* Robert May

January 12, 2009

Prof: Lincoln fought slavery's spread to Latin America, not just West

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - The 200th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's birth is a time for people to learn more about America's 16th president, says a Purdue University Civil War historian.

"President Lincoln is on a lot of people's minds today, partly because of President-elect Barack Obama," says Robert May, a professor of history who teaches a class on Lincoln and the Civil War.

Obama has patterned his Cabinet choices on Lincoln's, quoted from Lincoln's speeches, and plans to take his oath of office with the same Bible Lincoln used. Both took office in times of emergency, with little background in military affairs or foreign policy, and neither had substantial national officeholding experience beyond brief stints in Congress.

"No wonder Obama draws on Lincoln's memory," May says. "It is a safe assumption that if the Confederacy had won the Civil War and established its independence, the subsequent history of not only this country but also the world would have been significantly altered. That the Confederacy failed had a lot to do with the man judged by many historians to have been America's greatest president."

But May says that Americans have only a partial understanding of why Lincoln became president in the first place, and why he ran for national office.

"It is well known that Lincoln first gained national attention by opposing slavery's expansion into the American West, particularly the Kansas territory," May says. "What Americans don't seem to know is that Lincoln was worried that Southerners, if they were given a free hand, would also try to spread slavery throughout Latin America, and that Lincoln tried to stop such aggression.

"A craze for territorial growth was sweeping the country during Lincoln's early political career," May says. "Many people believed white Americans had a mission to spread their system of government and way of life, which for some included slavery, through the entire North American continent, as well as Central and South America."

This ambitious agenda, known as America's Manifest Destiny, was a divisive political issue leading up to Lincoln's election in 1860. As part of these aggressive plots, U. S. citizens known as filibusters mounted private military expeditions against Cuba, Central America and Mexico.

One of these adventurers, the Tennessean William Walker, even conquered Nicaragua and legalized slavery there.

 "The prevention of slavery's expansion was the political topic that united Lincoln and most Republicans," May says. "It was the most important plank in the national party's platform, and there was no way that Lincoln and his political party were going to tolerate aggressions to spread slavery into Latin America. Lincoln made this clear during his famous debates with Stephen Douglas."

Lincoln did more than just speak out against Southern slaveholders conquering Latin America, May says. He also helped prevent the possibility following his election as the 16th U.S. president.

On the eve of the Civil War, the Crittenden Compromise was proposed in Congress to solve the crisis between the North and the South. One of the provisions designed to appease Southerners, so that they would call off secession, would have made slavery legal in any new territory the United States ever acquired in Latin America.

President-elect Lincoln's determination to halt slavery's expansion helped defeat the plan, even though its passage might have prevented the Civil War, May says. Rather than allow slavery expansion into Latin America, President-elect Lincoln told Republican congressmen in Washington to block the proposed legislation, despite the risks of preventing a North-South settlement.

"It is time that Americans understand Lincoln's fight against slavery in the tropics, not just the West, and how his stand helps explain why the Civil War could not be avoided."

May explains Lincoln's determination to stop slavery's spread southward in his books about filibustering -- "Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America" and "The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire: 1854-1861."

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, (765) 494-9723,

Source: Robert May, (765) 494-4131,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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