Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Nine

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Full text.)

When Lincoln began his remarks at Peoria, he cloaked himself in the garb of a Henry Clay-style slavery moderate, personally opposed to the institution but aspiring to avoid the wrath of, and maybe even befriend, his political foes. Lincoln had as much in him, counting among his friends Kentucky slaveholder Joshua Speed. He laid out that pledge very early on:

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 case.

Now that Lincoln finished up his history of restrictions upon slavery, including those Stephen Douglas had eagerly supported, the one-time member of the House came to the question of Douglas’ motives. What did he think, after so much energy spent praising the Missouri Compromise, as late as a year prior, if he went on to destroy it all? What really went on in the Little Giant’s mind? Douglas always said that he didn’t care one way or another about slavery, personally.

This declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I can not but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticising the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.

So much for not questioning patriotism or assailing motives. Lincoln might not have known just how thoroughly F Street had Douglas over a barrel, or how Phillip Phillips and Archibald Dixon outmaneuvered them, but he did have one salient fact before him: Douglas authored the repeal, endorsed it, and saw it made into law. Even if other men wrote the exact language, it came in Douglas’ bill with Douglas’ assent and considerable support. Why would any man who swore that the Missouri Compromise would always stand, who called those seeking to repeal it ruthless and reckless, suddenly turn on a dime and destroy it himself?

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

Douglas must not have believed in it after all. Instead, all of the previous declarations amounted to empty political piety. People praised the Missouri Compromise, so Douglas praised it. One expected as much. But in his heart, he wanted it gone. If in removing it he undermined the United States’ position as the republican light of the world, Douglas hardly cared. Lincoln might not call the Little Giant the Accomplished Architect of Ruin, but he did call his opponent a proslavery wolf in sheep’s clothing and deeply, fundamentally un-American.

Lincoln had a point on the latter issue. All the way back during the revolution, Samuel Johnson criticized the revolutionaries on just those grounds:

how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?

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