How the Northwest Territory Influenced Lincoln’s Views on Slavery

By Beth Roberts

Recently I have been thinking about the states that made up the Northwest Territory, especially Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. It seems to me that the region’s shared values and institutions helped inform Lincoln’s growth over time.

Lincoln’s father, Thomas, was against slavery. That is one of the reasons he moved his family from Kentucky into Indiana. Lincoln had seen slavery; he thought slavery was wrong, but he initially wasn’t an abolitionist. His more moderate views were probably a result of living in Kentucky and southern Indiana until he was 21. When his family moved to central Illinois, it was there that the region’s strong anti-slavery positions influenced Lincoln’s belief that every man … black, white, immigrant … had the right to achieve what he could through persistence and hard work. And I think it was the region itself that provided the impetus for this change.

In thinking about immigration into the Northwest Territory, one need only consider the people who moved there. Some were soldiers who had been given land for their participation in wars. Some were second or third-born sons who, because of inheritance laws, needed to make their own way in the world. Some were immigrants. They packed up their families and moved to areas where they believed if they worked hard, they could bring the land to fruition and/or provide services for communities that grew in the region. Many did achieve success and felt others, African-Americans included, should and could do the same if given equal opportunity.

Once states were formed and communities were being established, these values were manifested in the formation of educational institutions. Leaders from the Northeast wanted to provide missionaries in the region and effect reforms on society. Religious educators established seminaries and colleges, and these institutions promoted the abolition of slavery. Lane Theological Seminary, Oberlin, Hiram, and Ohio Wesleyan colleges (all Ohio schools) had prominent roles in anti-slavery discussions. When Lane Theological Seminary (Cincinnati) refused to allow African-Americans to enroll as students in 1835, several white abolitionist students left for Oberlin College in the north-central part of Ohio. There, they helped influence the decision to allow African-Americans to enroll at Oberlin. Hiram College, then known as Western Reserve (Connecticut) Eclectic Institute, was in northeastern Ohio where anti-slavery sentiment was strong. And in Delaware, Ohio, home to Ohio Wesleyan, Frederick Douglass spoke about the evils of slavery. Closer to Lincoln’s home was Knox College in Galesburg, IL. Knox had indirect connections to Oberlin College, and was founded by social reformer George Washington Gale, a man strongly opposed to slavery.  As a state legislator, Lincoln had voted to grant Knox a charter in 1837.

With settlers’ propensity toward self-reliance, and anti-slavery sentiment espoused in colleges, the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act met great resistance in the region. Lincoln wouldn’t have missed any of those discussions in local and national newspapers. His positions had been forming and were being shaped by discussions in this region over many years, and in 1858, in front of Main Hall on Knox College Campus, it is no surprise that Lincoln, believing that all men had a right to personal success and equal opportunity, denounced slavery as a moral evil during his 5th debate with Stephen Douglas.

 Ms. Roberts is a Historical Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

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Filed under Education, History

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