In 1854, passage of the Kansas- Nebraska Act spurred Lincoln, a concerned citizen, into action. That federal law repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, allowing slavery to expand westward.
In the historic debates that followed, Lincoln carefully worked up his best case against slavery. He noticed that among the men who argued that slavery was a great thing, not one of them had chosen it for himself.
Ultimately, Lincoln said, slavery was wrong. It violated the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Lincoln confessed that he had no idea how to deal with slavery where it already existed. He looked at the few ideas already out there and determined they were impossible, including freeing slaves. White people wouldn’t accept it, he thought, and a “universal feeling, whether well- or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded.”
But Lincoln didn’t need to find a solution to slavery in general. He could deal with just a piece of it: whether slavery should expand.
That was an easy call, and Lincoln used all his persuasive powers to show why the answer was no. Iowa and Minnesota had become states just fine without slavery.
Lesson: Breaking the problem into smaller bits worked, at first making Lincoln’s arguments against slavery the majority position of officials in Illinois, and propelling him into jobs as U.S. senator and president.
—Adapted from One Man Great Enough: Abraham Lincoln’s Road to Civil War, John C. Waugh, Harcourt Inc.