Lincoln on Popular Sovereignty

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20. Full text.)

This post serves as the twenty-first part of my dissection of Lincoln’s Peoria speech, but I think it speaks to important enough ideas of his to give it its own title.

After pounding on Douglas’ weakest points for some time, Lincoln came down to the hard stuff. Whatever Douglas’ laughable claims about recent history, whatever he tried to tell the public about how slavery would never go to Kansas or Nebraska anyway, popular sovereignty amounted to American democracy. Even if Lincoln disagreed with the Missouri Compromise repeal, did he really disagree with the idea that people should govern themselves?

Quite to the contrary, Lincoln proclaimed self-government “absolutely and eternally right”. But then, shouldn’t the people get a vote? If he really believed that, why would he deny self-government to the white settlers who would flood into the new territories? Did he think them a lesser species of man? Certainly not. Rather self-government

has no just application, as here attempted. Or perhaps I should rather say that whether it has such just application depends upon whether a negro is not or is a man. If he is not a man, why in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him. But if the negro is a man, is it not to that extent, a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that “all men are created equal;” and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.

Judge Douglas frequently, with bitter irony and sarcasm, paraphrases our argument by saying “The white people of Nebraska are good enough to govern themselves, but they are not good enough to govern a few miserable negroes!!

Well I doubt not that the people of Nebraska are, and will continue to be as good as the average of people elsewhere. I do not say the contrary. What I do say is, that no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent. I say this is the leading principle—the sheet anchor of American republicanism.

And Lincoln went on to quote the article of his ancient faith, the opening of the Declaration of Independence, to prove it. Slaves receive government. Even the most radical slaveholder agreed with that. They wrote volumes on how to govern slaves and worried over the subject constantly. But a slave, by definition, could never consent. Thus any governing of slaves could not stem from the consent of the governed. In other words, the creed of America forbade slavery even if its laws permitted the same:

Let no one be deceived. The spirit of seventy-six and the spirit of Nebraska, are utter antagonisms; and the former is being rapidly displaced by the latter.


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