Lincoln indicted Douglas’ patriotism and accused him of secret proslavery zealotry. He went on to damn the fugitive slave act that he would later endorse with some reluctance in 1860. When he got up and told his Peoria audience that he did not intend a direct point-to-point reply to Douglas, he lived up to his promise. Instead they heard a history of slavery restrictions and the aforementioned comments. Having come out strongly against slavery, then expressing strong empathy and understanding of the white south’s racial predicament and white America’s racial prejudices, Lincoln again swung back around to a more antislavery line.
He supported efforts to recover fugitive slaves as the constitutional right of southerners, if not the fugitive slave law they used to do so. Lincoln at least implicitly acknowledged their legal, though never moral, right to hold slaves. But supporting their legal right to hold slaves where slavery then existed did not mean supporting the right to expand the peculiar institution’s reach. However sophistical that sounds to us, that distinction did not rest on empty technicalities. Southerners themselves made the distinction between having a right to slaves and having a right to take slaves anywhere they liked:
But all this; to my judgment, furnishes no more excuse for permitting slavery to go into our own free territory, than it would for reviving the African slave trade by law. The law which forbids the bringing of slaves from Africa; and that which has so long forbid the taking them to Nebraska, can hardly be distinguished on any moral principle; and the repeal of the former could find quite as plausible excuses as that of the latter.
Almost everybody in the white South before the Civil War abhorred the African slave trade. On occasion people did cheat and sneak in a shipment, and some fire-eaters always griped about it. Other radicals saw the 1808 ban as the beginning of the long litany of sins against the South by the federal government. But southerners could get queasy just around professional slave traders, who stripped away too much of the facade of paternalistic domesticity. They preferred to trade slaves through private sales when they could. When the southern ultras did try to revive the African slave trade, even in the fevered years right before the war, they could never get a single state to pass laws authorizing it.
Probably very few white southerners would have phrased it this way, but that position embodies a distinction between a right to hold slaves and a right to transport them even in the minds of the slaveholders. Some things just went too far. Lincoln could have found people nodding along when he endorsed the ban on the African slave trade even in Charleston itself.