I have no doubt exhausted the patience of even the most generous reader in picking my way through Lincoln’s Peoria speech. It encapsulates antislavery thought so completely that I find it difficult to resist going paragraph by paragraph. But the remainder of the speech repeats largely the same themes as the first half, if with new wrinkles here and there. I think the time has come to move on. But before doing so, I wanted to revisit the speech as a whole in a high-level summary.
Lincoln came to Peoria to debate Stephen Douglas on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened the great plains to slavery more than thirty years after the Missouri Compromise banned the institution from their soil. Though Douglas had reaped quite the whirlwind from his authoring of and advocacy for the law, his tours of Illinois and the favor of the Democracy’s party establishment had helped blunt some of the outrage. Lincoln shared space with Douglas to give their audience the newly popular antislavery movement’s view alongside Douglas’ version of the story.
Douglas held that the Missouri Compromise required repeal because:
- Nebraska, not just the modern state, but all the lands bounded by Canada to the north, the southern line of Missouri to the south, the territory of Minnesota and the states of Iowa and Missouri on the east, and the Rocky Mountains to the west, imperatively required a territorial government to facilitate white settlement.
- The public had repudiated the Missouri Compromise and demanded its repeal by various means, including the Compromise of 1850 and party resolutions endorsing its finality.
- The Kansas-Nebraska Act demanded only that the people govern themselves, by their own consent, and so embodied the best and most ancient principles of American democracy.
- If Nebraska required a territorial government, it could have one without repealing the Missouri Compromise. Iowa and Minnesota had them without any such repeal. Just the year prior, Stephen Douglas himself put forward a bill to organize Nebraska under just those terms. Even in 1854, when the first version of the bill that finally passed came to the Senate, it contained no repeal.
- The public did not demand the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, either in 1850 or at any other time. Rather the Compromise measures applied to the Mexican Cession and it alone. No one at the time understood it as touching the Missouri Compromise and no such provisions existed in any of the Compromise laws, either stated outright or by implication. When the parties signed on to the finality of the Compromise, they understood that the Missouri Compromise continued its operation, to the point where even proslavery men only a year prior saw it as a fixed part of American law. Stephen Douglas agreed with them, then.
- Douglas’ act did not embody self-government, as it would permit none for any black man. Rather whites would have self-government and also govern blacks, who would have no power to consent or shape their governance in any legal way. Furthermore, the expansion of slavery flew in the face of the intentions of the Founders. They always took pains to exclude it and set it on a path to extinction whenever politically possible, tolerating it only where they must. Lincoln and the rest of the antislavery movement inherited their principles and goals.