Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Twelve

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11. Full text.)

After Lincoln told his audience at Peoria that, however much he opposed Stephen Douglas’ plan to expand slavery, however much he thought slavery itself a great evil, he did not see black people as the equals of whites. He went beyond just acknowledging the prejudice of his audience and the time, embracing it as his own. Then he had still one more way to disappoint a modern reader:

When they [southerners] remind us of their constitutional rights, I acknowledge them, not grudgingly, but fully, and fairly; and I would give them any legislation for the reclaiming of their fugitives, which should not, in its stringency, be more likely to carry a free man into slavery, than our ordinary criminal laws are to hang an innocent one.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850? Really, Abe? On first blush it reads like Lincoln signing on to that most radical law. I’ve read frequent references to that effect, most often in the context of Lincoln’s first inaugural, where he declares that in swearing to uphold the Constitution, he swore to uphold its fugitive slave clause therein. There Lincoln goes on to say:

I take the official oath to-day with no mental reservations and with no purpose to construe the Constitution or laws by any hypercritical rules; and while I do not choose now to specify particular acts of Congress as proper to be enforced, I do suggest that it will be much safer for all, both in official and private stations, to conform to and abide by all those acts which stand unrepealed than to violate any of them trusting to find impunity in having them held to be unconstitutional.

He had his doubts about the fugitive slave act, which he laid out immediately prior:

In any law upon this subject ought not all the safeguards of liberty known in civilized and humane jurisprudence to be introduced, so that a free man be not in any case surrendered as a slave? And might it not be well at the same time to provide by law for the enforcement of that clause in the Constitution which guarantees that “the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States”?

I think one can fairly say that Lincoln endorsed the infamous law in March, 1860. But he did so with open reservations even then and even when using it as an olive branch in a crisis. Even at this extreme, Lincoln will only go so far as enforcement until repealed of a law already largely a dead letter. And even if Lincoln’s government pushed prosecution against a new rush of slave rescuers, would a northern jury convict?

Back in 1854, on closer examination, Lincoln’s doubts come out much more clearly. In both cases he wants some kind of law that provides the sort of protections that an accused criminal would receive: a real trial, habeas corpus, the right to speak in his or her own defense and to introduce evidence…all the things that the fugitive slave act precluded. Lincoln would have southerners get their slaves back, but only if they worked hard for it. The model they chose, James Mason’s fugitive slave act, simply did not suffice. They needed to do much better.

All of this makes another appearance of Lincoln the conciliatory moderate. He hates the fugitive slave act, but will uphold it until its repeal. He has all the right doubts, the same that a modern civil libertarian might have, but ultimately views himself not as a revolutionary working to overthrow the system but as a reformer bent on its incremental improvement.

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