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?


Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Nineteen

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

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

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?

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

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.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Eighteen

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

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

Stephen Douglas could not relocate the Ohio; Lincoln knew it too well. But he had still another story. Whatever status the Missouri Compromise had back in the day, the Compromise of 1850 did not extend the old line and therefore the nation had embraced a new settlement on slavery in the territories. Thus the Missouri Compromise had fallen, even if no one noticed. When both parties endorsed the compromise’s finality two years later, they endorsed the new reality. The wheel of ages turned and now they lived in a popular sovereignty universe, not a geographic partition universe.

Lincoln would not have it:

This again I deny. I deny it, and demand the proof. I have already stated fully what the compromises of ’50 are. The particular part of those measures, for which the virtual repeal of the Missouri compromise is sought to be inferred (for it is admitted they contain nothing about it, in express terms) is the provision in the Utah and New Mexico laws, which permits them when they seek admission into the Union as States, to come in with or without slavery as they shall then see fit. Now I insist this provision was made for Utah and New Mexico, and for no other place whatever. It had no more direct reference to Nebraska than it had to the territories of the moon.

It did say, right in those territorial laws, that they applied to the territories named. What strange alchemy would extend the provisions of, say, the Utah territorial bill to the plains of Nebraska? Nothing in the words of the law did so, as Douglas would admit. Furthermore, neither the New Mexico nor the Utah bills included even clear popular sovereignty language. At the time, Douglas admitted that no agreement existed on whether or not they put popular sovereignty into operation, or if so under what circumstances. Both territories, late in the decade, did take the latitude given them to pass slave codes, but silence does not explicitly institute policy.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

However, say Douglas had it all right about New Mexico and Utah. They had popular sovereignty authorized.

But, say they, it had reference to Nebraska, in principle. Let us see. The North consented to this provision, not because they considered it right in itself; but because they were compensated—paid for it. They, at the same time, got California into the Union as a free State. This was far the best part of all they had struggled for by the Wilmot Proviso. They also got the area of slavery somewhat narrowed in the settlement of the boundary of Texas. Also, they got the slave trade abolished in the District of Columbia. For all these desirable objects the North could afford to yield something; and they did yield to the South the Utah and New Mexico provision.

Even if Douglas had some of the facts on his side, Utah and New Mexico amounted to concessions that the North tolerated in exchange for getting a free California, an end to the public slave trade in Washington, and a reduced Texas.

Now can it be pretended that the principle of this arrangement requires us to permit the same provision to be applied to Nebraska, without any equivalent at all? Give us another free State; press the boundary of Texas still further back, give us another step toward the destruction of slavery in the District, and you present us a similar case. But ask us not to repeat, for nothing, what you paid for in the first instance. If you wish the thing again, pay again. That is the principle of the compromises of ’50, if indeed they had any principles beyond their specific terms—it was the system of equivalents.

Lincoln found there perhaps the one consistent piece of the Compromise of 1850: paying up. If Douglas wanted to wrap himself in its principles, then he offer the North some kind of compensation for the Missouri Compromise repeal. Yet none had come. In fact, the Kansas-Nebraska act that went through the Congress contained almost the most absolutely extreme territorial settlement that it could. Phillip Phillips and Archibald Dixon ensured that. Douglas wanted one hell of a freebie. He got his one hell of a storm.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Seventeen

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

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

Lincoln kept on hammering away at Douglas’ claim that the public wanted the Missouri Compromise gone. If Lincoln could point to all the ways the political establishment accepted the Missouri Compromise and treated it as a natural default position in the late 1840s, Douglas could switch principles and tell another story.

Senator Douglas sometimes says the Missouri line itself was, in principle, only an extension of the line of the ordinance of ’87—that is to say, an extension of the Ohio river.

Douglas could tell some whoppers. This one sounds almost plausible, since the line of the Ohio and the Missouri Compromise line purported to do the same thing: split off lands reserved to slavery from those reserved to free labor. Furthermore it had the appeal of turning the antislavery movement’s favorite law, the Northwest Ordinance, back on them. They used Jefferson’s slavery ban language in the Wilmot Proviso. They hailed it as the beginning of their movement. They pointed to each repetition of it in territorial law as another strike against slavery and another sign that the nation, as a whole, once thought slavery should someday end and before that be contained.

As an old riverboat man, Lincoln knew his geography. More than that, Lincoln held a patent on a method for lifting riverboats over sandbars, shoals, and other obstructions. You can read it here, if you can handle the poor OCR. He got the idea after a boat caught a snag and stuck with him on it. Flatboats took him twice to New Orleans, where he got to see the heart of slavery up close and personal.Lincoln had been down the rivers too often to miss the absurdity:

I think this is weak enough on its face. I will remark, however that, as a glance at the map will show, the Missouri line is a long way farther South than the Ohio; and that if our Senator, in proposing his extension, had stuck to the principle of jogging southward, perhaps it might not have been voted down so readily.

Mark Twain could move a plantation six hundred miles south for the convenience of fiction, but Stephen Douglas would not haul the Ohio down from where it joined the Mississippi north of Missouri’s southern border.

Lincoln did, however, grant Douglas half a point. If he really meant to extend a line from the Ohio, then the angle the river flowed at would reserve most of the continental United States to freedom. Few antislavery men would have passed up a deal that gave them probably more than even the Wilmot Proviso would.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Sixteen

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

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

Douglas had a plethora of reasons that the public had secretly repudiated the Missouri Compromise, making his repeal of it in the KansasNebraska Act no big deal. Lincoln began by grappling with the most potentially damaging one, the support he and other antislavery men now incensed with Douglas gave to the Wilmot Proviso. He first set out how the Missouri Compromise did not include any automatic provision to extend its line past the Louisiana Purchase. But he had still more to say about the Missouri Compromise and the great principle Douglas supposed it embodied:

Another fact showing the specific character of the Missouri law—showing that it intended no more than it expressed—showing that the line was not intended as a universal dividing line between free and slave territory, present and prospective—north of which slavery could never go—is the fact that by that very law, Missouri came in as a slave state, north of the line. If that law contained any prospective principle, the whole law must be looked to in order to ascertain what the principle was. And by this rule, the south could fairly contend that inasmuch as they got one slave state north of the line at the inception of the law, they have the right to have another given them north of it occasionally—now and then in the indefinite westward extension of the line. This demonstrates the absurdity of attempting to deduce a prospective principle from the Missouri Compromise line.

The line itself must rest on a great, deep truth of the universe that permanently divided slavery and freedom. After all, it reserved a section of land to freedom north of it and then reserved another section, also north of it, for slavery. If this encoded some principle of deep constitutional truth, then surely the North deserved a free state south of the line. Right, Stephen? The North accepted that compromise, so why not the South? Why did it break with the sacred pact and not suck up, say, a free Arkansas? Or, more on the point, why would it not accept a free California transgressing the line? That shouldn’t cause any problems, right?

Lincoln hammered it home, returning to Wilmot:

When we voted for the Wilmot Proviso, we were voting to keep slavery out of the whole Missouri [Mexican?] acquisition; and little did we think we were thereby voting, to let it into Nebraska, laying several hundred miles distant. When we voted against extending the Missouri line, little did we think we were voting to destroy the old line, then of near thirty years standing. To argue that we thus repudiated the Missouri Compromise is no less absurd than it would be to argue that because we have, so far, forborne to acquire Cuba, we have thereby, in principle, repudiated our former acquisitions, and determined to throw them out of the Union! No less absurd than it would be to say that because I may have refused to build an addition to my house, I thereby have decided to destroy the existing house! And if I catch you setting fire to my house, you will turn upon me and say I INSTRUCTED you to do it!

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

This struck at the weakest point of Douglas’ story: the transparent lie that everyone had secretly, but knowingly, repudiated and repealed the Missouri Compromise in 1850 and then, one supposes, forgot thereafter. Even Douglas’ liver probably couldn’t take the amount of lubrication required to honestly believe that. Everybody, even those who hated it, agreed in 1850 that the Missouri Compromise still stood.

And furthermore, antislavery men did not adhere to the Missouri Compromise only when it served them:

The most conclusive argument, however, that, while voting for the Wilmot Proviso, and while voting against the EXTENSION of the Missouri line, we never thought of disturbing the original Missouri Compromise, is found in the facts, that there was then, and still is, an unorganized tract of fine country, nearly as large as the state of Missouri, lying immediately west of Arkansas, and south of the Missouri Compromise line; and that we never attempted to prohibit slavery as to it. I wish particular attention to this. It adjoins the original Missouri Compromise line, by its northern boundary; and consequently is part of the country, into which, by implication, slavery was permitted to go, by that compromise. There it has lain open ever since, and there it still lies. And yet no effort has been made at any time to wrest it from the south. In all our struggles to prohibit slavery within our Mexican acquisitions, we never so much as lifted a finger to prohibit it, as to this tract. Is not this entirely conclusive that at all times, we have held the Missouri Compromise as a sacred thing; even when against ourselves, as well as when for us?

That territory, the future Oklahoma, remained Indian Country at the time of Lincoln’s speech. But some of the tribes there did practice slavery, and would fight for the Confederacy to save it, and no antislavery man proposed a slavery ban there. Back in 1820, such a movement had existed to keep slavery out of Arkansas. While slavery only explicitly got to keep Missouri, the men who drew the line knew that Arkansas would come into the Union eventually and knew they gave it up to slavery then. So the South really got two states for a compromise named after only one. It might have gotten still a third in years to come, possibly still more if the South endeavored to split up Texas.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Fifteen

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

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

Disposing of Douglas’ first point, that organizing territorial government in Nebraska required the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, Lincoln came to the second:

Second, that in various ways, the public had repudiated it, and demanded the repeal; and therefore should not now complain of it.

One would obviously ask who among the public did such a thing, and Lincoln did. Who beat down Stephen Douglas’ door? Who had the mass meetings and published pro-repeal resolutions? Douglas men did, but they did so after the law went through. One could not sensibly claim that they demanded a repeal they already had and the lack of any agitation on the public’s part for it beforehand puts the lie to the most direct claim. But, Lincoln acknowledged, Douglas did not claim that such a public movement existed per se.

Douglas might have instead pointed to the western Missouri planters who rebelled on David Rice Atchison after he briefly consented to organizing Nebraska with the Missouri Compromise in place, but that would undermine his insistence that he had a national consensus of some kind on his side rather than his actual proslavery capitulation. Instead:

It is not contended, I believe, that any such command has ever been given in express terms. It is only said that it was done in principle. The support of the Wilmot Proviso, is the first fact mentioned, to prove that the Missouri restriction was repudiated in principle, and the second is, the refusal to extend the Missouri line over the country acquired from Mexico.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

If the antislavery men, like Lincoln, did not accept drawing the Missouri line out to the Pacific, then they had repudiated its principle. But that does depend on who one asks:

The one was to exclude the chances of slavery from the whole new acquisition by the lump; and the other was to reject a division of it, by which one half was to be given up to those chances. Now whether this was a repudiation of the Missouri line, in principle, depends upon whether the Missouri law contained any principle requiring the line to be extended over the country acquired from Mexico. I contend it did not. I insist that it contained no general principle, but that it was, in every sense, specific. That its terms limit it to the country purchased from France, is undenied and undeniable. It could have no principle beyond the intention of those who made it. They did not intend to extend the line to country which they did not own. If they intended to extend it, in the event of acquiring additional territory, why did they not say so? It was just as easy to say, that “in all the country west of the Mississippi, which we now own, or may hereafter acquire there shall never be slavery,” as to say, what they did say; and they would have said it if they had meant it. An intention to extend the law is not only not mentioned in the law, but is not mentioned in any contemporaneous history. Both the law itself, and the history of the times are a blank as to any principle of extension; and by neither the known rules for construing statutes and contracts, nor by common sense, can any such principle be inferred.

The Missouri Compromise, that solemn pact, did not draw the line to the Pacific even in principle. It covered all the United States that then existed, but not an inch further. Douglas himself had to know as much. So did the political establishment in the late 1840s. Douglas introduced a bill, which a great many endorsed, to extend the Missouri line. In doing so, they all admitted that it did not on its own reach to the Pacific. Thus the fate of slavery in the Mexican Cession represented an open question to everybody, not one on which an instant national consensus existed and then got overthrown by David Wilmot and friends.

We naturally want to side with Lincoln here, but he does have facts in his favor to go with our distaste for slavery. The law itself not include provision for its automatic extension. Nor, for that matter, had previous slavery settlements necessarily transferred to newly acquired lands elsewhere in the nation’s history. The Northwest Ordinance banned slavery. The later Southwest Ordinance did not. The Missouri Compromise permitted some slavery and forbade other slavery. All of that might add up to a kind of geographic partition, but only inadvertently. The United States did its slavery policy on an ad hoc basis as new land came under its control. The Mexican Cession just represented the latest parcel to come up for an ad hoc settlement.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Fourteen

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13. Full text.)

After so much throat-clearing, history, discussion of morality and disapproval of the fugitive slave act, Lincoln came around at last to treating Douglas’ argument directly. He did not plan a point-by-point attack on it, as he told the audience earlier, but he did come to debate and that meant he had to deal with Douglas’ words eventually. That meant understanding Douglas’ position and stating it clearly, which Lincoln did with admirable brevity. After spending enough time reading the Congressional Globe, one comes to appreciate that.

The arguments by which the repeal of the Missouri Compromise is sought to be justified, are these:

First, that the Nebraska country needed a territorial government.

Second, that in various ways, the public had repudiated it, and demanded the repeal; and therefore should not now complain of it.

And lastly, that the repeal establishes a principle, which is intrinsically right.

I will attempt an answer to each of them in its turn.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Douglas’ case in three sentences, though the second really could count as two separate claims. The public could repudiate the Missouri Compromise, in some senses, without necessarily seeking its legislative repeal. One could accept the Missouri settlement for the Louisiana Purchase but refuse to extend it elsewhere, for example.

But I digress, Lincoln tackled the first point

First, that the Nebraska country needed a territorial government.

in a single paragraph:

First, then, if that country was in need of a territorial organization, could it not have had it as well without as with the repeal? Iowa and Minnesota, to both of which the Missouri restriction applied, had, without its repeal, each in succession, territorial organizations. And even, the year before, a bill for Nebraska itself, was within an ace of passing, without the repealing clause; and this in the hands of the same men who are now the champions of repeal. Why no necessity then for the repeal? But still later, when this very bill was first brought in, it contained no repeal. But, say they, because the public had demanded, or rather commanded the repeal, the repeal was to accompany the organization, whenever that should occur.

Lincoln took care not to offend the prejudices of his time. He does not mention that Nebraska had only illegal white squatters demanding a territorial government, and few of those. The dogmas of nineteenth century white America demanded that land be opened for white settlement in the fullness of time. Having ever more frontier land coming cheaply on the market made the United States the United States and not some cramped little European country. White progress and white freedom could never stop moving on. Even David Rice Atchison agreed with that. You went west to freedom and for the future.

But even without that point, he makes an excellent case. If Nebraska needed a territorial government, no law of nature required the Missouri Compromise to fall for that to happen. If such a law existed, then it would have applied to Iowa and Minnesota. Very nearly the same applied to Nebraska, but the clock ran out on Douglas in 1853. Then when the bill came up again in 1854, it came with no repeal.

If Douglas had come on some secret truth about reality that demanded abolishing the Missouri Compromise to organize Nebraska, he came on it very late in the game. A decade of his intense interest in the subject had only at this late hour yielded up such a revelation. This suggested that no such revelation came. Nebraska did not need the Missouri Compromise to go away. Douglas did. If one did not know about Douglas’ dealings with F Street, Phillips, and Dixon, this all looked very much indeed like Douglas wanted slavery into Nebraska for its own sake.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Thirteen

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. Full text.)

Lincoln indicted Douglas’ patriotism and accused him of secret proslavery zealotry. He went on to damn the fugitive slave act that he would later endorse with some reluctance in 1860. When he got up and told his Peoria audience that he did not intend a direct point-to-point reply to Douglas, he lived up to his promise. Instead they heard a history of slavery restrictions and the aforementioned comments. Having come out strongly against slavery, then expressing strong empathy and understanding of the white south’s racial predicament and white America’s racial prejudices, Lincoln again swung back around to a more antislavery line.

He supported efforts to recover fugitive slaves as the constitutional right of southerners, if not the fugitive slave law they used to do so. Lincoln at least implicitly acknowledged their legal, though never moral, right to hold slaves. But supporting their legal right to hold slaves where slavery then existed did not mean supporting the right to expand the peculiar institution’s reach. However sophistical that sounds to us, that distinction did not rest on empty technicalities. Southerners themselves made the distinction between having a right to slaves and having a right to take slaves anywhere they liked:

But all this; to my judgment, furnishes no more excuse for permitting slavery to go into our own free territory, than it would for reviving the African slave trade by law. The law which forbids the bringing of slaves from Africa; and that which has so long forbid the taking them to Nebraska, can hardly be distinguished on any moral principle; and the repeal of the former could find quite as plausible excuses as that of the latter.

Almost everybody in the white South before the Civil War abhorred the African slave trade. On occasion people did cheat and sneak in a shipment, and some fire-eaters always griped about it. Other radicals saw the 1808 ban as the beginning of the long litany of sins against the South by the federal government. But southerners could get queasy just around professional slave traders, who stripped away too much of the facade of paternalistic domesticity. They preferred to trade slaves through private sales when they could. When the southern ultras did try to revive the African slave trade, even in the fevered years right before the war, they could never get a single state to pass laws authorizing it.

Probably very few white southerners would have phrased it this way, but that position embodies a distinction between a right to hold slaves and a right to transport them even in the minds of the slaveholders. Some things just went too far. Lincoln could have found people nodding along when he endorsed the ban on the African slave trade even in Charleston itself.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Twelve

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11. Full text.)

After Lincoln told his audience at Peoria that, however much he opposed Stephen Douglas’ plan to expand slavery, however much he thought slavery itself a great evil, he did not see black people as the equals of whites. He went beyond just acknowledging the prejudice of his audience and the time, embracing it as his own. Then he had still one more way to disappoint a modern reader:

When they [southerners] remind us of their constitutional rights, I acknowledge them, not grudgingly, but fully, and fairly; and I would give them any legislation for the reclaiming of their fugitives, which should not, in its stringency, be more likely to carry a free man into slavery, than our ordinary criminal laws are to hang an innocent one.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850? Really, Abe? On first blush it reads like Lincoln signing on to that most radical law. I’ve read frequent references to that effect, most often in the context of Lincoln’s first inaugural, where he declares that in swearing to uphold the Constitution, he swore to uphold its fugitive slave clause therein. There Lincoln goes on to say:

I take the official oath to-day with no mental reservations and with no purpose to construe the Constitution or laws by any hypercritical rules; and while I do not choose now to specify particular acts of Congress as proper to be enforced, I do suggest that it will be much safer for all, both in official and private stations, to conform to and abide by all those acts which stand unrepealed than to violate any of them trusting to find impunity in having them held to be unconstitutional.

He had his doubts about the fugitive slave act, which he laid out immediately prior:

In any law upon this subject ought not all the safeguards of liberty known in civilized and humane jurisprudence to be introduced, so that a free man be not in any case surrendered as a slave? And might it not be well at the same time to provide by law for the enforcement of that clause in the Constitution which guarantees that “the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States”?

I think one can fairly say that Lincoln endorsed the infamous law in March, 1860. But he did so with open reservations even then and even when using it as an olive branch in a crisis. Even at this extreme, Lincoln will only go so far as enforcement until repealed of a law already largely a dead letter. And even if Lincoln’s government pushed prosecution against a new rush of slave rescuers, would a northern jury convict?

Back in 1854, on closer examination, Lincoln’s doubts come out much more clearly. In both cases he wants some kind of law that provides the sort of protections that an accused criminal would receive: a real trial, habeas corpus, the right to speak in his or her own defense and to introduce evidence…all the things that the fugitive slave act precluded. Lincoln would have southerners get their slaves back, but only if they worked hard for it. The model they chose, James Mason’s fugitive slave act, simply did not suffice. They needed to do much better.

All of this makes another appearance of Lincoln the conciliatory moderate. He hates the fugitive slave act, but will uphold it until its repeal. He has all the right doubts, the same that a modern civil libertarian might have, but ultimately views himself not as a revolutionary working to overthrow the system but as a reformer bent on its incremental improvement.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Eleven

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

I’m taking tomorrow off, so here’s an extra-long post for today.

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Full text.)

Lincoln declared himself a foe of slavery and its spread. He opposed it on the obvious moral grounds, as well as on patriotic and philosophical grounds. Naturally, one then wonders what he aspired to do about it. Thomas Jefferson opposed slavery, but would do extremely little to disturb it and encouraged Edward Coles to do no more. Just by declaring himself antislavery in public, Lincoln had gone beyond the Sage of Monticello.

If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, -to their own native land.

Abraham Lincoln, hero to whites and banisher of blacks, would rid us of them all. As much as we cringe, to nineteenth century white American ears that made perfect sense. Most white people who hated slavery hated it not for the wrongs done to black people but because they saw it as a threat to white republicanism and white social and racial purity. Different sorts should just keep to themselves. Maybe one could work out a way to live together with Catholics or Irishmen just arrived, or maybe not, but black Americans who arrived generations ago simply could not fit into American society. Best for everyone if they just went away.

Forced population transfer remained a socially acceptable, broad-minded humanitarian option up through the First World War, of course. Even if people got exiled by force, it would remove irritating minorities and their concerns from majoritarian movements. Thus, in principle, both sides would enjoy more peace and prosperity. It did not work out that way, but few people in Lincoln’s time knew as much. Americans could look at the Indian Removal for a counterexample, but then point out that private contractors turned it into a for profit enterprise and insist that their deportation scheme would work differently.

But Lincoln dismissed colonization as impractical. Where would all that shipping come from? Who would pay for it? And what would freedpeople do when dumped off in Liberia? He predicted that they would die within ten days. However harsh, that at least acknowledges that colonization would not send black Americans to Shangri-la, but rather to a world with which most of them had no experience at all. Some Americans would have washed their hands on Liberia’s beaches, considering the job done, but Lincoln had too much of a conscience for that.

What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery, at any rate’ yet the point is not clear enough for me to denounce people upon.

We might immediately answer with a resounding yes but in living memory Lincoln’s own Illinois had, if not slavery, an apprenticeship system where the apprentices lived as slaves in all but name. “Freeing” the slaves this way would not improve their lot at all and Lincoln explicitly references concern for black Americans well-being, something very often off the radar of other antislavery men. One can almost read a sort of implicit egalitarianism in this. Lincoln suggests that not just the legal fact of slavery, but also its social and individual realities must end. Inherently, ending slavery means elevating black Americans beyond their current status.

At which point the Great Emancipator-to-be pulls the rug out from under us again:

Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded. We can not, then, make them equals. It does seem to me that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the south.

A better status than slavery? Lincoln’s all for that. Equality with whites? That asked too much. Lincoln told the crowd he would not accept it himself and even if he did, he knew most American whites never would. That project remains unfinished, even with a century and a half of further progress and further reverses. The language says it all here: We cannot “make them equals”. Nothing about a black person suggests in itself that black and white should live as equals.

In the end, Lincoln comes out for graduated emancipation someday, but with great deference to southerners who don’t rush to the cause. No more slavery, in the distant future, but never equality. In making that stand, Lincoln of course pandered to the prejudices of his audience and to white racism in general. I feel the temptation even in writing this to make an excuse for him and say that in his heart of hearts, he didn’t believe a word of it. But I don’t know that and living so long after him and knowing the events ahead of him, I can’t help but see Lincoln at the end of his life when he talked about letting black men vote. That Lincoln had a decade and a war between him and the Lincoln who spoke at Peoria.

When did one Lincoln become the other? Or did both Lincolns share space, with one as Lincoln’s pragmatic side and the other his inner idealist? I don’t know. Many books delve into the subject and I understand that most scholars see Lincoln as evolving into a more forward-thinking man over time, but those books haven’t reached the top of my reading list yet. I see a ghost of proto-egalitarianism in the Peoria speech, buried deep and hedged behind many conditionals, but I can also see the other reading that Lincoln’s humanitarian gestures go no farther than that.