Possibilities for Peace

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward in 1851

What if William Seward and Stephen Douglas threw a war and no one came? The Fugitive Slave Act outraged the North and prompted incidences of popular resistance even to the point of violence, but by 1854 the outrage had largely settled into the status quo. Anthony Burns (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) might have fanned the old flames, but he did so in Boston. Few places in the North had Boston’s passion for antislavery politics. He also did so amid the anti-Nebraska furor. The twin outrages reinforced one another, with the latter probably doing a great deal more to popularize the cause of the former.

But settlement of the American West, wherever the frontier ran at a given moment, usually involved relatively scrupulous respect for lines of latitude. Most emigrants expected to farm and so sought a climate and soil similar to that at home for economic as well as sentimental reasons. Those rails of latitude would take people from enslaved Missouri into Kansas, but also take people from free Iowa into the Nebraska Territory all the way up to the Canadian border. No one seems to have said that the Kansas-Nebraska Act meant Kansas for slavery and Iowa for freedom, but one could easily read that settlement in.

Nineteenth century Americans lived in a nation half slave and half free. However much they grumbled, held protest meetings, and said nasty things about the other half, they proved for decades entirely capable of living with the partition. In time, the North’s loss of Kansas to slavery might have taken on the appearance of a fair trade for the South’s loss of California to freedom. If the Nebraska territory all went free, then the vast majority of the Missouri Compromise remained in place in fact if not in law. In due course Minnesota and Nebraska would come in as free states. Maybe that would also mean that New Mexico and Utah turned slave, but the old two by two program of admitting states would proceed at least until then. The nation might get a decade or more of the old days come again. The South could not claim any kind of mistreatment over that and the North’s outrage might fade in the face of its practical triumph.

The South’s gain might have proved equally transitory. Slaveholders rightly viewed their human property as a fragile institution because that property could decide to take off on its own and display all the ingenuity that actual people, with their white skin, enjoyed. As such, they shrank from taking slaves anywhere that antislavery feeling might prevail in the foreseeable future. That kept Missouri from swelling with slaves. The same concerns helped sell slaves out of the Upper South and into the Lower South. Furthermore, slaveholders looking to improve their fortunes through expansion had far safer avenues than chilly Kansas. The Missourians might see in Kansas hemp and tobacco land, but Texas and Arkansas offered virgin soil ripe for cotton. Even arid New Mexico, far from the grasping hands of slave-stealing abolitionists could present a more appealing face than a Kansas where antislavery men openly conspired to make the land free. Even as the future of Kansas hung in the balance, New Mexico and Utah sent out calls for southern settlers.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Where did that leave an enslaved Kansas? The South might claim a symbolic victory and hold back the tide of free states in the Senate for a few more years, but for how long? And how long would barely enslaved Kansas prove reliable? Southerners fretted already over Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. Another unsteady ally in future controversies could provide another swing vote to force on the South some new detestable compromise.

But what if it worked? A well-enslaved Kansas had to get its slaves from somewhere. They would surely come mostly from adjacent Missouri, where the tide of white immigration had already turned the state’s demographics worryingly Northern. Its black belts would count as white belts down in the Cotton Kingdom. If Kansas drained the slaves from Missouri and turned it into a free state, would Kansan slavery long remain a slavery island in the free wilderness? Missouri had just that problem already. Down the road, the South’s win of one state for slavery could mean the loss of two.

Maybe Douglas had it right the first time, by passing the buck to the territory and its legislature things could just fall out as they may. Either section could glean a win out of that, either right then or a few years later. If no one came and made a war of it, then sudden outrage could settle into the new way of things. Those exercised over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, on either side, would mostly feel their passions cool and decide that however painful their ordeal, the Union survived and life went on.

Samuel R. Walker on Southern Constitutionalism

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

This post draws from Samuel R. Walker’s filibustering advocacy in DeBow’s Review (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), but the passage says at least as much about constitutional thought in the late antebellum South as about filibustering. The simple, popular narrative has Southerners united by an intense localism and a set of shared propositions about the nature of the Union. These include the voluntary nature of the Union, the resting of ultimate sovereignty in state legislatures and conventions, the supremacy of local state law over federal enactments, and a constellation of other ideas variously summed up as nullification, states rights, and ultimately secession. 

Those ideas really did exist in the minds of period Southerners, but they did not live there alone. Nor did they, as one sometimes hears, equally dominate the minds of Northerners. Conflicts over the nature of the state and freedom dominate American history, not happy consensus. That remains true even if one restricts consideration of what Americans thought to what white male Americans thought, as virtually everyone then did. Some Southerners and some Northerners believed those things. Others believed other things.

To whatever degree the antebellum South’s leaders believed the ideology ascribed to them, they spent most of the period acting in almost completely the opposite way. Unless it came to preserving slavery in the face of national movements against it, Southerners searched in vain for a situation where they could happily prefer to let states do as they would. This only makes sense, as the South consistently dominated the federal government and so usually had a de facto veto power on federal policy. Any fair reading of the decade before the Civil War testifies to that. If anything, Southern power in Washington reached a remarkable apex in the 1850s. Had secession not intervened, the Southern-dominated Supreme Court probably would have handed down a second Dred Scott-style ruling which would have eliminated the power of Northern states to forbid slavery within their bounds within a few years.

They knew all of that. The doctrinaire states rights ideology probably did not command a majority of the Southern ruling class until after the war. Even during the Secession Winter, the decisions of many states came contingently and as near things indeed. The Upper South stayed out of the rebellion until Sumter, but even South Carolina’s decision came in part thanks to a railroad opening and running its maiden voyage full of Savannah businessmen into Charleston at just the right time. Those businessmen assured the South’s most doctrinaire radicals that if they bolted the Union, Georgia would surely follow. Complaints about the timidity of moderates enervating the counter-revolution fill the writings of fire-eaters and their more sober but still radical counterparts within the Southern mainstream.

Walker gives us something quite like that:

It was a prevailing feeling when our Colonies had, by their united efforts, achieved their independence, that they should lose their recollection of their former separate positions as individual States in the greatness of the result achieved by their Union. This idea was a natural one: we and our fathers have been educated in it, and we seem to view our federal as a centralized government, rather than a federation of independent States, linked together by a league, offensive and defensive, with a common purpose of free government; a common interest in commercial prosperity; a common protection in war, and advancement in peace. A more enlightened view is beginning to prevail and extend among the people, as its necessity increases, and the philosophy of our system is properly considered.

John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Secretary of State, Senator, and the generation's leading secession and slavery booster.

John C. Calhoun

Here we have the complete opposite of the popular narrative. Walker testifies to a nationalist mindset often overlooked in quick glances at the antebellum era. Reading between the lines just a little, he even tells us that nationalist thought generally prevailed and that ideas about states rights, nullification, and all the rest developed as a reaction against the North’s great population growth and increasingly vocal antislavery movement. Its necessity, to safeguard slavery, had increased in the minds of the slaveholding white South. But even in 1854, the ideology had not prevailed. Louisiana, fan of filibustering and home of DeBow’s Review, in particular had a nationalist bent despite its location in otherwise more radical Lower South.

Old Calhoun might have invented a Southern consensus and rooted it back in the foggy mists of the revolution as the official ideology of everyone, but each time he called on the South to join it he found no shortage of uninterested Southerners. Sometimes, as when it came to the Pacific railroad and the Missouri Compromise, he declined to even join himself.

Lincoln at Peoria: The Short Version

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, 21. Full text.)

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.

The Setting

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.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Douglas’ Argument

Douglas held that the Missouri Compromise required repeal because:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Lincoln’s Rebuttal

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


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.

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.