importance he placed on slavery not been reflected in the voting population.

MR. PRESIDENT AND FELLOW-CITIZENS OF NEW HAVEN: If the Republican party of this nation shall ever have the national house entrusted to its keeping, it will be the duty of that party to attend to all the affairs of national house-keeping. Whatever matters of importance may come up, whatever difficulties may arise in the way of its administration of the government, that party will then have to attend to. It will then be compelled to attend to other questions, besides this question which now assumes an overwhelming importance -- the question of Slavery. It is true that in the organization of the Republican party this question of Slavery was more important than any other; indeed, so much more important has it become that no other national question can even get a hearing just at present. The old question of tariff -- a matter that will remain one of the chief affairs of national housekeeping to all time -- the question of the management of financial affairs; the question of the disposition of the public domain -- how shall it be managed for the purpose of getting it well settled, and of making there the homes of a free and happy people -- these will remain open and require attention for a great while yet, and these questions will have to be attended to by whatever party has the control of the government. Yet, just now, they cannot even obtain a hearing, and I do not purpose to detain you upon these topics, or what sort of hearing they should have when opportunity shall come.

For, whether we will or not, the question of Slavery is the question, the all absorbing topic of the day. It is true that all of us -- and by that I mean, not the Republican party alone, but the whole American people, here and elsewhere -- all of us wish this question settled -- wish it out of the way. It stands in the way, and prevents the adjustment, and the giving of necessary attention to other questions of national house-keeping. The people of the whole nation agree that this question ought to be settled, and yet it is not settled. And the reason is that they are not yet agreed how it shall be settled. All wish it done, but some wish one way and some another, and some a third, or fourth, or fifth; different bodies are pulling in different directions, and none of them having a decided majority, are able to accomplish the common object.

Henry Benning of South Carolina agrees on the importance of the question in a private letter to Howell Cobb, though not how the question should be answered.

First then it is apparent, horribly apparent, that the slavery question rides insolently over every other everywhere - in fact that is the only question which in the least affects the result of elections. It is not less manifest that the whole North is becoming ultra anti-slavery and the whole South ultra pro-slavery. Hence very small acts of deviation from the prevailing course of conduct of either section, being so conspicuous from their rarity, will attract immense animadversion. Is this not true? Can the Hunker democracy of the North be now depended on by the democracy of the South? To say nothing of their course in the last Congress, which you understand so well, witness the action of Connecticut in the recent elections, the sentiments contained in the Hunker address in New York, the open and formal going over of the Hunkers to the Barnburners in Vermont, and the recent resolutions of the Maine Legislature, the coalition with or rather the merger into the Barnburners by the Hunkers of Wisconsin, the tone of the Indiana Democracy, the election [of] Chase as senator in Ohio by Democrats, and over and above all, the bold unmasking of Benton in his avowal at Jefferson City of his adhesion to 'free-soilism.' Hunkerism is manifestly giving away -- it has already yielded -- throughout the North. Old associations, old pledges, old hopes, perhaps convictions, may for awhile keep a few old leaders of the Northern democracy in their old position on the slavery question; but the body and the present leaders of the party are gone, gone forever. What inference do I ask you to draw from all this? The inference that your long cherished wish to keep up the unity of the Democratic party is now vain, and that you ought not to sacrifice yourself and your usefulness to your state in holding on to a chimera.

The Crittendon Compromise, one of the final attempts to prevent the war, addresses slavery related issues only. No other issue was considered significant by those attempting to avoid the war. What steps did the committee members think necessary?

Article 6: No future amendment of the Constitution shall affect the five preceding articles; nor the third paragraph of the second section of the first article of the Constitution; nor the third paragraph of the second section of the fourth article of said Constitution; and no amendment will be made to the Constitution which shall authorize or give to Congress any power to abolish or interfere with slavery in any of the States by whose laws it is, or may be, allowed or permitted.