First Lady Feature: Barbara Bush

By Kaleena Fraga

On a late spring day in 1990, Barbara Bush stepped up to the podium at Wellesley College to deliver the school’s commencement address. Her invitation had prompted furor across the student body. To many students at Wellesley, Barbara Bush was no role model. One hundred and fifty students signed a petition which read:

‘Wellesley teaches that we will be rewarded on the basis of our own merit, not on that of a spouse. To honor Barbara Bush as a commencement speaker is to honor a woman who has gained recognition through the achievements of her husband, which contravenes what we have been taught over the last four years at Wellesley.”

Her defenders said the outrage was generational. When asked about the controversy herself, the First Lady said that she understood the students’ perspective. “They’re 21 years old and they’re looking at life from that perspective,” Mrs. Bush said. “I don’t disagree with what they’re looking at. But I don’t think they understand where I’m coming from. I chose to live the life I’ve lived, and I think it’s been a fabulously exciting, interesting, involved life. In my day, they probably would have been considered different. In their day, I’m considered different. Vive la difference.”

Her husband didn’t mince words. In his diary, George H.W. Bush wrote that the “elitist kids” of Wellesley dismissed her accomplishments as a wife, a mother, a volunteer, and a “great leader for literacy.”

Barbara Bush was made of presidential stuff long before she met her husband–she’s a descendent of Franklin Pierce, the 14th president. She and Abigail Adams are also the only women in history to be both a wife and a mother to a president.

bush and hwBarbara Bush met her husband at sixteen and married him four years later, after his brush with death during WWII. Before marriage Mrs. Bush had enrolled in Smith College–she was a voracious reader as a girl–and helped out in the war effort by working at a nuts and bolts factory in the summer of 1943. As the wife of George H.W. Bush–who, over the course of their marriage, was the Ambassador to the United Nations, the Director of the C.I.A., and the Vice President of the United States–Mrs. Bush had the opportunity to see the world. She oversaw moving her family twenty-nine times.

Within a few weeks of her husband’s inauguration to the presidency in 1989, Barbara Bush made literacy her cause as First Lady. At the launch of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, Mrs. Bush stated that, “In 10 years of traveling around the United States of America, visiting literary programs, libraries, kindergarten groups, day-care centers, single-parent classes for high school dropouts, public housing projects, food banks – you name it, I’ve visited it – it has become very apparent to me that we must attack the problem of a more literate America through the family. We all know that adults with reading problems tend to raise children with reading problems.” The foundation today is active in all 50 states. It seeks to support parents who are improving their reading level, with the goal that the parents will read to their children.

Although during her husband’s presidency Barbara Bush rarely drew attention on her bbush conventionown political views, she was more outspoken before and after H.W.’s term in office. During his vice presidential run she expressed support for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and embrace pro-choice views on abortion. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Mrs. Bush stated that the abortion debate had no place in the party platform at all. Abortion, she said, “was a personal thing.”

Barbara Bush would also redefine the role of first spouses when she became the first First Lady to deliver prepared remarks at the 1992 Republican Convention. During the (increasingly bitter) campaign, Mrs. Bush also defended Hillary Clinton, who was under fire for her own outspoken political views.

As for that speech in 1990, Barbara Bush (whose husband voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016) left the Wellesley class of ’90 with this:

“Who knows? Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day  follow in my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse–and I wish him well.”

Part III: A Ship in the Storm–Lincoln’s Steady Hand in the Tumultuous Final Years of War

By Duane Soubirous 

January 1, 1863, the day Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and declared freedom for all slaves living in the Confederate States of America, was just like any other New Year’s Day to those slaves. In order to gain freedom, they would need to escape behind Union lines or wait for Union troops to advance past them. Slaves living in the loyal border states and parts of the Confederacy that had been pacified by the Union army were kept in bondage. The Emancipation Proclamation freed no one the moment it was issued, but it was the beginning of the end of slavery in the United States. Three years later, slavery was abolished throughout the U.S. with the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

Though the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln had issued a preliminary proclamation 100 days earlier, on Sept. 22., This warned that emancipation was coming, but rebels could keep their slaves if they put down their arms and rejoined the Union (no one took that offer). Midterm elections in November 1862 showed that many in the Union agreed with Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who called the Emancipation Proclamation “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.”

1864Racial violence perpetrated both sides of the conflict. That year, the Democratic Party ran a racist, anti-war campaign, warning that emancipation meant black people would move North in droves and force whites out of their homes. “The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was, and the negroes where they are,” was their campaign slogan. Democrats gained 34 seats in the House of Representatives, won gubernatorial races in New York and New Jersey, and won control of several state legislatures. In 1863, Horatio Seymour, the Democratic governor of New York, said, “I assure you I am your friend,” to anti-draft rioters who had lynched black doormen and burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York City. 

Unfazed by backlash to the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln pressed for emancipation in the loyal states. He encouraged a constitutional amendment that would gradually emancipate slaves (until 1900) and provide compensation to slaveholders. Lincoln believed that his emancipation plan for the border states was “one of the most potent, and swift means of ending” the Civil War. “Let the states which are in rebellion see, definitely and certainly, that, in no event, will the states you represent ever join their proposed Confederacy, and they can not, much longer maintain the contest.” To people who didn’t want tax dollars spent on buying slaves, Lincoln replied that compensated emancipation would cost less than a prolonged war: “I had not asked you to be taxed to buy negroes, except in such way, as to save you from greater taxation to save the Union exclusively by other means.” Lincoln also warned that failing to accept gradual, compensated emancipation might lead to immediate, uncompensated emancipation.

  Many soldiers who had enlisted to defend the Union had reservations about fighting to free the slaves. Lincoln deployed his power of persuasion in a letter to be read at a Union rally in Springfield, Illinois: “You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but, no matter. Fight you, then exclusively to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union.”

 General Ulysses S. Grant was one soldier who didn’t need convincing. He wrote in a usgletter to Lincoln, “I have given the subject of arming the negro my hearty support. This, with the emancipation of the negro, is the heavyest blow yet given to the Confederacy … by arming the negro we have added a powerful ally. They will make good soldiers and taking them from the enemy weakens him in the same proportion they strengthen us. I am therefore most decidedly in favor of pushing this policy to the enlistment of a force sufficient to hold all the South falling into our hands and to aid in capturing more.”

 After the major Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863, the war dragged on through 1864 and Democratic anti-war sentiment rose again. Democrats believed the war could end and the Union restored by negotiating a peace agreement that upheld slavery. Such a treaty would overturn Emancipation Proclamation, which said slaves with disloyal masters “are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.” Lincoln was up for reelection that year, and though his electoral prospects looked grim that summer, he decided to hold firm on his proclamation and insist upon abolitionism in any peace talks.

By the fall of 1864, a string of Union victories dampened anti-war sentiment, and Lincoln and Republican legislators were resoundingly endorsed by the electorate. During the lame-duck session of Congress, when many Democratic congressmen had only a few months left before being replaced by Republicans, Lincoln pressed the House to pass the 13th Amendment, which had passed the previous April with the requisite 2/3 majority in the Senate. After much personal lobbying by Lincoln, just enough lame-duck Democrats either abstained or voted yes to clear the amendment through Congress on Jan. 31, 1865. It was then sent to the states and finally ratified in December 1865.

2nd inag abeLincoln’s second inauguration happened on March 4, 1865, when Union victory was imminent. He closed his Second Inaugural Address by extending an olive branch to the defeated Confederates and looking ahead to Reconstruction: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

After news reached Washington that Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, crowds gathered at the White House to hear Lincoln speak. Instead of delivering a bombastic victory speech, he addressed Rreconstruction. It was the last speech he gave, and true to form, he encouraged moderation. Radical Republicans didn’t want to accept Louisiana back into the Union because its constitution didn’t enfranchise black people. While Lincoln said that he personally supported enfranchisement for “the very intelligent” and “those who serve our cause as soldiers,” he asked, “Will it be wiser to take [Louisiana’s constitution] as it is, and help to improve it; or to reject, and disperse it? Can Louisiana be brought into proper practical relation with the Union sooner by sustaining, or by discarding her new State Government?”

  A distraught Confederate sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth attended Lincoln’s speech and was outraged to hear Lincoln endorse black suffrage in Louisiana. “That means n—-er citizenship. Now by God I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make,” Booth reportedly said. He assassinated Lincoln three days later.

Abraham Lincoln closed the Gettysburg Address by saying, “We here highly resolve that these dead men shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Freedom for all Americans was a work in progress when he died, but it began when Lincoln insisted that for slavery to end, its expansion must be culled.

Lincoln is exalted as a god among men today; he is seen as the savior of black American slaves, and the sole reason that slavery ended. Like all people, Lincoln was flawed–his actions and thoughts, judged by today’s society, would make many uncomfortable. Still, he believed in moderation, in fairness, and in the importance of listening to both sides. This, in any era, makes him one of the nation’s most remarkable leaders. He certainly deserves credit for his handling of the Civil War years.

Happy Birthday Mr. President: The Ronald Reagan Edition

By Kaleena Fraga

Today, February 6th, 2018, would have been the Gipper’s 107th birthday. In celebration, here are ten of History First’s favorite Reagan facts:

  1. Reagan earned his nickname “the Gipper” from his time as an actor in Hollywood. In the film Knute Rockne: All American, Reagan played a football player named George Gipp who, upon becoming ill, urges his teammates to “win one for the Gipper.” Somewhat ironically given recent events, the film is about a Norwegian immigrant who reinvents football at Notre Dame, and later returns to the school to coach.

2. Reagan won a landslide victory in 1984; his opponent, Walter Mondale, carried only Washington D.C. and his home state of Minnesota.

3. Disunity in the Democratic party in 1980–incumbent Jimmy Carter faced an intraparty challenger in Ted Kennedy-prompted one party operative to declare that the Dems had to take their “unity medicine”: turn around three times and say President Ronald Reagan.

MAGA reagan style4. Reagan-Bush ran a slogan in 1980 that will sound familiar to many Americans today: “Let’s Make America Great Again.”

5. Reagan was known for his quips. After he survived an assassination attempt in 1981, he famously said to his wife, Nancy, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” When Reagan met his team of surgeons he’s reported to have remarked, “I hope you’re all Republicans.” Facing accusations of growing too old for the office during his reelection campaign in 1984, Reagan averred during a debate: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

6. At the time of his second inauguration, Reagan was 74–making him the oldest president at the beginning of his term.

7. Some found Reagan’s endorsement of his successor, George H.W. Bush, less than sdoenthusiastic. The New York Times called the run up to the endorsement “one of Washington’s longest-running and least suspenseful political dramas,” after Reagan insisted on waiting for the end of the Republican primary to announce his pick. Despite his nickname as the “Great Communicator” and Bush’s eight years of service as VP, Reagan flubbed Bush’s name during the endorsement, pronouncing it George Bosh.

8. Reagan appointed the first female Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor. Her nomination fulfilled one of Reagan’s 1980 campaign promises. O’Connor was confirmed by a Senate vote of 99-0.

9. Famous for loving Jelly Beans, Reagan hated brussel sprouts (maybe never tried roasting them!)

10. Reagan shares a birthday with Aaron Burr, infamous for his role in the death of the first Secretary of the Treasury (and current Broadway star) Alexander Hamilton.


Martin Van Buren and the Myth of OK

By Molly Bloom

Martin Van Buren is generally regarded as a below-average, simply “okay” president and is often overlooked for the two presidents who served contiguous to his term. Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison typically garner more attention; the former for his controversial presidency and the infamous Indian Removal Act, and the latter for the shortest presidential term in US history.

The inauguration of William Henry Harrison, 1840

Van Buren was the heir apparent to the presidency after a political career culminating with his service as Andrew Jackson’s vice president. Jackson’s support aided Van Buren’s campaign as a member of the relatively new Democratic Party in 1836, leading to his election. However, after a poorly rated presidency that included the “Panic of 1837” economic depression, his 1840 presidential campaign faced considerable opposition. Harrison defeated Van Buren’s run for a second term in 1840 to become the oldest man elected president, and age was a point of contention during his campaign. (Since then, both Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump have been elected in their 70s). Harrison famously delivered a superfluous inaugural address on a frigid day, refusing to wear a coat to demonstrate that despite being 68 years old, he was still robust and fit to serve. He contracted pneumonia during his excessive speech and died a month later.

 Van Buren’s 1840 campaign is often credited with the origin of the term “OK,” widely popular both then and now; however, the derivation of “OK” is convoluted. Proposed origins of OK range from the Choctaw okeh which holds the same meaning as the modern okay, to the Greek olla kalla, “all good,” to stories of a baker with the initials OK stamping the letters on army biscuits. Allan Metcalf explains in his book OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word that OK grew out of a joke written in March of 1839 by editor Charles Gordon Greene in the Boston Morning Post. The joke was that even if a person couldn’t spell “all correct,” they could “o.k.” something to say it was “oll korrect.” OK came out of a time when intellectuals were using wordplay to publish punchy jabs, and abbreviations were becoming popular- precursors to the modern LOL, JK, and even POTUS.

 Born in Kinderhook, New York, Van Buren earned the nickname of “Old Kinderhook,” further popularizing the abbreviation “OK.” His Whig opponent, William Henry Harrison, was famous as “Old Tippecanoe” or the “Hero of Tippecanoe” due to his military victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. With running-mate John Tyler, Harrison’s campaign song of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too included lyrics criticizing Van Buren, calling him “little.” (Sound familiar?) The song stated, “For Tippecanoe and Tyler too/ And with them we’ll beat little Van, Van, Van/ Van is a used up man.”

 OK remained a running theme during the campaign.  OK Clubs of Van Buren’s supporters rose up around the country, using the meaning of OK, all correct, to say that voting for Van Buren was giving a stamp of approval. His opponents used the term OK to attack Van Buren, stating that his political ally Andrew Jackson was so unintelligent that he “OK’d” bills during his presidency since he could not properly spell “all correct.” Regardless of the debated origin of OK, Van Buren’s 1840 run certainly helped disseminate the word. OK is used today as nearly any part of speech; as a noun, verb, adjective, interjection, et cetera, and in almost infinite scenarios so that the meaning has a certain amount of ambiguity. Van Buren’s presidency was just OK, or it could have even been considered oll korrect or all correct depending on your point of view, which is ultimately the legacy of Old Kinderhook’s story.

Inauguration 1961: Truman, Kennedy & a Return to the White House

By Kaleena Fraga

January 20th is full of stories of the passage of power from one administration to the next. Since 1936 presidents have been inaugurated on this day, so so there is plenty to remember–FDR marking the beginning of his unprecedented 3rd and 4th terms; Eisenhower playfully lassoed by a cowboy; Jimmy Carter & Rosalynn Carter walking the inauguration route in spite of the protests of the Secret Service–the list goes on and on.

Still, there’s one event worth reflecting on which happened the next day, on January 21st, 1961, and this is President Truman’s invitation to the White House. It was his first time returning to the White House since he’d left eight years earlier.

ike campaignTruman had left in 1953 after a hard defeat for his party. Eisenhower had won a decisive victory over the Democratic candidate, Adlai Stevenson, whom Truman encouraged to run, becoming the first Republican victor in 20 years. Still, Truman was gracious in defeat. He invited Ike to the White House in November 1952 to talk about the job, but later wrote that all he had said to Ike “went into one ear and out the other.” He later postulated that Ike, a war hero, would be unsuited to the task of president. “He’ll sit right here and he’ll say do this, do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Ike–it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

Inauguration itself had been an awkward affair. Eisenhower, determined to not step foot in the White House that day until he could do so as president, disregarded the tradition of calling on the current president & first lady. The Eisenhowers declined the Trumans’ invitation to lunch, or even a cup of coffee, and did not come out of their car until Truman appeared outside of the White House. As they drove off, an aid to President Truman remarked that he was glad to not be in the car. eisenhower-truman1

Despite all this, Truman had invited Eisenhower’s son, John, currently serving in Korea, back to the States to watch his father’s inauguration. Neither son nor father knew it had been the president’s orders until Eisenhower asked Truman in the car. According to Eisenhower, Truman simply replied: “I did.”

But any thaw that took place during the car ride had little effect on the Truman/Eisenhower relationship. Shortly after the ceremony ended, Truman returned to Missouri, where he’d largely remain for Ike’s next two terms. It seems the two presidents had little contact during that time. When Ike was in Missouri Truman tried to set up a meeting, but was told that the president’s schedule was much too full. Later in life, according to Truman biographer David McCullough, he could hardly refer to Eisenhower without using profanity.

Truman didn’t exactly start off much better with the man destined to replace Eisenhower. During the Democratic convention in 1961, Truman spoke out against Kennedy, saying:

“I am deeply concerned and troubled about the situation we are up against in the world now…That is why I hope someone with the greatest possible maturity and experience would be available at this time. May I urge you to be patient?”

Kennedy shrugged off the criticism. He had fourteen years in major political office–that was enough.

When Kennedy did become the nominee, Truman offered up his services. But he had his doubts. Writing to his former Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, he declared that “[we] are stuck with the necessity of taking the worst of two evils or none at all. So–I’m taking the immature Democrat as the best of the two. Nixon is impossible. So, there we are.”

Despite his lackluster support, Truman, then seventy-six, went in all for Kennedy. He traveled to nine states and delivered thirteen speeches in support of the Democratic candidate.

Kennedy was grateful. As a gesture of thanks, he made Truman his first official guest to the White House, the day after his inauguration in 1961.

Truman, a talented piano player, was even invited to take up the keys after a formal dinner.

truman piano wh

Truman later wrote of his disappointment that Kennedy did not call on him for advice during his presidency. Later in Kennedy’s term, Truman wrote Acheson to say, “You must remember that our head of State is young, inexperienced and hopeful. Lets hope the hopeful works.”

In any case, Kennedy’s overture to Truman is a reminder that inaugurations don’t have to be chilly affairs–rather, they can be an occasion for mending bridges. Truman would certainly note–especially after the Bay of Pigs–that current presidents have much to learn from the men who occupied the office before them. A lesson that could be applied to 1961 as any political era.


Special thanks to David McCullough’s fantastic tome “Truman”

Warren the Worst

By Kaleena Fraga

Any list of the nation’s worst presidents is sure to include Warren G. Harding. He is known today for this notoriety, for appointing friends to positions of power and their subsequent corruption, and, of course, those eyebrows.

Wonderful Warren Facts:

  1. As a child, he was called “Winnie.”
  2. He played the cornet (joining presidents like Truman and Nixon who were also musically gifted).
  3.  The 1920 campaign was the first in which women could vote. Harding handily beat his opponent, Democrat James Cox, whose running mate would later make waves of his own–a certain Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
  4. Harding did not finish his term in office–he died in 1923, which propelled his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, to power. He served the shortest term in the 20th century.
coolidge and harding
Harding & Coolidge, in what looks like a presidential selfie

5. Harding once described himself as “a man of limited talents.” He also once said “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.” He was indeed quite a contrast to his predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, the first president to have a PhD. Harding & Coolidge ran under the slogan “Back to Normalcy” and the Republican party bosses who handpicked Harding chose him because he was undramatic and bland.
6. The Library of Congress recently released a collection of love letters Harding wrote to his mistress between 1910 and 1920. In 1964 after a historian uncovered the letters, Harding’s family made a pact with the Library of Congress that they could release them–but not for 50 years. They’re quite explicit, and make several references to “Jerry”–not a person, but Harding’s name for a part of his body.
7. He was born in Blooming Grove, Ohio in 1865, the year that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

8. With the increased usage of news reels, Harding was able to do much of his campaigning from home, thus creating the concept of a “front porch campaign.”

9. During his campaign, rumors circulated that Harding was part black. This may have been in part because his parents were abolitionists. This has since been disproven. However, Harding did support civil rights. He called for an anti-lynching law in his first address to Congress and once stated that, “unless our democracy is a lie, you must stand for…equality.” Given his short term in office and general ineffectiveness, he was not able to get much done in this area.
10. The “G” in Warren G. Harding stands for “Gameliel.”

The Great Emancipator: Lincoln’s Backwards Backwoods Beginning


By Duane Soubirous

Heroes of American history are posthumously revered as gods by the Americans who follow them. Look at the ceiling of the U.S. Capitol’s rotunda and see Constantino Brumidi’s “Apotheosis of Washington,” depicting slaveowner George Washington’s ascent into heaven accompanied by the goddess of liberty. Walk into the Parthenon-inspired Lincoln Memorial and read Royal Cortissoz’s epitaph,






Etched in the walls of the Lincoln Memorial are the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address, both written within the last 18 months of Lincoln’s life. His earlier speeches go unmemorialized, like this passage from 1858 endorsing white supremacy:

“I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people.”

W.E.B. DuBois quoted this passage in an editorial written in September 1922, four months after the Lincoln Memorial’s dedication. He believed that Lincoln should be honored as the imperfect human being he was, instead of a legend sculpted in marble:

“No sooner does a great man die than we begin to whitewash him. We seek to forget all that was small and mean and unpleasant and remember the fine and brave and good … and at last there begins to appear, not the real man, but the tradition of the man—remote, immense, perfect, cold and dead!”


Recognizing Abraham Lincoln’s flaws and contradictions doesn’t diminish his legacy, DuBois wrote, but rather enhances the worth and meaning of his upward struggle. “The world is full of people born hating and despising their fellows. To these I love to say: See this man. He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln.”

This three-part series will chronicle Lincoln’s upward struggle, from denouncing black suffrage to Illinois voters in 1858 to supporting black suffrage in his final speech in 1865, from unsuccessfully opposing the expansion of slavery as a one-term congressman to becoming the president who eradicated it.

Abraham Lincoln grew up on the frontier surrounded by what Frederick Douglass called “negrophobia.” It was common for frontiersmen living in free states to abhor slavery and emancipation alike: both were perceived as threats to the unalienable rights of white men. Lincoln didn’t address slavery in his campaigns for the Illinois State Assembly and U.S. Congress in the 1830s and 1840s, but Congressman Lincoln did support two proposals restricting slavery, neither of which succeeded.

In 1849, Lincoln proposed a gradual emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia, but his plan wasn’t even brought to a vote. In 1862, after Lincoln signed into law the immediate emancipation of slaves in the capital, Lincoln said, “Little did I dream in 1849, when I proposed to abolish slavery at this capital, and could scarcely get a hearing for the proposition, that it would be so soon accomplished.”

Congressman Lincoln also supported the Wilmot Proviso, named for Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot. Wilmot wanted to keep slavery out of all territories gained from the Mexican-American War, giving white men to carte blanche to build a better life out West. The Wilmot Proviso passed in the House but failed in the Senate. Leading the opposition in the Senate was Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, whom Lincoln challenged in 1858.

“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it,” begins Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, delivered upon securing the Illinois Republican Party’s nomination for Senate. Standing on the sidelines of the political arena in the 1850s, Lincoln observed each branch of government working conjunctively to expand slavery, and worried the United States was tending toward nationalizing slavery.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, shepherded through Congress by Senator Douglas, repealed a 34-year-old ban on slavery in the Kansas and Nebraska territories. Douglas insisted he didn’t care whether slavery be voted down or up, “but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way.” Lincoln attacked this principle of popular sovereignty, defining it this way: “That if any one man, choose to enslave another, no third man shall be allowed to object.”

In President James Buchanan’s inaugural address of 1856, he called on Americans to abide by an upcoming Supreme Court decision, “whatever this may be.” Two days later the Supreme Court issued its Dred Scott decision, ruling that Congress cannot ban slavery in the territories and the Constitution affirms the right to own slaves. This decision alarmed Lincoln. If the Constitution forbids states from denying rights affirmed in the Constitution, and the Supreme Court says the right to own slaves is affirmed in the Constitution, Lincoln reasoned that the Supreme Court would soon rule that states’ bans on slavery were unconstitutional. “We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free; and we shall awake to the reality instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave state.”

Lincoln and Douglas debated seven times throughout the state. While Lincoln largely appealed to the audiences’ morals in denouncing slavery, Douglas resorted to race baiting. Responding to Lincoln’s assertion that the Declaration of Independence applied to both whites and blacks, Douglas asked how could Jefferson mean to include black people in the words “all men are created equal” when he himself held slaves? Furthermore, if slavery is wrong because the Founding Fathers meant for whites and blacks to be equal, what’s to stop freed slaves from voting, serving on juries, and marrying whites?

Lincoln spent the first three debates trying to dodge Douglas’ assertions that Lincoln believed in full equality for black people. At the fourth debate in Charleston, an especially racist part of the state, Lincoln definitively refuted Douglas: “There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”

In 1858, Illinois’ senators were chosen by the state legislature: the people would vote for state representatives, and whichever party won a majority picked their nominee for Senate. Republicans won the popular vote, but Democrats won a majority of the seats, and Stephen Douglas was reelected as senator. However, Lincoln’s performance in the debates rose him to prominence throughout the North, and when the two ran for president in 1860, Lincoln would emerge the winner.