Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Two

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Part 1.)

Having declared himself a compromise, Union, Henry Clay-style old-time Whig, and before that given everyone a break to get supper, Lincoln moved on to the meat of the issue. In the KansasNebraska Act, Stephen Douglas repealed the Missouri Compromise’s ban on slavery north of the southern border of the state, except for within Missouri itself. The North promptly caught fire and rose up against the law. Lincoln spoke on behalf of those northerners who saw themselves betrayed and their future sold away by a dangerous cabal of slaveholders and their northern lackeys.

Nineteenth century politicians had to know their stuff. People expected them to display their education and erudition regularly. As the leading men of society, they needed to act the part. That inclined them to a rambling, digressing style with exhaustive references to history and to legal theorists. One might expect the famously unschooled Lincoln to come in at a disadvantage here, but he made up for his lack of formal schooling with voracious reading. He might have spent only one term in the House, but he could play with the big boys. So Lincoln began at the very beginning:

In order to [get?] a clear understanding of what the Missouri Compromise is, a short history of the preceding kindred subjects will perhaps be proper. When we established our independence, we did not own, or claim, the country to which this compromise applies. […]


These territories, together with the States themselves, constituted all the country over which the confederacy then claimed any sort of jurisdiction. We were then living under the Articles of Confederation, which were superceded by the Constitution several years afterwards. The question of ceding these territories to the general government was set on foot. Mr. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and otherwise a chief actor in the revolution; then a delegate in Congress; afterwards twice President; who was, is, and perhaps will continue to be, the most distinguished politician of our history; a Virginian by birth and continued residence, and withal, a slave-holder; conceived the idea of taking that occasion, to prevent slavery ever going into the north-western territory. He prevailed on the Virginia Legislature to adopt his views, and to cede the territory, making the prohibition of slavery therein, a condition of the deed. Congress accepted the cession, with the condition; and in the first Ordinance (which the acts of Congress were then called) for the government of the territory, provided that slavery should never be permitted therein. This is the famed ordinance of ’87 so often spoken of. Thenceforward, for sixty-one years, and until in 1848, the last scrap of this territory came into the Union as the State of Wisconsin, all parties acted in quiet obedience to this ordinance. It is now what Jefferson foresaw and intended—the happy home of teeming millions of free, white, prosperous people, and no slave amongst them.

Lincoln skipped a few facts there and made one error, which he later admitted. Virginia’s cession of the Northwest Territory did not come with the condition that Congress allow no slavery there. Rather that provision comes from Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinance. Lincoln then neglects that Jefferson originally wanted to apply the law to the whole of the territory west of the Appalachians, making it all forever free. Jefferson came close to doing it, but the vote he needed to put him over the top rested with a man home sick when the time came.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Instead Jefferson settled for half a loaf. He got his slavery ban over the territory northwest of the Ohio, but not the other quarter of the country. His system for organizing territories in preparation for statehood, however, did set a precedent widely followed in the subsequent decades. Congress generally copy and pasted the Northwest Ordinance, swapping geography as necessary, to each new stretch of land. That said, Congress also frequently neglected to copy and paste the slavery ban when doing so.

But, Jefferson’s failings aside, Lincoln already has one over on doctrinaire southerners, and their supposed tool Stephen Douglas:

Thus, with the author of the declaration of Independence, the policy of prohibiting slavery in new territory originated. Thus, away back of the constitution, in the pure fresh, free breath of the revolution, the State of Virginia, and the National congress put that policy in practice. Thus through sixty odd of the best years of the republic did that policy steadily work to its great and beneficent end. And thus, in those five states, and five millions of free, enterprising people, we have before us the rich fruits of this policy. But now new light breaks upon us. Now congress declares this ought never to have been; and the like of it, must never be again. The sacred right of self government is grossly violated by it! We even find some men, who drew their first breath, and every other breath of their lives, under this very restriction, now live in dread of absolute suffocation, if they should be restricted in the “sacred right” of taking slaves to Nebraska. That perfect liberty they sigh for—the liberty of making slaves of other people—Jefferson never thought of; their own father never thought of; they never thought of themselves, a year ago. How fortunate for them, they did not sooner become sensible of their great misery! Oh, how difficult it is to treat with respect, such assaults upon all we have ever really held sacred.

The South accepted slavery bans and territorial partitions. It had from virtually time immemorial. Now, at this late hour, suddenly it discovered that Congress had no power over slavery in the territories and that its rights demanded nothing less than the abolition of all such bans? And no slaveholder could countenance a policy established by … another slaveholder? Preposterous!

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