Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Fourteen

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13. Full text.)

After so much throat-clearing, history, discussion of morality and disapproval of the fugitive slave act, Lincoln came around at last to treating Douglas’ argument directly. He did not plan a point-by-point attack on it, as he told the audience earlier, but he did come to debate and that meant he had to deal with Douglas’ words eventually. That meant understanding Douglas’ position and stating it clearly, which Lincoln did with admirable brevity. After spending enough time reading the Congressional Globe, one comes to appreciate that.

The arguments by which the repeal of the Missouri Compromise is sought to be justified, are these:

First, that the Nebraska country needed a territorial government.

Second, that in various ways, the public had repudiated it, and demanded the repeal; and therefore should not now complain of it.

And lastly, that the repeal establishes a principle, which is intrinsically right.

I will attempt an answer to each of them in its turn.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Douglas’ case in three sentences, though the second really could count as two separate claims. The public could repudiate the Missouri Compromise, in some senses, without necessarily seeking its legislative repeal. One could accept the Missouri settlement for the Louisiana Purchase but refuse to extend it elsewhere, for example.

But I digress, Lincoln tackled the first point

First, that the Nebraska country needed a territorial government.

in a single paragraph:

First, then, if that country was in need of a territorial organization, could it not have had it as well without as with the repeal? Iowa and Minnesota, to both of which the Missouri restriction applied, had, without its repeal, each in succession, territorial organizations. And even, the year before, a bill for Nebraska itself, was within an ace of passing, without the repealing clause; and this in the hands of the same men who are now the champions of repeal. Why no necessity then for the repeal? But still later, when this very bill was first brought in, it contained no repeal. But, say they, because the public had demanded, or rather commanded the repeal, the repeal was to accompany the organization, whenever that should occur.

Lincoln took care not to offend the prejudices of his time. He does not mention that Nebraska had only illegal white squatters demanding a territorial government, and few of those. The dogmas of nineteenth century white America demanded that land be opened for white settlement in the fullness of time. Having ever more frontier land coming cheaply on the market made the United States the United States and not some cramped little European country. White progress and white freedom could never stop moving on. Even David Rice Atchison agreed with that. You went west to freedom and for the future.

But even without that point, he makes an excellent case. If Nebraska needed a territorial government, no law of nature required the Missouri Compromise to fall for that to happen. If such a law existed, then it would have applied to Iowa and Minnesota. Very nearly the same applied to Nebraska, but the clock ran out on Douglas in 1853. Then when the bill came up again in 1854, it came with no repeal.

If Douglas had come on some secret truth about reality that demanded abolishing the Missouri Compromise to organize Nebraska, he came on it very late in the game. A decade of his intense interest in the subject had only at this late hour yielded up such a revelation. This suggested that no such revelation came. Nebraska did not need the Missouri Compromise to go away. Douglas did. If one did not know about Douglas’ dealings with F Street, Phillips, and Dixon, this all looked very much indeed like Douglas wanted slavery into Nebraska for its own sake.

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