After an initial defeat, in 1832, Lincoln was elected two years later to the Illinois House of Representatives. He succeeded to leadership rapidly, earning a local reputation as a follower of Henry Clay and as a capable politician in his own right. For a young man who would rise in life, the Whig party provided a hospitable political home. Indeed, into the 1850s, Lincoln's main political task remained advocating his own brand of an economic vision that called for the development of the United States through the nurturing of banking, commerce, industry, and transportation, and through the movement from a poor sort of farming toward intensive, scientific agriculture. Westward expansion held little appeal for him, westerner though he was, a product of his people's westerning experience.
Like other Whigs, he countered the Jacksonian manifest destiny for America with a call for the internal improvement of the nation. At the heart of his persuasion was an intense and continually developing commitment to the ideal that all men should receive a full, good, and ever-increasing reward for their labors so that they might have the opportunity to rise in life. Lincoln's political emphases would not change until the mid-1850s when, at last, he permitted himself to fully face the fact that slavery subverted the "American dream."
In 1842, after a tumultuous courtship, he married Mary Todd, the lovely, cultured daughter of a Kentucky banker. By then he had transformed himself from the barefoot penniless boy into a lawyer-politician in a frockcoat and, in the eyes of some, into "the candidate of pride, wealth, and aristocratic family distinction." The couple had four children, all boys, only one of whom lived to manhood. The family had a satisfying domestic life until the presidency, the war, and the death of a child destroyed a crucial part of their tranquillity. But love never deserted the Lincolns.
In 1847 the couple moved to Washington, D.C. Lincoln served a single term in the United States House of Representatives supporting governmental aid for the economic development of the country and opposing the Mexican War. He represented his constituency well, but he failed to distinguish himself, became frustrated by tensions within the Whig party, and so began to lose interest in politics. Law became ever more attractive to him; it provided a good middle-class living for his family and, quite important to Lincoln, also "a superior opportunity" for "being a good man."
Then the 1850s brought a revolution to American politics, making slavery the issue of the times. Lawyering again faded into the background as Lincoln seized the opportunity to reenter the political arena and reinvigorate the Democratic opposition in Illinois. He left the old Whig party to help form the new Republican movement. He won election once again to the Illinois House of Representatives but resigned before serving to pursue a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1855. Although Lincoln lost a close contest, he improved his standing as a leader for the new politicial alignment and emerged in 1856 as a prominent contender for the Republican party's first vice presidential nomination. Two years later, Lincoln ran for the Senate as the endorsed nominee of the Illinois Republicans against the incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas. It was the Lincoln-Douglas debates during their senatorial campaign that made Lincoln a nationally known figure and popularized his views.
The language he spoke and the moral convictions he championed were memorable:
The ant, who has toiled and dragged a crumb to his nest will furiously defend the fruit of his labor, against whatever robber assails him. So plain, that the most dumb and stupid slave that ever toiled for a master, does constantly know that he is wronged.
If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.
As I would not be a slave , so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.
Free labor has the inspiration of hope, pure slavery has not hope.
At rare moments Lincoln proclaimed the full implication of his views:
I want every man to have a chance—and I believe a black man is entitled to it—in which he can better his condition—when he may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him!
Free men had to oppose slavery because it subverted the American dream in myriad ways but, perhaps most important, because by denying blacks the right to rise, slavery endangered that right for all. Though Lincoln did not call for the political or social equality of black people, the issue he and the Republicans presented to the America of the 1850s was huge enough: " 'Can we, as a nation, continue together permanently—forever —half slave, and half free?' The problem is too mighty for me. May God, in his mercy, superintend the solution."
Lincoln himself gave one answer when he accepted the nomination for senator: "A house divided against itself cannot stand." But Lincoln and the nation were quite unprepared for the violence that came with the answer. Indeed, to fight the political war against slavery, he turned a blind eye toward the probability of a bloody war that would be the price of freedom. He was a pacific man, and as a mature adult he denounced war and military glory as an "attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood—that serpent's eye, that charms to destroy." Looking at the future he confused prognosis and preference. Then at age fifty-two he found himself the leader of a nation at war with itself.