Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Twenty

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19. Full text.)

Lincoln laid out substantial evidence for his position that the Armistice measures of 1850 did not include any Missouri Compromise repeal, implicitly or explicitly, or endorse any principle to that end. He had brought up Stephen Douglas’ previous position on the Missouri Compromise before, quoting the Little Giant’s own words on just how universally the nation accepted Henry Clay’s first great compromise. But Douglas could always say that the words spoken in 1849 applied in 1849 and things had since changed.

But if Lincoln could catch Stephen Douglas upholding the Missouri Compromise after 1850 red-handed, and especially after 1852 and the parties’ resolutions on its finality, his whole story about the world changing and a new era of slavery settlements dawning would fly out the window. As a public figure on the national stage for more than a decade, Douglas had plenty of chances to share his sentiments on just about any subject. Lincoln chose to cite Douglas’ behavior in the prehistory of the very law in question, the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

If by any, or all these matters, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise was commanded, why was not the command sooner obeyed? Why was the repeal omitted in the Nebraska bill of 1853? Why was it omitted in the original bill of 1854? Why, in the accompanying report, was such a repeal characterized as a departure from the course pursued in 1850? and its continued omission recommended?

I am aware Judge Douglas now argues that the subsequent express repeal is no substantial alteration of the bill. This argument seems wonderful to me. It is as if one should argue that white and black are not different. He admits, however, that there is a literal change in the bill; and that he made the change in deference to other Senators, who would not support the bill without. This proves that those other Senators thought the change a substantial one; and that the Judge thought their opinions worth deferring to. His own opinions, therefore, seem not to rest on a very firm basis even in his own mind—and I suppose the world believes, and will continue to believe, that precisely on the substance of that change this whole agitation has arisen.

Douglas couldn’t even plead temporary insanity to get out of that one. The plea would not be used in the American courts until 1859, when Edwin McMasters Stanton, who Lincoln made Secretary of War in 1862, successfully defended Daniel Sickles, who Lincoln made a major general in 1863, for the crime of murdering Francis Scott Key’s son, Phillip Barton Key, across the street from the White House. Key had had an affair with Sickles’ wife, which Sickles could not abide. He reserved the right to sleep around to himself.

That sordid story still in the future, Douglas had to confront his own consistent behavior right up until the last-minute revisions of his bill. Could the nation have really repudiated the Missouri Compromise so soundly and clearly in 1850 if Stephen Douglas himself did not notice until January of 1854, only ten months before? Had he taken a remarkable three year nap?

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