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Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

745 Boylston St. -- September 1995



THE first editors of The Atlantic Monthly, who were ardent abolitionists, did not initially favor Abraham Lincoln for the Republican nomination in 1860. It was hard to see in Lincoln, a failed Senate candidate from Illinois with a reputation for moderate views on how the nation should deal with slavery, the lineaments of the Great Emancipator. The Atlantic's candidate for the nomination had been William Henry Seward, who "represented the most advanced doctrines of his party"--that is to say, he was more radical than Lincoln on the issue of abolition. The editors disliked the idea of compromise with "the slave power." But as a practical matter they came around to Lincoln in the end. His willingness to countenance slavery where it already existed would perhaps mean that the threat of secession would recede. His opposition to the extension of slavery to the territories meant that the public fight against slavery would continue. In utterance Lincoln's denunciation of slavery remained eloquent and unequivocal.

"On Abortion:A Lincolnian Position," this month's cover story, explores the grounds of Lincoln's closely argued views on slavery, finding in them a political language and logic relevant to the most morally charged issue in American politics since slavery. George McKenna, a political scientist at the City College of New York, first conceived the idea for this article while studying the Lincoln-Douglas senatorial debates of 1858--debates preceding the election that Lincoln lost. "What you might call the morphology of the debate over the extension of slavery to the new territories," McKenna says, "was strikingly similar to the current debate over abortion."

Among the parallels he sees:

  • Lincoln and Douglas agreed that slavery was a moral issue, but to Douglas, as to proponents of abortion rights today, the central question was an essentially private one. Lincoln perceived a great public dimension that transcended the sphere of merely private choice.

  • Douglas showed little interest in whether a slave was a person. Lincoln, like pro-lifers today, argued that the question of personhood was paramount.

    But Lincoln did not want to make slavery illegal:that would tear the country apart. He wanted, rather, to stop its spread, and to hope and work for the day when moral suasion and public sentiment would accomplish what had not been accomplished in law. Ultimately, of course, this position proved untenable--in the matter of slavery. But McKenna argues that Lincoln's initial approach to slavery offers a model that politicians who want to heal the divisions in the country over abortion should follow. --THE EDITORS


    Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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