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Holding the Political Center in Illinois

Conservatism and Union on the Brink of the Civil War

Civil War Era, Forthcoming, Interpreting the Civil War: Texts and Contexts, U.S. History

DescriptionThe importance of political moderation in preserving the Union

Holding the Political Center in Illinois charts the political trajectory of Illinois from the introduction of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 through the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861. Throughout, Ian T. Iverson focuses on political moderation in this era of partisan extremes, one in which the very label of “conservative” was contested. Most often framed through the biography of Abraham Lincoln, the turbulence of antebellum-era and political realignment in Illinois has been widely misunderstood, yet the Prairie State’s geographic, economic, and demographic diversity makes it an especially fascinating microcosm through which to examine the politics of self-identified conservatives leading up to the Civil War.

Most politicians and voters in this period claimed to be conservative and stood opposed to radical secessionists and abolitionists. By positioning “conservatism” as a disposition rather than an ideology, Iverson explores how mainstream politicians in the Democratic, Republican, and Know-Nothing Parties employed a shared interpretation of American liberty, history, and institutions to court voters throughout the sectional crisis. Ultimately, this united reaction against secession, which propelled Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas to rally together behind the Union’s banner in April 1861, rose from an unconditional centrist commitment to the Union—the core value defining conservatism.