Lincoln and the Border States

Preserving the Union

William C. Harris

Lincoln Prize
Abraham Lincoln Institute

Adopting a new approach to an American icon, an award-winning scholar reexamines the life of Abraham Lincoln to demonstrate how his remarkable political acumen and leadership skills evolved during the intense partisan conflict in pre-Civil War Illinois. By describing Lincoln's rise from obscurity to the presidency, William Harris shows that Lincoln's road to political success was far from easy—and that his reaction to events wasn't always wise or his racial attitudes free of prejudice.

“After reading Harris’s account, it is impossible not to sympathize with Lincoln’s comment that the turmoil in Missouri had ‘tormented’ him ‘beyond endurance.’ Harris distinguishes his work with sound judgment, thorough research, and a readable style. Though he finds fault with Lincoln’s course of action in some instances—after rioting in Baltimore, for example, Harris asserts the new president was not careful enough to distinguish states’ rights supporters from secessionists—all in all Harris regards Lincoln’s border state policies as impressively successful. It is hard to disagree.—”

Indiana Magazine of History

“Harris has written a big-picture history of a topic rife with complexity and has done it well. . . . His book makes a strong argument about an important historical issue.”

Journal of American History
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Although most scholars have labeled Lincoln a moderate, Harris reveals that he was by his own admission a conservative who revered the Founders and advocated "adherence to the old and tried." By emphasizing the conservative bent that guided Lincoln's political evolution—his background as a Henry Clay Whig, his rural ties, his cautious nature, and the racial and political realities of central Illinois—Harris provides fresh insight into Lincoln's political ideas and activities and portrays him as morally opposed to slavery but fundamentally conservative in his political strategy against it.

Interweaving aspects of Lincoln's life and character that were an integral part of his rise to prominence, Harris provides in-depth coverage of Lincoln's controversial term in Congress, his re-emergence as the leader of the antislavery coalition in Illinois, and his Senate campaign against Stephen A.Douglas. He particularly describes how Lincoln organized the antislavery coalition into the Republican Party while retaining the support of its diverse elements, and sheds new light on Lincoln's ongoing efforts to bring Know Nothing nativists into the coalition without alienating ethnic groups. He also provides new information and analysis regarding Lincoln's nomination and election to the presidency, the selection of his cabinet, and his important role as president-elect during the secession crisis of 1860-1861.

Challenging prevailing views, Harris portrays Lincoln as increasingly driven not so much by his own ambitions as by his antislavery sentiments and his fear for the republic in the hands of Douglas Democrats, and he shows how the unique political skills Lincoln developed in Illinois shaped his wartime leadership abilities. By doing so, he opens a window on his political ideas and influences and offers a fresh understanding of this complex figure.

About the Author

William C. Harris, professor emeritus of history at North Carolina State University and recipient of the Lincoln Diploma of Honor, is author of nine other books, including Day of the Carpetbagger: Republican Reconstruction in Mississippi, With Charity for All: Lincoln and the Restoration of the Union, and most recently Lincoln's Last Months.