Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Illinois State Historical Society

Making an antislavery nation:  Lincoln, Douglas, and the battle over freedom

University of Illinois Press (2017)

Making an Antislavery Nation reinterprets the origins and triumph of antislavery politics in the antebellum North, arguing that profound and persistent conflict between slavery and freedom convinced a majority of northerners by the 1850s that slavery imperiled the nation's commitment to the ideals and practice of freedom. Hence northerners adopted a powerful antislavery nationalism and created the Republican Party to promote it, seeking, as Lincoln put it, to "re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it."

Abraham Lincoln, President-elect.  November 25, 1860.  Photo Courtesy Library of Congress.

Abraham Lincoln, President-elect. November 25, 1860.  Photo Courtesy Library of Congress.

The book focuses on the history of Illinois between 1787 and 1860 to make this case, showing how conflicts over slavery shaped the history of the state and ultimately produced a severe struggle between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party over the future of slavery and freedom in the North and the nation. It is one of the few books ever written to examine the problem of slavery in American society from the constitutional convention to Lincoln's election, and it does so while thoroughly integrating social, economic, and political history in an effort to explain why the North's two most influential politicians by the late 1850s--Lincoln and Douglas--proposed radically divergent solutions to the problems slavery posed to the nation.  In so doing, it offers highly original interpretations of both Lincoln and Douglas in the 1850s, a pathbreaking argument about the role of the northern Democratic Party in precipitating the sectional crisis, and a seminal reading of the fundamental conflict between slavery and freedom in America.

Praise for Making an Antislavery Nation


"Superb…Substantive and compelling argument…in marvelously clear and lucid prose."

Daniel Feller, Director of the Papers of Andrew Jackson, University of Tennessee


Absolutely tremendous!"

Adam I.P. Smith, Senior Lecturer, University College London


"Making an Antislavery Nation is an elegant and important reinterpretation of the political battles between slavery and freedom from the nation's founding to the secession crisis. In focusing on Illinois, Graham Peck brilliantly highlights the significance of the state in national politics and of Stephen Douglas as the pivotal figure in the rise of antislavery politics and disunion. His portrait of Douglas is unequaled in a story that is structurally and stylistically a work of immense sophistication."

John Stauffer, Harvard University


The victory of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party was the most significant political revolution in American history. Graham A. Peck's penetrating account of the politics of slavery in Illinois--at once a key battleground state and a microcosm of the nation as a whole--offers a powerful new interpretation of this critical moment in antebellum politics. By fusing antislavery radicalism with American nationalism, Lincoln and the Republicans overcame an increasingly proslavery northern Democratic Party. Thoroughly researched and judiciously argued, Making an Antislavery Nation changes the way we understand the triumph of the Republicans and the origins of the Civil War."

Matthew Karp, Princeton University


"Graham Peck offers a sophisticated analysis of the forces that led to the Civil War, emphasizing how Abraham Lincoln disguised the wolf of radical antislavery nationalism with conservative sheep's clothing, and how Stephen A. Douglas was gradually crushed between the upper millstone of southern intransigence and the nether millstone of northern disaffection for his toleration of slavery."

Michael Burlingame, University of Illinois, Springfield