When Lincoln met Douglas at Peoria to debate the latter’s repeal of the Missouri Compromise in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, both men to some degree needed the appearance. For Douglas, the speaking tour gave him the chance to rebuild some of the bridges he burned in the Illinois Democracy with the law and his poor performance in Chicago. Prevailing over even an unremarkable figure like Lincoln who argued the other side would put a nice feather in his cap. Lincoln used his tour to reenter politics and sharing a stage with one of the most famous men in the nation, and certainly the most famous in Illinois, he boosted his profile. He could seal the deal with a great speech, and Lincoln had at least a good one in him.
After everyone had their supper and came back, the man from Springfield began not as an angry partisan but as a deeply moderate man. He knew that he had a large hostile audience. They came for Douglas and, in Lincoln’s own words, to see Douglas skin him. Lincoln set himself up as one of the last national Whigs. He had long taken Henry Clay, the party’s slaveholding, Missouri Compromise-authoring, Great Compromiser and sectional pacificator as his political hero. That Lincoln opened his remarks at Peoria in the same mold:
I do not propose to question the patriotism, or to assail the motives of any man, or class of men; but rather to strictly confine myself to the naked merits of the question.
I also wish to be no less than National in all the positions I may take; and whenever I take ground which others have thought, or may think, narrow, sectional and dangerous to the Union, I hope to give a reason, which will appear sufficient, at least to some, why I think differently.
Here Lincoln declares himself not Douglas’ enemy, or vituperative Salmon P. Chase come again, or even as a Northern man, but rather as an American first and foremost. He tells the audience that they should not see him as a bad guy, but rather simply a man who has principled disagreements about the wisdom of repealing the Missouri Compromise and so prefers to have it brought back. Lincoln doesn’t keep all of those promises, but his invocation of all things National underlines his deep belief in the curative and preservative power of the Union. If the nation had troubles, they could be fixed in the Union. That same Union safeguarded precious American republicanism in a world full of kings and tyrants eager to vanquish it.
Immediately thereafter, Lincoln sets out one of the essential distinctions of the antislavery movement, as opposed to the smaller abolitionist movement:
And, as this subject is no other, than part and parcel of the larger general question of domestic-slavery, I wish to MAKE and to KEEP the distinction between the EXISTING institution, and the EXTENSION of it, so broad, and so clear, that no honest man can misunderstand me, and no dishonest one, successfully misrepresent me.
Opposing slavery, even hating it, whether one hated it for the threat it posed to white freedom or for the wrongs done to black bodies and lives, did not necessarily mean that one wanted its immediate overthrow everywhere. No antislavery person would collapse in grief if it vanished tomorrow, but they sought the peculiar institution’s restriction. They wanted it confined to where it already existed, contained like the United States tried to contain communism in the Cold War. They had in mind that doing so would set it on the road to extinction, but going down that road would take at least a century and involve overcoming numerous and difficult obstacles.
They meant it too. Slaveholders might grumble that this all amounted to a PR campaign to insert secret abolitionists into the South, but the antislavery movement took seriously property rights, the established law on what Congress could and could not impose on states, and the problem of what to do with the freedpeople. They had some solutions, some of them horrifying to modern eyes, but all had problems and Lincoln, no less than any of the rest, grappled with them even at this early date.