In this complex but often compelling book, Graham Peck joins the recent surge of interest in rethinking mid-nineteenth-century American political history by casting Illinois as the seedbed and incubator for the national politics over slavery that worried the republic from its origins to the crack-up that came in the 1850s. Peck takes the long view in tracking the evolution of ideas about freedom and their relationship(s) with slavery from the drafting of the Constitution in 1787, to the formation and development of Illinois from territory to state, to the centrality of Illinois in the political calculus of the nation regarding competing definitions of freedom and obligations to slavery in maintaining the Union. He also focuses on the force of personality in shaping politics, especially that of Stephen A. Douglas working to realize his presidential ambitions and of Abraham Lincoln arguing that the principles of freedom in the Declaration of Independence must be the lodestar of Republican politics. To do all this, Peck packs much into his book, with detailed analyses of politics, principles, personalities, and practicalities as they worked out in Illinois and worked into national consciousness and concerns. The result is a book that rewards close reading with new interpretive insights and an appreciation for the ways local politics anticipated and advanced national issues and interests.
Peck argues that from the inception of the republic contested ideas about freedom and slavery disturbed politics and that the various compromises to accommodate those differences created an unstable coexistence [End Page 535] that not only failed to resolve them but also exasperated them by strengthening slavery's cause and quickening northerners' concern about the future of liberty in the land. Northerners' belief in the promise of national freedom encompassing the whole of the republic assumed that southerners would constrain slavery and over time find ways to end it, but slavery's increasingly aggressive advances and demands, which southerners insisted were necessary to ensure their concept of freedom, posed a fundamental threat to northerners' belief that only free institutions and opportunity could bring material, moral, and social progress. According to Peck, such concerns played out first in Illinois and presaged the national crises that eventually destroyed the second party system and shattered the Union. The state dealt with efforts to undo the Northwest Ordinance and extend slavery, with the struggles over the status of Missouri and then the Kansas crisis, and with the politics of banking, internal improvements, and economic development that acquired sectional identities as well as political party ones.
As Peck further argues, Illinois as the "bastion of the Democratic Party in the North" predicted its future, and no one more than Stephen A. Douglas was invested in making the party the dominant political entity in the nation (7). Douglas's ambitions coincided with his visions for the party, and thus he willfully courted southern support by making it possible to open territories to slavery. For him, popular sovereignty became the vehicle to open the West, shift responsibility for the slavery question away from Congress, and secure his primacy in the party. That part of the story is well known, except that Peck sees Douglas's gamble on Kansas as a reasonable gambit given the weakness of the Whigs, the Manifest Destiny drives of the American people, and his desire to unify the Democratic Party by purging it of any antislavery tendencies.
Peck also makes the important point that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was the work of centrists in the party, not political extremists. They alone had the votes to carry it through. Douglas's actions awakened northerners to the threat to their understandings of freedom and to a betrayal by prosouthern Democrats. The slavery question consumed all and remade politics, undoing the Whigs, soon enough doing likewise to the Know-Nothings, and giving rise to the Republicans. Lincoln emerged as the embodiment of a northern antislavery nationalism in his insistence that freedom must not concede anything more to slavery, that a slave power conspiracy...