The family case that 'energized' Lincoln on slavery

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This portrait of President Abraham Lincoln was taken by Alexander Gardner in February of 1865, just two months before the president was assassinated.

A great revolution was required to bring Abraham Lincoln out of the political wilderness. But barely noticed has been a decisive event in his life that gave him the cause that carried him to the presidency.

After Lincoln's one term in the Congress he returned in 1849 to his spare law office in Springfield. He was obscure, politically forlorn, and despairing about the fate of democracy. Almost at once his wife Mary Todd Lincoln sent him on an urgent mission to her hometown of Lexington, Ky., to serve as co-counsel to recover the Todd family fortune, which was considerable.

For nearly a decade, Mary's father, John S. Todd, who was Sen. Henry Clay's business partner and political ally, had tried to pry the Todd estate from Robert Wickliffe, the powerful and wealthy leader of the proslavery movement in Kentucky. Wickliffe had been married to Polly Todd, a Todd cousin who had held the estate but passed away. John Todd, running for the state senate against that proslavery movement, was demonized as an "abolitionist," though he was a slaveholder himself. In the middle of the campaign, in July 1849, he died of cholera.

Lincoln arrived in October, just in time to see the proslavery forces rewrite the Kentucky state constitution to eliminate the law prohibiting the slave trade within its borders. Lincoln lost the case and the Todd family lost the estate to Wickliffe at the same moment that the political legacy of Clay, Lincoln's early "beau ideal of a statesman," and that of Mary's beloved father, was destroyed.

If those events were not sufficiently embittering for Lincoln, there was another factor, a concealed one.

The evidence from journals, pamphlets, and court documents reveals a mystery underlying the Todd Heirs v. Wickliffe case. There was, in fact, a living and rightful heir. He was Polly Todd's grandson, the only child of her son, who had died at a young age.

But this heir was not legitimate or legally a person. He was, in fact, a slave, and he had been emancipated and shipped to Liberia. In 1878, this former slave, the invisible man of the story, Alfred Francis Russell, was elected the vice president of Liberia, and in 1883 became its president - Mary Todd's second relation to become a president.

When Lincoln came back in Illinois, he spoke to friends about slavery as a political and social force. He was "naturally antislavery," but after the Todd Heirs case his tone turned "emphatic."

"The slavery question can't be compromised," he told one friend. He described young "thoughtless and giddy headed" Kentucky slaveholders with slaves "trudging" behind them, "the most glittering ostentatious and displaying property in the world"

"Lincoln would get excited on the question," said another of his friends, "and believed that the tendency of the times was to make slavery universal." He said, "In a few years we will be ready to accept the institution in Illinois and the whole country will adopt it."

Suddenly, five years later, in 1854, the old political order cracked apart in a stroke.

Lincoln's longtime rival in Illinois, U.S. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, ambitious for Southern support for the Democratic presidential nomination, sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise that had forbidden slavery north of a middle line of latitude and now made possible the extension of slavery to the west. The fear Lincoln had in Kentucky of the nationalization of slavery now "aroused him as never before."

New political alignments began a battle for the nation's soul. Joining the resistance, leaving behind his sense of political impotence, Lincoln still simmered in anger over the Todd Heirs case. In 1855, he wrote a private letter to his former co-counsel, George Robertson, a Kentucky judge, framing for the first time the central issue of a "house divided":

"Our political problem now is 'Can we, as a nation, continue together permanently - forever - half slave, and half free?'"

A few months later, Lincoln founded the Illinois Republican Party. In one of his 1858 Senate debates with Douglas, Lincoln declared, "I would disdain to hold any political principles that I could not avow in the same terms in Kentucky that I declared in Illinois . . . our political faith ought to be as broad, liberal, and just as that Constitution itself."

Sidney Blumenthal will speak about his book "Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 2, 1849-1856" (Simon & Schuster) at noon on July 25 at the Constitution Center. To register, visit www.constitutioncenter.org/debate or call 215-409-6700.