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 Ten

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

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

Lincoln pledged not to assail the motives or patriotism of anybody who supported the Missouri Compromise repeal, let alone a great man like Stephen Douglas. Then, a few minutes later, standing on the same spot where he made that promise, he told the gathered crowd at Peoria that Douglas’ careful indifference to slavery hid a secret zeal for expanding the institution’s reach. Lincoln could not help but hate that, in his own words, due to “the monstrous injustice of slavery”. If that doesn’t count as assailing motives, what would? Furthermore, the advancement of slavery exposed the nation as hypocritical in its advocacy of freedom, thus undermining its moral authority on the world stage. Even beyond that, Lincoln insisted that expanding slavery went against the values of the Declaration of Independence. If that doesn’t count as assailing patriotism, twice over, what would?

Whether Lincoln planned it or realized as the words came out, he had contradicted himself and stood uncomfortably close to antislavery zealots like Salmon P. Chase. Lincoln wanted to use their arguments, and did so frequently, but took pains to cast himself as a Henry Clay moderate. He spent his next few paragraphs walking that back:

Before proceeding, let me say that I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did not exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses north and south. Doubtless there are individuals, on both sides, who would not hold slaves under any circumstances; and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew, if it were out of existence. We know that some southern men do free their slaves, go north, and become tip-top abolitionists; while some northern ones go south, and become the most cruel slave-masters.

While Lincoln clearly wants to ease off on the condemnation here, I don’t think one can fairly dismiss this as just savvy public relations. All of us imbibe our ideas of the normal state of affairs from the culture around us. If we grew up in a society that had slavery, we would overwhelmingly see it as normal. Things just work that way, end of story. We learn our definitions of normal from infancy and most of us, whatever the circumstances, don’t question them much. When we do, we do so in large part to examine our norms and call them good. Maybe they can use a minor adjustment here or there, but who among us wants to overthrow the entire society and do things in a dramatically different way? I can’t say that I do, and I’m probably farther from the political center than most.

Even genuine revolutionary movements rarely uproot everything, even when prepared to commit great atrocities to that stated end. Lenin replaced Kerensky’s provisional government, which replaced the czar, with something not all that different from the czar’s rule. The French revolutionaries began protesting injustice and ended in the Terror and dictatorship. The American revolutionaries worked to ensure that their movement to dislodge British aristocrats did not also dislodge their American equivalents. After all, that might have left those same revolutionaries dictated to by an even more terrifying and arbitrary authority than the distant government in London: their poorer neighbors.

We might all cast ourselves on the side of the angels after the fact, but that comes easy. We don’t have to take the risks or pay the prices. Nor do we have to find some way to break out of some measure of our cultural programming and then decide that what we once called good we should instead call bad. We have the benefit of living later.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Nine

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

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

When Lincoln began his remarks at Peoria, he cloaked himself in the garb of a Henry Clay-style slavery moderate, personally opposed to the institution but aspiring to avoid the wrath of, and maybe even befriend, his political foes. Lincoln had as much in him, counting among his friends Kentucky slaveholder Joshua Speed. He laid out that pledge very early on:

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 case.

Now that Lincoln finished up his history of restrictions upon slavery, including those Stephen Douglas had eagerly supported, the one-time member of the House came to the question of Douglas’ motives. What did he think, after so much energy spent praising the Missouri Compromise, as late as a year prior, if he went on to destroy it all? What really went on in the Little Giant’s mind? Douglas always said that he didn’t care one way or another about slavery, personally.

This declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I can not but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticising the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.

So much for not questioning patriotism or assailing motives. Lincoln might not have known just how thoroughly F Street had Douglas over a barrel, or how Phillip Phillips and Archibald Dixon outmaneuvered them, but he did have one salient fact before him: Douglas authored the repeal, endorsed it, and saw it made into law. Even if other men wrote the exact language, it came in Douglas’ bill with Douglas’ assent and considerable support. Why would any man who swore that the Missouri Compromise would always stand, who called those seeking to repeal it ruthless and reckless, suddenly turn on a dime and destroy it himself?

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

Douglas must not have believed in it after all. Instead, all of the previous declarations amounted to empty political piety. People praised the Missouri Compromise, so Douglas praised it. One expected as much. But in his heart, he wanted it gone. If in removing it he undermined the United States’ position as the republican light of the world, Douglas hardly cared. Lincoln might not call the Little Giant the Accomplished Architect of Ruin, but he did call his opponent a proslavery wolf in sheep’s clothing and deeply, fundamentally un-American.

Lincoln had a point on the latter issue. All the way back during the revolution, Samuel Johnson criticized the revolutionaries on just those grounds:

how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Eight

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

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

Lincoln’s history lesson, if crossing familiar ground, did it well and thoroughly. But at last, six pages into my printed version, he came out of the Mexican War and the Compromise of 1850 and reached the KansasNebraska Act. For all the controversy of the late 1840s

Nebraska had remained, substantially an uninhabited country, but not emigration to, and settlement within it began to take place. It is about one third as large as the present United States, and its importance so long overlooked, begins to come into view. The restriction of slavery by the Missouri Compromise directly applies to it; in fact, was first made, and has since been maintained, expressly for it.

Until Stephen Douglas stuck his nose in, anyway. Lincoln agrees, at least by implication, with Douglas that Nebraska needed territorial government on account of white settlement. Sam Houston and John Bell had it right here, though. The settlement amounted to a handful of people just over the border. Strictly speaking, they squatted there illegally. A moderate politician or one disinterested in slavery could rest on that fact, call the whole law needless, and stand against it. But Lincoln came from Illinois, itself still something of a frontier, and would not place himself in the path of history and demand it stop. He believed in the nineteenth century every bit as much as Stephen Douglas did. A man in his position almost had to. Maybe Sam Houston, Mr. Texas himself, could dismiss the imperative of white expansion. Maybe John Bell, safe in his Senate seat, could agree. A failed politician trying to restart his career had no such luxuries, whether he had private doubts or not.

In 1853, a bill to give it a territorial government passed the House of representatives, and, in the hands of Judge Douglas, failed of passing the Senate only for want of time. This bill contained no repeal of the Missouri Compromise. indeed, when it was assailed because it did not contain such a repeal, Judge Douglas defended it in its existing form. On January 4th, 1854, Judge Douglas introduces a new bill to give Nebraska territorial government. He accompanies this bill with a report, in which last, he expressly recommends that the Missouri Compromise shall be neither affirmed nor repealed.


about a month after the introduction of the bill, on the judge’s own motion, it is so amended as to declare the Missouri Compromise inoperative and void; and, substantially, that the People who go and settle there may establish slavery, or exclude it, as they may see fit. In this shape the bill passed both branches of congress, and became a law.

This is the repeal of the Missouri Compromise.

And now that the crowd knew exactly what Lincoln meant, and knew that he knew as much as they did:

I think, and shall try to show, that it is wrong; wrong in its direct effect, letting slavery into Kansas and Nebraska-and wrong in its prospective principle, allowing it to spread to every other party of the wide world, where men can be found inclined to take it.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Seven

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6. Full text.)

Lincoln took his history lesson up to the Wilmot Proviso, gathering up Stephen Douglas’ endorsement of the Missouri Compromise along the way. Slavery agitation did not end with the defeat of Wilmot, of course. With the Mexican Cession in American hands, soon the news of gold for the taking reached the East Coast and what must have seemed like half the continent arrived the next day. California had more than enough people to warrant statehood. They got up a free state convention that produced a free state constitution and sent to Washington for admittance as a free state.

The Proviso men, of course were for letting her in, but the Senate, always true to the other side would not consent to her admission. And there California stood, kept out of the Union, because she would not let slavery into  her borders.

And the California issue soon merged with the other issues of the day: the border South demanded a new fugitive slave act. Aside from preferring that California join the Union free, the North

clamored for the abolition of a peculiar species of slave trade in the District of Columbia, in connection with which, in view from the windows of the capitol, a sort of negro-livery stable, where droves of negroes were collected, temporarily kept, and finally taken to Southern markets, precisely like droves of horses, had been openly maintained for fifty years.

Utah and New Mexico needed territorial government too, and that required deciding if they would go slave or free. The issue of Texas’ unsettled boundary also came in:

She was received a slave state; and consequently the farther West the slavery men could push her boundary, the more slave country they secured. And the farther East the slavery opponents could thrust the boundary back, the less slave ground was secured. Thus this was just as clearly a slavery question as any others.

Lincoln owns up here as latter-day neo-confederates never would: the issue in every case comes down to slavery, slavery, and an extra helping of slavery. But since all the issues came together and had the benefit of some ambiguity as to who did or did not break from precedent, why not throw them together in a compromise? Both sides gave a bit and got a bit.

The North, per Lincoln, received:

  • A free California
  • abolition of the open slave trade in the District of Columbia
  • and a Texas border quite far to the east.

The South, in turn, received:

  • a new and restrictive fugitive slave law
  • provision that New Mexico and Utah, when admitted to the Union, could come with or without slavery
  • and Texas got millions to satisfy its debts, which it could call payment for land ceded
Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Everyone went home a little happy and a little disappointed, but so goes compromise and after living with it for a while the nation settled down:

Preceding the presidential election of 1852, each of the great political parties, democrats and whigs, met in convention, and adopted resolutions endorsing the compromise of ’50; as a “finality,” a final settlement, so far as these parties could make it so, of all slavery agitation.

So that did it. The nation finished with slavery. Why did it find itself here again? One law or another covered all the land in its bounds. Both parties agreed on the fact. Both sections got something and gave something. What kind of, in Douglas’ words, “reckless” or “ruthless” villain would reopen the subject? And Lincoln, as before, could point across the stage at the man who spoke before him.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Six

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5. Full text.)

By confronting Stephen Douglas with the words of a moderate politician disinterested in slavery who avowed the sacred permanence of the Missouri Compromise, both reinforced his own argument for the same position and forced the Little Giant to face his own speech. One need not be an antislavery ideologue, like Salmon P. Chase, William Seward, or Lincoln himself might come across. In Douglas’ mind, and the minds of his supporters, those men might all share the same flesh. But Douglas himself? Surely not! The Little Giant might fancy himself a great statesman, with some reason, and see a president in the mirror every morning, but never an antislavery fanatic.

But Lincoln did dig up a quote from 1849. Douglas always said that things changed in 1850. Before that, he accepted the Missouri Compromise as the best the nation could do. As Douglas now told it, he always preferred popular sovereignty. The Little Giant further insisted that the antislavery sorts fouled up the whole business, necessitating the change in policy.

All of this, Lincoln knew. When the Mexican War erupted, then-President Polk asked Congress for an appropriation to negotiate the peace treaty:

A bill was duly got up, for the purpose, and was progressing swimmingly, in the House of Representatives, when a member by the name of David Wilmot, a democrat from Pennsylvania, moved as an amendment “Provided that in any territory thus acquired, there shall never be slavery.”

This is the origin of the far-famed “Wilmot Proviso.” It created a great flutter; but stuck like wax, was voted into the bill, and the bill passed with it through the House. The Senate, however, adjourned without final action on it and so both the appropriation and proviso were lost, for a time.

But the war went on. Polk asked again. Congress went to work again. The proviso came up again. The bill died again. A new Congress came in December, 1847, and Lincoln himself

was in the lower House that term. The “Wilmot Proviso” or the principle of it, was constantly coming up in some shape or other, and I think I may venture to say I voted for it at least forty times; during the short term I was there. The Senate, however, held it in check, and it never became law.

In due course Nicholas Trist negotiated a proviso-free treaty handing over to the United States the vast Southwest. The Mexican Cession ran right west of the Louisiana Purchase. Why not draw the Missouri Compromise line out to the Pacific? Douglas thought that a great idea at the time:

On Judge Douglas’ motion a bill, or provision of a bill, passed the Senate to so extend the Missouri line. The Proviso men in the House, including myself, voted it down, because by implication, it gave up the Southern part to slavery, while we were bent on having it all free.

That point really does cut both ways. The South would not tolerate a Mexican Cession all free. Antislavery men would not tolerate a Mexican Cession all slave. This left the issue in doubt as the 1840s wound down. Did principle or precedent require either side to accept extending the Missouri line? Perhaps, both other principles came into play as well. If one saw slavery as right, why should it suffer any special restrictions? If one saw it as wrong, why should any new territory be reserved for it at the expense of freedom?

On paper, the sacred pact applied only to the Louisiana Purchase. The provision, which Douglas favored at the time, that extended the line across Texas contained within it the tacit admission that the line did not extend on its own across Texas. Each new parcel of land, at least in principle, opened the question anew. If both antislavery and proslavery men departed from established precedent, they did so in accord with a separate precedent that each territory needed its own slavery settlement.

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 Four

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

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

Lincoln established the basic facts of the Missouri Compromise and went on a tour of early regulation of slavery by the Congress, all the way back to the Confederation. But Lincoln had spoken for only two sections of the country: the Northwest where he stood and the Louisiana Purchase. The country had more land than that to exclude or include slavery on. In discussing that he reveals an interesting wrinkle in the nation’s territorial expansion:

Texas principally south of the line, and West of Arkansas; though originally within the purchase from France, had, in 1819, been traded off to Spain, in our treaty for the acquisition of Florida. It had thus become a part of Mexico. Mexico revolutionized and became independent of Spain. American citizens began settling rapidly, with their slaves in the southern part of Texas.

I had to read that a few times and do some checking before I fully understood it. Texas a part of the Louisiana Purchase? Not in my history textbook!

But at the time, the US claimed that it had bought at least large sections of Texas. Nobody making the claims knew where the Louisiana Purchase really ended. It began at the Mississippi River, but went off into blank sections of the map inhabited only by little-known Indians and, somewhere far off west, Spaniards. The French had not settled it anywhere in great numbers, except around New Orleans and St. Louis. Napoleon properly sold Thomas Jefferson the claim to the western half of the Mississippi watershed more than the land itself. That could, theoretically, include everything between the continental divide and the Gulf of Mexico. Spain had a competing claim in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, which went down from the Oregon Country all the way to the Viceroyalty of New Grenada at roughly the northern border of Panama.

The parting Lincoln refers to happened in the Adams-Onís Treaty. It settled several longstanding territorial disputes with Spain, which insisted until then that its possession of Florida ran all the way to the Mississippi and that when Jefferson bought Louisiana, he bought only the city itself and a narrow band of territory around the river. The initial American claim put Louisiana’s western border at the Rio Grande, halfway through modern New Mexico, but the United States eventually opted for the Sabine River, the modern line between Louisiana and Texas, but Spain insisted on the Arroyo Hondo, now the Calcasieu River. The disputed territory, which both sides informally agreed to treat as neutral, drew settlers, squatters, and various criminal interests that caused some problems for both countries.

The provisions of the Adams-Onis Treaty. (Via Wikipedia)

The provisions of the Adams-Onis Treaty. (Via Wikipedia)

Over in Florida, the United States had a similar problem. Spanish authority did not reach very far on the ground. This made Florida a haven for Indians that liked to raid across the border and runaway slaves who could happily vanish into the wilderness. Andrew Jackson took that as an excuse to move an army across the border to fight the Seminoles and seized some Spanish forts along the way. Washington refused to disavow his actions or recall him, which put Spain in quite a bind at a time when it needed money, faced rebellions in its Latin American possessions, and had just come out of the very damaging Napoleonic Wars. Better to come to the table and cut its losses in exchange for some cash. So the sticky-fingered Americans got Florida and the Sabine River boundary. Spain threw in its claims to the Oregon Country too. In exchange, the United States surrendered its nominal claims to Texas and agreed on a boundary that ceded some little-known land between the Arkansas and Red rivers west of 100° longitude to Spain.

Of course, Texas came back into the Union amid much controversy later on:

Soon they revolutionized against Mexico, and established an independent government of their own, adopting a constitution, with slavery, strongly resembling the constitutions of our slave states. By still another rapid move, Texas, claiming a boundary much further West, than when we parted with her in 1819, was brought back to the United States, and admitted into the Union as a slave state. There then was little or no settlement in the northern part of Texas, a considerable portion of which lay north of the Missouri line; and in the resolutions admitting her into the Union, the Missouri restriction was expressly extended westward across her territory. This was in 1845, only nine years ago.

See, Douglas? Even at that late date, we drew the Missouri Compromise line all over again. We drew it that way even if it meant cutting off a bit of a state, though with the proviso that the line would only enter legal force in the event that parts of Texas got divided off into new states.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Three

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 1 and 2full text.)

I somehow neglected in past posts about this early Lincoln-Douglas debate to list the most obvious reason the two came together for a mutual rhetorical skinning: they had elections coming up. Neither stood for office himself in 1854, but their appearances promoted their parties. Though taken up by the great issue of the moment, the appearances themselves fit comfortably into the normal practice of nineteenth century electioneering. They would do it again, this time with more personal stakes and to much greater fame, in 1858.

Lincoln began with a history of the Congress’ power to restrict slavery in the territories. Slaveholders assented to it. Such restrictions passed without tremendous rancor in the 1780s. No matter of sacred honor or imperiled rights then upset the ship of state. Why would one now? Douglas and the rest of the Nebraska men would have them believe that the Missouri Compromise must fall as a question of right and principle on which most Americans agreed, with an ancient pedigree…discovered only in the past year.

Making that case required more than reference to the Confederation Congress and the Northwest Ordinance, but Lincoln had more. The Northwest Ordinance only applied to the Northwest Territory. All the land in question belonged to the Louisiana Purchase, after all:

In 1803 we purchased what was then called Louisiana, of France. It included the now states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Iowa; also the territory of Minnesota, and the present bone of contention, Kansas and Nebraska. Slavery already existed among the French at New Orleans; and, to some extent, at St. Louis. In 1812 Louisiana came into the Union as a slave state, without controversy. In 1818 or ’19, Missouri showed signs of a wish to come in with slavery. This was resisted by northern members of Congress; and thus began the first great slavery agitation in the nation. This controversy lasted several months, and became very angry and exciting; the House of Representatives voting steadily for the prohibition of slavery in Missouri, and the Senate voting as steadily against it. Threats of breaking up the Union were freely made; and the ablest public men of the day became seriously alarmed. At length a compromise was made, in which, like all compromises, both sides yielded something. It was a law passed on the 6th day of March, 1820, providing that Missouri might come into the Union with slavery, but that in all the remaining part of the territory purchased of France, which lies north of 36 degrees and 30 minutes north latitude, slavery should never be permitted. This provision of law, is the Missouri Compromise. In excluding slavery North of the line, the same language is employed as in the Ordinance of ’87. It directly applied to Iowa, Minnesota, and to the present bone of contention, Kansas and Nebraska. Whether there should or should not, be slavery south of that line, nothing was said in the law; but Arkansas constituted the principal remaining part, south of the line; and it has since been admitted as a slave state without serious controversy. More recently, Iowa, north of the line, came in as a free state without controversy.

There Lincoln drew a direct line between the Northwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise. They even used the same slavery language, straight from Jefferson’s pen. The compromise did not please everyone, but few compromises do. The North gave up having a free Missouri. The South gave up having slave states to Missouri’s north or west. Nobody got up in arms when Arkansas came in as a slave state or when Iowa came in free.

For thirty years, the Missouri Compromise did its work and served the nation. Why must it suddenly fall? Furthermore, why must it fall in such a way that the South won all and conceded nothing while the North conceded everything and won nothing? “I win; you lose” hardly sounds like a compromise solution. It certainly does nothing to endear itself to the party on the losing end.

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!