Lincoln pressed in on Douglas’ weakest argument, that the public had endorsed ending the Missouri Compromise in favor of popular sovereignty in 1850. Against Douglas’ notion, Lincoln suggested that if the Armistice of 1850 established anything, it established that the sections traded fairly together. Each gave something and got something. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had none of that give and take. Furthermore, the Armistice did not include any provisions repealing past settlements on slavery or instituting popular sovereignty where it did apply. But the compromise measures did offer one clear case where the intentions of Congress, or at least the razor-thin majorities that passed the measures, could be read into the work. Congress had full jurisdiction over the District of Columbia and slavery there.
if they intended to establish the principle that wherever Congress had control, it should be left to the people to do as they thought fit with slavery why did they not authorize the people of the District of Columbia at their adoption to abolish slavery within these limits? I personally know that this has not been left undone, because it was unthought of. It was frequently spoken of by members of Congress and by citizens of Washington six years ago; and I heard no one express a doubt that a system of gradual emancipation, with compensation to owners, would meet the approbation of a large majority of the white people of the District. But without the action of Congress they could say nothing; and Congress said “no.” In the measures of 1850 Congress had the subject of slavery in the District expressly in hand. If they were then establishing the principle of allowing the people to do as they please with slavery, why did they not apply the principle to that people?
Douglas could not argue that no one suggested emancipation for the District. Petitions to that effect had come to every Congress for years and generated tremendous controversy, which I have lamentably neglected to date. Here they had an option on the table to abolish slavery over an area that Congress had full authority over. They could have put it to a vote of the people. If they intended to make a settlement on popular sovereignty grounds for all the territories of the nation that did not form parts of states, Congress could have very well done so. Yet it had not. Why not, Stephen? I don’t know if we should take Lincoln’s impression of the District’s popular opinion as gospel, but the fact remains that its citizens did not even get the chance to vote.
Douglas also brought up a resolution by the Illinois legislature which endorsed the Armistice, allegedly demanding the Missouri Compromise’s repeal. This had the same problems, of course. Lincoln had his own interpretation of the resolution and his read of it probably resembled the opinions of every interested person at the time, Douglas included, more than Douglas’ latter-day story:
Finally, it is asked “If we did not mean to apply the Utah and New Mexico provision, to all future territories, what did we mean, when we, in 1852, endorsed the compromises of ’50?”
For myself, I can answer this question most easily. I meant not to ask a repeal, or modification of the fugitive slave law. I meant not to ask for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. I meant not to resist the admission of Utah and New Mexico, even should they ask to come in as slave States. I meant nothing about additional territories, because, as I understood, we then had no territory whose character as to slavery was not already settled. As to Nebraska, I regarded its character as being fixed, by the Missouri compromise, for thirty years—as unalterably fixed as that of my own home in Illinois. As to new acquisitions I said “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” When we make new acquaintances, [acquisitions?] we will, as heretofore, try to manage them some how. That is my answer. That is what I meant and said; and I appeal to the people to say, each for himself, whether that was not also the universal meaning of the free States.
Lincoln had more than enough modesty there. He described both the legal facts and, so far as it appears from many sources, the consensus of both sections. The United States made up its slavery settlements ad hoc, as required by territorial expansion, with no clear principle uniting them all. This improvisation could continue if and when the US rifled through another country’s pockets and came out with some more real estate. It worked for Jefferson, for Henry Clay, and even for Stephen Douglas.