I somehow neglected in past posts about this early Lincoln-Douglas debate to list the most obvious reason the two came together for a mutual rhetorical skinning: they had elections coming up. Neither stood for office himself in 1854, but their appearances promoted their parties. Though taken up by the great issue of the moment, the appearances themselves fit comfortably into the normal practice of nineteenth century electioneering. They would do it again, this time with more personal stakes and to much greater fame, in 1858.
Lincoln began with a history of the Congress’ power to restrict slavery in the territories. Slaveholders assented to it. Such restrictions passed without tremendous rancor in the 1780s. No matter of sacred honor or imperiled rights then upset the ship of state. Why would one now? Douglas and the rest of the Nebraska men would have them believe that the Missouri Compromise must fall as a question of right and principle on which most Americans agreed, with an ancient pedigree…discovered only in the past year.
Making that case required more than reference to the Confederation Congress and the Northwest Ordinance, but Lincoln had more. The Northwest Ordinance only applied to the Northwest Territory. All the land in question belonged to the Louisiana Purchase, after all:
In 1803 we purchased what was then called Louisiana, of France. It included the now states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Iowa; also the territory of Minnesota, and the present bone of contention, Kansas and Nebraska. Slavery already existed among the French at New Orleans; and, to some extent, at St. Louis. In 1812 Louisiana came into the Union as a slave state, without controversy. In 1818 or ’19, Missouri showed signs of a wish to come in with slavery. This was resisted by northern members of Congress; and thus began the first great slavery agitation in the nation. This controversy lasted several months, and became very angry and exciting; the House of Representatives voting steadily for the prohibition of slavery in Missouri, and the Senate voting as steadily against it. Threats of breaking up the Union were freely made; and the ablest public men of the day became seriously alarmed. At length a compromise was made, in which, like all compromises, both sides yielded something. It was a law passed on the 6th day of March, 1820, providing that Missouri might come into the Union with slavery, but that in all the remaining part of the territory purchased of France, which lies north of 36 degrees and 30 minutes north latitude, slavery should never be permitted. This provision of law, is the Missouri Compromise. In excluding slavery North of the line, the same language is employed as in the Ordinance of ’87. It directly applied to Iowa, Minnesota, and to the present bone of contention, Kansas and Nebraska. Whether there should or should not, be slavery south of that line, nothing was said in the law; but Arkansas constituted the principal remaining part, south of the line; and it has since been admitted as a slave state without serious controversy. More recently, Iowa, north of the line, came in as a free state without controversy.
There Lincoln drew a direct line between the Northwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise. They even used the same slavery language, straight from Jefferson’s pen. The compromise did not please everyone, but few compromises do. The North gave up having a free Missouri. The South gave up having slave states to Missouri’s north or west. Nobody got up in arms when Arkansas came in as a slave state or when Iowa came in free.
For thirty years, the Missouri Compromise did its work and served the nation. Why must it suddenly fall? Furthermore, why must it fall in such a way that the South won all and conceded nothing while the North conceded everything and won nothing? “I win; you lose” hardly sounds like a compromise solution. It certainly does nothing to endear itself to the party on the losing end.