Lincoln pledged not to assail the motives or patriotism of anybody who supported the Missouri Compromise repeal, let alone a great man like Stephen Douglas. Then, a few minutes later, standing on the same spot where he made that promise, he told the gathered crowd at Peoria that Douglas’ careful indifference to slavery hid a secret zeal for expanding the institution’s reach. Lincoln could not help but hate that, in his own words, due to “the monstrous injustice of slavery”. If that doesn’t count as assailing motives, what would? Furthermore, the advancement of slavery exposed the nation as hypocritical in its advocacy of freedom, thus undermining its moral authority on the world stage. Even beyond that, Lincoln insisted that expanding slavery went against the values of the Declaration of Independence. If that doesn’t count as assailing patriotism, twice over, what would?
Whether Lincoln planned it or realized as the words came out, he had contradicted himself and stood uncomfortably close to antislavery zealots like Salmon P. Chase. Lincoln wanted to use their arguments, and did so frequently, but took pains to cast himself as a Henry Clay moderate. He spent his next few paragraphs walking that back:
Before proceeding, let me say that I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did not exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses north and south. Doubtless there are individuals, on both sides, who would not hold slaves under any circumstances; and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew, if it were out of existence. We know that some southern men do free their slaves, go north, and become tip-top abolitionists; while some northern ones go south, and become the most cruel slave-masters.
While Lincoln clearly wants to ease off on the condemnation here, I don’t think one can fairly dismiss this as just savvy public relations. All of us imbibe our ideas of the normal state of affairs from the culture around us. If we grew up in a society that had slavery, we would overwhelmingly see it as normal. Things just work that way, end of story. We learn our definitions of normal from infancy and most of us, whatever the circumstances, don’t question them much. When we do, we do so in large part to examine our norms and call them good. Maybe they can use a minor adjustment here or there, but who among us wants to overthrow the entire society and do things in a dramatically different way? I can’t say that I do, and I’m probably farther from the political center than most.
Even genuine revolutionary movements rarely uproot everything, even when prepared to commit great atrocities to that stated end. Lenin replaced Kerensky’s provisional government, which replaced the czar, with something not all that different from the czar’s rule. The French revolutionaries began protesting injustice and ended in the Terror and dictatorship. The American revolutionaries worked to ensure that their movement to dislodge British aristocrats did not also dislodge their American equivalents. After all, that might have left those same revolutionaries dictated to by an even more terrifying and arbitrary authority than the distant government in London: their poorer neighbors.
We might all cast ourselves on the side of the angels after the fact, but that comes easy. We don’t have to take the risks or pay the prices. Nor do we have to find some way to break out of some measure of our cultural programming and then decide that what we once called good we should instead call bad. We have the benefit of living later.