Skip to main content

And The Middle West

July 2024
3min read

Maybe Mrs. Stowe wasn’t so big, after all. She fulminated against slavery, and a great many high-minded people listened and took fire, but the blaze that finally killed slavery was not really kindled that way. New England was the big center of abolitionist fervor, but slavery really died because of the Middle West, which had small use for fervor (outside of New England enclaves like Ohio’s Western Reserve) but which was firmly attached to the cash-and-carry sentiments which had been built into it from the beginning. Slavery at last came to its end largely because the Middle West would not put up with it any longer.

This is probably a slight overstatement, like most flat pronouncements, but there is a good deal to it.

In the Civil War it was common knowledge that New England troops were hot against slavery and that the middle western troops didn’t care much one way or the other and chiefly asked that people stop bothering them about it; but in the end it was the middle westerners who pronounced sentence of death and who took slavery apart, chattel by chattel, and they did this not because they had anything in particular against it but simply because it was in the way.

Musings such as the above arise from a reading of a thought-provoking book entitled The Man Who Elected Lincoln , by Jay Monaghan. Mr. Monaghan—no man to understate his thesis—devotes himself to a study of Dr. Charles H. Ray, who partnered with Joseph Medill to buy the fledgling Chicago Tribune half a dozen years before the Civil War and who was largely responsible for turning it into a paper that helped line up the Middle West against the unconscionable demands of the people who lived by the peculiar institution. It is Mr. Monaghan’s belief that it was chiefly Dr. Ray who brought Lincoln up from small-town obscurity, framed the Lincoln-Douglas debates, pushed Lincoln forward as a presidential candidate in 1860, and saw to it that he was nominated and elected; and he goes a long way toward proving his point. But it is neither Dr. Ray nor Lincoln himself who comes out of this book as the one memorable character. Instead it is the stolid middle westerner himself, who did not especially care about slavery but who finally came to see it as an imminent threat to himself.

The Man Who Elected Lincoln , by Jay Monaghan. The Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc. 334 pp. $4.50.

Behold: Dr. Ray, full of New England fire and ice, edited a paper in Galena, Illinois, got into politics, and wound up by buying a piece of the Chicago Tribune . He helped Illinois Republicans turn down Stephen A. Douglas, when a move to make a Republican out of Douglas was germinating. He fired up Republican sentiment on the prairies, he had both hands elbow-deep in the involved thimble-rigging that made Lincoln the Republican nominee in 1860; and yet he was never, really, from first to last, dealing principally with citizens who wanted to kill slavery because they believed that slavery was a profound moral wrong. He was able to swing, or to help swing, the Middle West into the Republican column, in the end, mostly because the middle westerners at last came to realize that slavery was cramping them.

It was cramping them because—it was always, remember, the extremely peculiar institution—it would not allow anybody to be neutral. It confronted hundreds of thousands of hard-working men who believed they could make something like a profitable human paradise out of the rich flat land between Pittsburgh and Council Bluffs, and it demanded that they adjust everything they were doing to the business of silencing people who did not believe that one group of men might properly own another group of men. It became, finally, an intolerable nuisance, not so much because it was wrong as because it was so strident and demanding. It came to its downfall, at last, at the hands of westerners, led by men like U. S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, who had never been counted among the antislavery cohorts but who finally abolished it root and branch (assisted by several hundred thousand hard-handed young men who felt the same way) just because it was getting in the way.

In the end it was this group that Dr. Ray appealed to. He himself was a dedicated man—a man with a New England background, incidentally—with a first-rate flair for combining steadfast idealism with a canny appreciation of what it is that makes the workaday wheels of politics go round. He helped make the Tribune a controlling power in the Middle West (even though his partner, Joseph Medill, got most of the credit for it) and he unquestionably had a great deal to do with putting Lincoln in the White House. But he was able to do what he did, not because the flames of a great moral issue were sweeping across the prairies, but simply because slavery was a national handicap.

Something immense was going on in the Middle West of the 1850’s. Idealism and hard practicality went hand in hand, and men who dreamed of a new heaven and a new earth were careful to get options on all the best lots in the new towns that were being staked out ninety miles west of nowhere. The pulse of the country was beating that way; the road that had to be traveled lay across the limitless prairies, the land of limitless cash potentialities and also the land of limitless dreams. The slave power, blind as all powers whose day is finished, insisted that everything that was done out here must be framed so that the rights of the slave states were properly preserved; and in the end the Middle West simply got tired of it. The net result was the Emancipation Proclamation, the march to the sea, Appomattox, and various things that have made headlines since then.

All of this is not so much explicitly stated as implicit in the background of Mr. Monaghan’s book. It tells a part of the story which gives rise to the books of Messrs. Stampp and Furnas; a part equally valid and equally important, and—in this reviewer’s opinion—equally necessary to a proper understanding of the story of how we got here and where we are apt to go next.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.