Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Five

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4. Full text.)

In tracing the history of slavery restrictions up through the annexation of Texas in 1845, nine years before he spoke at Peoria, Lincoln told the story of how the Congress had banned the institution from various territories without controversy. But that story only goes so far on its own. Calhoun could have come out of his grave and told him that each and every one of those restrictions harmed the South and spat on southern rights. The South agreed to them, but erred in doing so. Others still living would go just as far, perhaps even farther.

Anybody can manufacture a historical consensus by ignoring its dissenters, a practice almost always in fashion in American politics. Certain sorts of people, who agree with the speaker, always represent real America. The others want un-American things. If you follow contemporary politics for very long, you’ll recognize the argument. Much the same thing played out with the Know-Nothings, who proclaimed real America Protestant and un-Irish. Their opponents could and did say the same sort of things about them. Abolitionists and antislavery men told the same story about the Slave Power. Southerners told it about abolitionists.

But one can mitigate against that kind of argument and Lincoln had one of the best. He quoted a prominent politician on the Missouri Compromise’s success and greatness:

The Missouri Compromise had been in practical operation for about a quarter fo a century, and had received the sanction and approbation of men of all parties in every section of the Union. It had allayed all sectional jealousies and irritations growing out of this vexed question, and harmonized and tranquilized the whole country. It had given to Henry Clay, as its prominent champion, the proud sobriquet of “Great Pacificator” and by that title and for that service, his political friends had repeatedly appealed to the people to rally under his standard, as a presidential candidate, as the man who had exhibited the patriotism and the power to suppress, an unholy and treasonable agitation, and preserve the Union. He was not aware that any man or any party from any section of the Union, had ever urged as an objection to Mr. Clay, that he was the great champion of the Missouri Compromise. On the contrary, the effort was made by the opponents of Mr. Clay, to prove that he was not entitled to the exclusive merit of that great patriotic measure, and that the honor was equally due to others as well as to him, for securing its adoption-that it had its origins in the hearts of all patriotic men, who desire to preserve and perpetuate the blessings of our glorious Union-an origin akin that of the constitution of the United States, conceived in the same spirit of fraternal affection, and calculated to remove forever, the only danger, which had seemed to threaten, at some distant day, to sever the social bond of union. All the evidences of public opinion at that day, seemed to indicate that this Compromise had been canonized in the hearts of the American people, as a sacred thing which no ruthless hand would ever be reckless enough to disturb.

The Compromise stood sacred, canonized by people of all sections and parties. None would ever dare undo it. None would risk so much for so little, with such reckless disregard for the consequences. None would so ruthlessly it aside, indifferent to the powerful feelings in its favor. None except Stephen Douglas.

Who said so? Why, no one less than Stephen Douglas himself.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Two

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Part 1.)

Having declared himself a compromise, Union, Henry Clay-style old-time Whig, and before that given everyone a break to get supper, Lincoln moved on to the meat of the issue. In the KansasNebraska Act, Stephen Douglas repealed the Missouri Compromise’s ban on slavery north of the southern border of the state, except for within Missouri itself. The North promptly caught fire and rose up against the law. Lincoln spoke on behalf of those northerners who saw themselves betrayed and their future sold away by a dangerous cabal of slaveholders and their northern lackeys.

Nineteenth century politicians had to know their stuff. People expected them to display their education and erudition regularly. As the leading men of society, they needed to act the part. That inclined them to a rambling, digressing style with exhaustive references to history and to legal theorists. One might expect the famously unschooled Lincoln to come in at a disadvantage here, but he made up for his lack of formal schooling with voracious reading. He might have spent only one term in the House, but he could play with the big boys. So Lincoln began at the very beginning:

In order to [get?] a clear understanding of what the Missouri Compromise is, a short history of the preceding kindred subjects will perhaps be proper. When we established our independence, we did not own, or claim, the country to which this compromise applies. […]


These territories, together with the States themselves, constituted all the country over which the confederacy then claimed any sort of jurisdiction. We were then living under the Articles of Confederation, which were superceded by the Constitution several years afterwards. The question of ceding these territories to the general government was set on foot. Mr. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and otherwise a chief actor in the revolution; then a delegate in Congress; afterwards twice President; who was, is, and perhaps will continue to be, the most distinguished politician of our history; a Virginian by birth and continued residence, and withal, a slave-holder; conceived the idea of taking that occasion, to prevent slavery ever going into the north-western territory. He prevailed on the Virginia Legislature to adopt his views, and to cede the territory, making the prohibition of slavery therein, a condition of the deed. Congress accepted the cession, with the condition; and in the first Ordinance (which the acts of Congress were then called) for the government of the territory, provided that slavery should never be permitted therein. This is the famed ordinance of ’87 so often spoken of. Thenceforward, for sixty-one years, and until in 1848, the last scrap of this territory came into the Union as the State of Wisconsin, all parties acted in quiet obedience to this ordinance. It is now what Jefferson foresaw and intended—the happy home of teeming millions of free, white, prosperous people, and no slave amongst them.

Lincoln skipped a few facts there and made one error, which he later admitted. Virginia’s cession of the Northwest Territory did not come with the condition that Congress allow no slavery there. Rather that provision comes from Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinance. Lincoln then neglects that Jefferson originally wanted to apply the law to the whole of the territory west of the Appalachians, making it all forever free. Jefferson came close to doing it, but the vote he needed to put him over the top rested with a man home sick when the time came.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Instead Jefferson settled for half a loaf. He got his slavery ban over the territory northwest of the Ohio, but not the other quarter of the country. His system for organizing territories in preparation for statehood, however, did set a precedent widely followed in the subsequent decades. Congress generally copy and pasted the Northwest Ordinance, swapping geography as necessary, to each new stretch of land. That said, Congress also frequently neglected to copy and paste the slavery ban when doing so.

But, Jefferson’s failings aside, Lincoln already has one over on doctrinaire southerners, and their supposed tool Stephen Douglas:

Thus, with the author of the declaration of Independence, the policy of prohibiting slavery in new territory originated. Thus, away back of the constitution, in the pure fresh, free breath of the revolution, the State of Virginia, and the National congress put that policy in practice. Thus through sixty odd of the best years of the republic did that policy steadily work to its great and beneficent end. And thus, in those five states, and five millions of free, enterprising people, we have before us the rich fruits of this policy. But now new light breaks upon us. Now congress declares this ought never to have been; and the like of it, must never be again. The sacred right of self government is grossly violated by it! We even find some men, who drew their first breath, and every other breath of their lives, under this very restriction, now live in dread of absolute suffocation, if they should be restricted in the “sacred right” of taking slaves to Nebraska. That perfect liberty they sigh for—the liberty of making slaves of other people—Jefferson never thought of; their own father never thought of; they never thought of themselves, a year ago. How fortunate for them, they did not sooner become sensible of their great misery! Oh, how difficult it is to treat with respect, such assaults upon all we have ever really held sacred.

The South accepted slavery bans and territorial partitions. It had from virtually time immemorial. Now, at this late hour, suddenly it discovered that Congress had no power over slavery in the territories and that its rights demanded nothing less than the abolition of all such bans? And no slaveholder could countenance a policy established by … another slaveholder? Preposterous!

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part One

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

When Lincoln met Douglas at Peoria to debate the latter’s repeal of the Missouri Compromise in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, both men to some degree needed the appearance. For Douglas, the speaking tour gave him the chance to rebuild some of the bridges he burned in the Illinois Democracy with the law and his poor performance in Chicago. Prevailing over even an unremarkable figure like Lincoln who argued the other side would put a nice feather in his cap. Lincoln used his tour to reenter politics and sharing a stage with one of the most famous men in the nation, and certainly the most famous in Illinois, he boosted his profile. He could seal the deal with a great speech, and Lincoln had at least a good one in him.

After everyone had their supper and came back, the man from Springfield began not as an angry partisan but as a deeply moderate man. He knew that he had a large hostile audience. They came for Douglas and, in Lincoln’s own words, to see Douglas skin him. Lincoln set himself up as one of the last national Whigs. He had long taken Henry Clay, the party’s slaveholding, Missouri Compromise-authoring, Great Compromiser and sectional pacificator as his political hero. That Lincoln opened his remarks at Peoria in the same mold:

I do not propose to question the patriotism, or to assail the motives of any man, or class of men; but rather to strictly confine myself to the naked merits of the question.

I also wish to be no less than National in all the positions I may take; and whenever I take ground which others have thought, or may think, narrow, sectional and dangerous to the Union, I hope to give a reason, which will appear sufficient, at least to some, why I think differently.

Here Lincoln declares himself not Douglas’ enemy, or vituperative Salmon P. Chase come again, or even as a Northern man, but rather as an American first and foremost. He tells the audience that they should not see him as a bad guy, but rather simply a man who has principled disagreements about the wisdom of repealing the Missouri Compromise and so prefers to have it brought back. Lincoln doesn’t keep all of those promises, but his invocation of all things National underlines his deep belief in the curative and preservative power of the Union. If the nation had troubles, they could be fixed in the Union. That same Union safeguarded precious American republicanism in a world full of kings and tyrants eager to vanquish it.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Immediately thereafter, Lincoln sets out one of the essential distinctions of the antislavery movement, as opposed to the smaller abolitionist movement:

And, as this subject is no other, than part and parcel of the larger general question of domestic-slavery, I wish to MAKE and to KEEP the distinction between the EXISTING institution, and the EXTENSION of it, so broad, and so clear, that no honest man can misunderstand me, and no dishonest one, successfully misrepresent me.

Opposing slavery, even hating it, whether one hated it for the threat it posed to white freedom or for the wrongs done to black bodies and lives, did not necessarily mean that one wanted its immediate overthrow everywhere. No antislavery person would collapse in grief if it vanished tomorrow, but they sought the peculiar institution’s restriction. They wanted it confined to where it already existed, contained like the United States tried to contain communism in the Cold War. They had in mind that doing so would set it on the road to extinction, but going down that road would take at least a century and involve overcoming numerous and difficult obstacles.

They meant it too. Slaveholders might grumble that this all amounted to a PR campaign to insert secret abolitionists into the South, but the antislavery movement took seriously property rights, the established law on what Congress could and could not impose on states, and the problem of what to do with the freedpeople. They had some solutions, some of them horrifying to modern eyes, but all had problems and Lincoln, no less than any of the rest, grappled with them even at this early date.

The Ambiguity of Popular Sovereignty, Part One

Lewis Cass

Lewis Cass (D-MI), originator of popular sovereignty

Looking at Kansas from the South, suppose the terrain does suit slavery. Suppose it would house profitable hemp plantations, even if more lucrative opportunities existed further south in Arkansas and Texas for cotton. Suppose Douglas got his bill through. That meant the South won, right? Popular sovereignty would permit slavery to rush in, end of story. From Kansas it could flood into modern Nebraska, not all that much farther north. If slavery went to Kansas, it would surely go to any territory west of it organized later. Then, as Chase foretold, Douglas’

criminal betrayal of precious rights; as part and parcel of an atrocious plot to exclude from a vast unoccupied region immigrants from the Old World, and free laborers from our own states, and convert it into a dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.

Whatever the practical chances of the whole of the Great Plains falling to slavery, free soil men really believed that. The proslavery men also understood the Kansas-Nebraska bill as a portentous event. Here they could turn history around and undo ancient wrongs. They could strike out the stain on slavery and the honor of the slaveholding class that Thomas Jefferson put on them by hedging them out of the Northwest Territory, then compounded by the Missouri Compromise, by free California, by Northerners flouting the Fugitive Slave Act. A litany of defeats that each reaffirmed slavery as somehow toxic could end and a new sequence could begin announcing the virtues of a slaveholding culture. For Douglas, who remained indifferent and uninterested in slavery, the great principle of self-government hung just as much in the balance.

Senator William H. Seward (Whig-NY), Taylor's antislavery friend and advisor.

William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

That knowledge, combined with the anticipation of epic fireworks, emptied the House so its members could sit in the gallery and listen to Douglas hold forth. It drew the eyes of the nation. Never ones to underestimate their importance, Douglas’ fellow senators felt much the same.  Standing at the pivot point of history, William Henry Seward, the New York Whig who led the ailing party declared:

We are on the even of a great national transaction, a transaction that will close a cycle in the history of our country.

The elder statesmen that had dominated the Senate for decades: Clay, Calhoun, Webster, and even Benton had left the body. All save Benton had died. While Douglas, and many of the others, had played roles in the storm in 1850 they had done so in the shadows of giants now gone. They had before them the first great sectional struggle to resolve all on their own. Some historians, and commentators at the time, blamed that generational turnover for the disaster that ensued as if the 1850 club could have done better. But Kansas-Nebraska did not mean 1850 came again. Four years passed full of fugitive slave rescues, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and other controversy that did much more to alienate the sections.

Still, one thread remained the same: In 1850, Douglas and Lewis Cass promised that popular sovereignty would solve the slavery issue in the Southwest. Then, as in 1854, they declined to say just when it could do so.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act: Opposition

A contemporary map of the territories. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

A contemporary map of the territories. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

The Kansas-Nebraska Act changed forms rapidly. I have tried to keep up with that in the various posts, but a summary timeline might help:

  • Wednesday, January 4, 1854: Douglas introduces a new version of the Nebraska bill, repeating the slavery language used in the New Mexico and Utah territorial bills and leaving the Missouri Compromise untouched.
  • Tuesday, January 10, 1854: Douglas adds a section he claims “clerical error” omitted to the bill, which more strongly passed the slavery buck to territorial legislatures but still did not repeal the Missouri Compromise. Phillip Phillips and other Democrats begin to lean on Douglas to make more concessions.
  • Sunday, January 15, 1854: Dixon dictates his amendment to the Nebraska bill to his wife.
  • Monday, January 16, 1854: Archibald Dixon submits his radical repeal amendment to the bill.
  • Wednesday, January 18, 1854: Douglas goes for his fateful carriage ride with Dixon and comes out committed to repeal of the Missouri Compromise. On or about the same time, Douglas agrees to split the territory into Kansas and Nebraska.
  • Thursday, January 19, 1854: Douglas agrees to let Phillip Phillips write the slavery language for the bill, asking him to find the least radical phrasing that F Street will approve.
  • Friday, January 20, 1854: The Washington Union prints its last editorial condemning the repeal plan.
  • Saturday, January 21, 1854: The Pierce cabinet meets and most disapprove of repealing the compromise. They suggest to Douglas that he refer the matter to the courts. F Street rejects the idea. Late this night, the committee decide they have a workable bill with the repeal language and the territorial split in place, and resolve to report it out Monday.
  • Sunday, January 22, 1854: Douglas, the F Streeters, and Jefferson Davis call on Pierce and strongarm him into signing off on the repeal. The Washington Union endorses repeal and soon calls supporting it a test of party loyalty.
  • Monday, January 23, 1854: Douglas introduces the final form of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
  • Tuesday, January 24, 1854: Douglas moved for the Senate to consider his new bill. Dixon announced his support as a proslavery man. The Senate agreed to hold off for a week so that members could read the bill thoroughly.
  • Monday, January 30, 1854: The Senate opens debate on the bill.

For much of this time, deliberation happened in secret. F Street approved the repeal language in a literal smoke-filled back room. Douglas and Dixon rode alone together on that fateful carriage ride. Phillip Phillips pleaded with F Street in private. The speed and secrecy had meant little initial outcry. But the various revisions to the bill and all the activity drew some attention. Douglas and Pierce had to expect a northern democratic revolt and antislavery men did not nod at the wheel, as Stephen Douglas archly noted when he rose to open debate on the bill on January 30th:

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

It will be born in mind that the Senator from Ohio [Mr. Chase], then objected to consideration of the bill, and asked for its postponement until this day, on the ground that there had not been time to understand and consider its provisions; and the Senator from Massachusetts [Mr. Sumner] suggested that the postponement be for one week, for that purpose. These suggestions seeming to be reasonable to Senators around me, I yielded to their request, and consented to the postponment of the bill until this day.

Sir, little did I suppose at the time that I granted that act of courtesy to those two Senators, that they had drafted and published to the world a document, over their own signatures, in which they arraigned me as having been guilty of a criminal betrayal of my trust, as having been guilty of an act of bad faith, and been engaged in an atrocious plot against the cause of free government. Little did I suppose that those two Senators had been guilty of such conduct when they called upon me to grant that courtesy, to give them an opportunity of investigating the substitute reported from the committee. I have since discovered that on that very morning the National Era, the Abolition organ in this city, contained an address, signed by certain Abolition confederates, to the people, in which the bill is grossly misrepresented, in which the action of the members of the committee is grossly falsified, in which our motives are arraigned, and our characters calumniated. And, sir, what is more, I find that there was a postscript added to the address, published that very morning, in which the principal amendment reported by the committee was set out, and then coarse epithets applied to me by name.

Douglas referred to a manifesto titled Appeal of the Independent Democrats in Congress to the People of the United States: Shall slavery be permitted in Nebraska? The full text appears elusive online, but it begins in the Congressional Globe for the 33rd Congress on page 281. I use the archive fairly extensively, but direct linking to it seems not to work very well. The previous link is the best I can do. Sorry.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act: Dixon Again

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

We last met Archibald Dixon, the Kentucky Whig, staking out a radical position repealing the Missouri Compromise. Between his amendment and Phillip Phillips’ rush to F Street to get something similar, Stephen Douglas capitulated and his Nebraska Act changed into the KansasNebraska Act known to history. Whatever small hope Douglas had of sliding his repeal in under the Congressional radar with a quick debate and vote died on January 24, 1854 when Salmon Chase, his fellow Free Soiler Charles Sumner, and other senators demanded time to actually read the bill.

Dixon and Phillips shaped the most controversial part of Douglas’ bill. Phillips, with F Street approval, penned the offending sections. But he had to write them in such a way that he did not leave the Democracy looking soft on slavery in a Washington where Dixon had already named himself the peculiar institution’s greatest defender. Few politicians could survive long in southern politics against opponents that backed slavery more firmly, as Dixon and his dying breed of southern Whig knew all too well.

In digging through the Congressional Globe, I discovered that Dixon spoke on the motion to delay consideration of Douglas’ bill. There he himself expressed the sentiments that I, and actual historians, have ascribed to him.

So far as I am individually concerned, I am perfectly satisfied with the amendment reported by the Senator from Illinois, and which has been incorporated into the bill. If I understand it, it reaches a point which I am most anxious to attain–that is to say, it virtually repeals the act of 1820, commonly called the Missouri compromise act, declaring that slavery should not exist north of the line 36°30′ north latitude.

I take occasion to remark, merely with a view of placing myself right before the Senate, that I think my position in relation to this matter has been somewhat misunderstood.

I have been charged, through one of the leading journals of this city, with having proposed the amendment which I notified the Senate I intended to offer, with a view to embarrass the Democratic party. It was said that I was a Whig from Kentucky, and that the amendment proposed by me should be looked upon with suspicion by the opposite party. Sir, I merely wish to remark that, upon the question of slavery, I know no Whiggery, and I know no Democracy. I am a pro-slavery man. I am from a slaveholding constituency; and I am here to maintain the rights of that people whenever they are presented before the Senate.

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

There in the Senate stood Calhoun’s dream come true, a man who spurned national parties  and declared himself instead a member of the party of slavery. He went on to insist that his departed fellow Kentuckian, Henry Clay, only assented to the Missouri Compromise due to the press of circumstances and its principles never became his own. Clay, as the deceased do, did not rise to object.

Perhaps feeling things could get out of hand and already very exposed by his concessions to slavery, Douglas answered him with some careful backpedaling. They once supposed, Douglas said, that Dixon’s amendment

not only wiped out the legislation which Congress had heretofore adopted, excluding slavery, but that it affirmatively legislated slavery into the Territory. The object of the committee was neither to legislate slavery in nor out of the Territories; neither to introduce nor exclude it; but to remove whatever obstacles Congress had put there, and apply the doctrine of congressional non-intervention, in accordance with the principles of the compromise measures of 1850, and allow the people to do as they pleased upon this, as well as all other matters affecting their interests.

Dixon maintained his innocence in all that. They simply misunderstood him; nothing in his amendment really did such a thing. Ignore the fact that Dixon’s text at least implicitly repealed restrictions on slavery in every territory. He proved his good faith with his acceptance of Douglas’ new bill instead of demanding every jot and tittle of his own phrasing.

The Senate, whatever its members thought of Dixon’s latest position, voted to delay consideration of the bill for a week so they could read it.