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Chapter 7.

  • Repeal of the Missouri Compromise
  • -- State Fair debate -- Peoria debate -- Trumbull elected -- letter to Robinson -- the know -- Nothings -- Decatur meeting -- Bloomington convention -- Philadelphia conventions -- Lincoln's vote for Vice -- President -- Fremont and Dayton -- Lincoln's campaign speeches -- Chicago banquet speech
    After the expiration of his term in Congress Mr.

    Lincoln applied himself with unremitting assiduity to the practice of law, which the growth of the State in population, and the widening of his acquaintanceship, no less than his own growth in experience and legal acumen, rendered ever more important and absorbing.

    “In 1854,” he writes, “his profession had almost superseded the thought of politics in his mind, when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused him as he had never been before.”

    Not alone Mr. Lincoln, but, indeed, the whole nation, was so aroused — the Democratic party, and nearly the entire South, to force the passage of that repeal through Congress, and an alarmed majority, including even a considerable minority of the Democratic party in the North, to resist its passage.

    Mr. Lincoln, of course, shared the general indignation of Northern sentiment that the whole of the remaining Louisiana Territory, out of which six States, and the greater part of two more, have since been [95] organized and admitted to the Union, should be opened to the possible extension of slavery. But two points served specially to enlist his energy in the controversy. One was personal, in that Senator Douglas of Illinois, by whom the repeal was championed, and whose influence as a free-State senator and powerful Democratic leader alone made the repeal possible, had been his personal antagonist in Illinois politics for almost twenty years. The other was moral, in that the new question involved the elemental principles of the American government, the fundamental maxim of the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal. His intuitive logic needed no demonstration that bank, tariff, internal improvements, the Mexican War, and their related incidents, were questions of passing expediency; but that this sudden reaction, needlessly grafted upon a routine statute to organize a new territory, was the unmistakable herald of a coming struggle which might transform republican institutions.

    It was in January, 1854, that the accidents of a Senate debate threw into Congress and upon the country the firebrand of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. The repeal was not consummated till the month of May; and from May until the autumn elections the flame of acrimonious discussion ran over the whole country like a wild fire. There is no record that Mr. Lincoln took any public part in the discussion until the month of September, but it is very clear that he not only carefully watched its progress, but that he studied its phases of development, its historical origins, and its legal bearings with close industry, and gathered from party literature and legislative documents a harvest of substantial facts and data, rather than the wordy campaign phrases and explosive epithets with which more impulsive students and speakers were content [96] to produce their oratorical effects. Here we may again quote Mr. Lincoln's exact written statement of the manner in which he resumed his political activity:

    In the autumn of that year [1854] he took the stump, with no broader practical aim or object than to secure, if possible, the reelection of Hon. Richard Yates to Congress. His speeches at once attracted a more marked attention than they had ever before done. As the canvass proceeded he was drawn to different parts of the State, outside of Mr. Yates's district. He did not abandon the law, but gave his attention by turns to that and politics. The State Agricultural Fair was at Springfield that year, and Douglas was announced to speak there.

    The new question had created great excitement and uncertainty in Illinois politics, and there were abundant signs that it was beginning to break up the organization of both the Whig and the Democratic parties. This, feeling brought together at the State fair an unusual number of local leaders from widely scattered counties, and almost spontaneously a sort of political tournament of speech-making broke out. In this Senator Douglas, doubly conspicuous by his championship of the Nebraska Bill in Congress, was expected to play the leading part, while the opposition, by a common impulse, called upon Lincoln to answer him. Lincoln performed the task with such aptness and force, with such freshness of argument, illustrations from history, and citations from authorities, as secured him a decided oratorical triumph, and lifted him at a single bound to the leadership of the opposition to Douglas's propagandism. Two weeks later, Douglas and Lincoln met at Peoria in a similar debate, and on his return to Springfield Lincoln wrote out and printed his speech in full. [97]

    The reader who carefully examines this speech will at once be impressed with the genius which immediately made Mr. Lincoln a power in American politics. His grasp of the subject is so comprehensive, his statement so clear, his reasoning so convincing, his language so strong and eloquent by turns) that the wonderful power he manifested in the discussions and debates of the six succeeding years does not surpass, but only amplifies this, his first examination of the whole brood of questions relating to slavery precipitated upon the country by Douglas's repeal. After a searching history of the Missouri Compromise, he attacks the demoralizing effects and portentous consequences of its repeal.

    “This declared indifference,” he says, “but, as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I cannot 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 good men among ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty, criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest. ... Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man's nature-opposition to it in his love of justice. These principles are an eternal antagonism, and when brought into collision so fiercely as slavery extension brings them, shocks and throes and convulsions must ceaselessly follow. Repeal the Missouri Compromise, repeal all compromises, repeal the Declaration of Independence, repeal all past history, you still cannot repeal human nature. It still will be the abundance of man's heart that slavery extension is wrong, [98] and out of the abundance of his heart his mouth will continue to speak.”

    With argument as impetuous, and logic as inexorable, he disposes of Douglas's plea of popular sovereignty:

    Here, or at Washington, I would not trouble myself with the oyster laws of Virginia, or the cranberry laws of Indiana. The doctrine of self-government is right-absolutely and eternally right-but it has no just application as here attempted. Or perhaps I should rather say, that whether it has such application depends upon whether a negro is not or is a man. If he is not a man, in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just what 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. ... I particularly object to the new position which the avowed principle of this Nebraska law gives to slavery in the body politic. I object to it because it assumes that there can be moral right in the enslaving of one man by another. I object to it as a dangerous dalliance for a free people — a sad evidence that, feeling prosperity, we forget right; that liberty, as a principle, we have ceased to revere ... Little by little, but steadily as man's march to the grave, we have been giving up the old for the new faith. Near eighty years ago we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now, from that beginning, we have run down to the other declaration, that for some men to enslave others is a ‘sacred right of self-government.’ These principles cannot stand together. They are as opposite as God and Mammon.


    If one compares the serious tone of this speech with the hard cider and coon-skin buncombe of the Harrison campaign of 1840, and its lofty philosophical thought with the humorous declamation of the Taylor campaign of 1848, the speaker's advance in mental development at once becomes apparent. In this single effort Mr. Lincoln had risen from the class of the politician to the rank of the statesman. There is a well-founded tradition that Douglas, disconcerted and troubled by Lincoln's unexpected manifestation of power in the Springfield and Peoria debates, sought a friendly interview with his opponent, and obtained from him an agreement that neither one of them would make any further speeches before the election.

    The local interest in the campaign was greatly heightened by the fact that the term of Douglas's Democratic colleague in the United States Senate was about to expire, and that the State legislature to be elected would have the choosing of his successor. It is not probable that Lincoln built much hope upon this coming political chance, as the Democratic party had been throughout the whole history of the State in decided political control. It turned out, nevertheless, that in the election held on November 7, an opposition majority of members of the legislature was chosen, and Lincoln became, to outward appearances, the most available opposition candidate. But party disintegration had been only partial. Lincoln and his party friends still called themselves Whigs, though they could muster only a minority of the total membership of the legislature. The so-called Anti-Nebraska Democrats, opposing Douglas and his followers, were still too full of traditional party prejudice to help elect a pronounced Whig to the United States Senate, though as strongly “Anti-Nebraska” as themselves. Five of them brought forward, and stubbornly voted for, Lyman Trumbull, [100] an Anti-Nebraska Democrat of ability, who had been chosen representative in Congress from the eighth Illinois District in the recent election. On the ninth ballot it became evident to Lincoln that there was danger of a new Democratic candidate, neutral on the Nebraska question, being chosen. In this contingency, he manifested a personal generosity and political sagacity far above the comprehension of the ordinary smart politician. He advised and prevailed upon his Whig supporters to vote for Trumbull, and thus secure a vote in the United States Senate against slavery extension. He had rightly interpreted both statesmanship and human nature. His personal sacrifice on this occasion contributed essentially to the coming political regeneration of his State; and the five Anti-Nebraska Democrats, who then wrought his defeat, became his most devoted personal followers and efficient allies in his own later political triumph, which adverse currents, however, were still to delay to a tantalizing degree. The circumstances of his defeat at that critical stage of his career must have seemed especially irritating, yet he preserved a most remarkable equanimity of temper. “I regret my defeat moderately,” he wrote to a sympathizing friend, “but I am not nervous about it.”

    We may fairly infer that while Mr. Lincoln was not “nervous,” he was nevertheless deeply impressed by the circumstance as an illustration of the grave nature of the pending political controversy. A letter written by him about half a year later to a friend in Kentucky, is full of such serious reflection as to show that the existing political conditions in the United States had engaged his most profound thought and investigation.

    “That spirit,” he wrote, “which desired the peaceful extinction of slavery has itself become extinct with the occasion and the men of the Revolution. Under the [101] impulse of that occasion, nearly half the States adopted systems of emancipation at once, and it is a significant fact that not a single State has done the like since. So far as peaceful voluntary emancipation is concerned, the condition of the negro slave in America, scarcely less terrible to the contemplation of a free mind, is now as fixed and hopeless of change for the better as that of the lost souls of the finally impenitent. The Autocrat of all the Russias will resign his crown and proclaim his subjects free republicans sooner than will our American masters voluntarily give up their slaves. Our political problem now is, ‘Can we as a nation continue together permanently-forever-half slave and half free?’ The problem is too mighty for me — may God, in his mercy, superintend the solution.”

    Not quite three years later Mr. Lincoln made the concluding problem of this letter the text of a famous speech. On the day before his first inauguration as President of the United States, the “Autocrat of all the Russias,” Alexander II, by imperial decree emancipated his serfs; while six weeks after the inauguration, the “American masters,” headed by Jefferson Davis, began the greatest war of modern times to perpetuate and spread the institution of slavery.

    The excitement produced by the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854, by the election forays of the Missouri Border Ruffians into Kansas in 1855, and by the succeeding civil strife in 1856 in that Territory, wrought an effective transformation of political parties in the Union, in preparation for the presidential election of that year. This transformation, though not seriously checked, was very considerably complicated by an entirely new faction, or rather by the sudden revival of an old one, which in the past had called itself Native Americanism, and now assumed the name of the American [102] Party, though it was more popularly known by the nickname of “Know-Nothings,” because of its secret organization. It professed a certain hostility to foreign-born voters and to the Catholic religion, and demanded a change in the naturalization laws from a five years to a twenty-one years preliminary residence. This faction had gained some sporadic successes in Eastern cities, but when its national convention met in February, 1856, to nominate candidates for President and Vice-President, the pending slavery question, that it had hitherto studiously ignored, caused a disruption of its organization; and though the adhering delegates nominated Millard Fillmore for President and A. J. Donelson for Vice-President, who remained in the field and were voted for, to some extent, in the presidential election, the organization was present only as a crippled and disturbing factor, and disappeared totally from politics in the following years.

    Both North and South, party lines adjusted themselves defiantly upon the single issue, for or against men and measures representing the extension or restriction of slavery. The Democratic party, though radically changing its constituent elements, retained the party name, and became the party of slavery extension, having forced the repeal and supported the resulting measures; while the Whig party entirely disappeared, its members in the Northern States joining the Anti-Nebraska Democrats in the formation of the new Republican party. Southern Whigs either went boldly into the Democratic camp, or followed for a while the delusive prospects of the Know-Nothings.

    This party change went on somewhat slowly in the State of Illinois, because that State extended in territorial length from the latitude of Massachusetts to that of Virginia, and its population contained an equally [103] diverse local sentiment. The northern counties had at once become strongly Anti-Nebraska; the conservative Whig counties of the center inclined to the Know-Nothings; while the Kentuckians and Carolinians, who had settled the southern end, had strong antipathies to what they called abolitionism, and applauded Douglas and repeal.

    The agitation, however, swept on, and further hesitation became impossible. Early in 1856 Mr. Lincoln began to take an active part in organizing the Republican party. He attended a small gathering of Anti-Nebraska editors in February, at Decatur, who issued a call for a mass convention which met at Bloomington in May, at which the Republican party of Illinois was formally constituted by an enthusiastic gathering of local leaders who had formerly been bitter antagonists, but who now joined their efforts to resist slavery extension. They formulated an emphatic but not radical platform, and through a committee selected a composite ticket of candidates for State offices, which the convention approved by acclamation. The occasion remains memorable because of the closing address made by Mr. Lincoln in one of his most impressive oratorical moods. So completely were his auditors carried away by the force of his denunciation of existing political evils, and by the eloquence of his appeal for harmony and union to redress them, that neither a verbatim report nor even an authentic abstract was made during its delivery: but the lifting inspiration of its periods will never fade from the memory of those who heard it.

    About three weeks later, the first national convention of the Republican party met at Philadelphia, and nominated John C. Fremont of California for President. There was a certain fitness in this selection, from the [104] fact that he had been elected to the United States Senate when California applied for admission as a free State, and that the resistance of the South to her admission had been the entering wedge of the slavery agitation of 1850. This, however, was in reality a minor consideration. It was rather his romantic fame as a daring Rocky Mountain explorer, appealing strongly to popular imagination and sympathy, which gave him prestige as a presidential candidate.

    It was at this point that the career of Abraham Lincoln had a narrow and fortunate escape from a premature and fatal prominence. The Illinois Bloomington convention had sent him as a delegate to the Philadelphia convention; and, no doubt very unexpectedly to himself, on the first ballot for a candidate for Vice-President he received one hundred and ten votes against two hundred and fifty-nine votes for William L. Dayton of New Jersey, upon which the choice of Mr. Dayton was at once made unanimous. But the incident proves that Mr. Lincoln was already gaining a national fame among the advanced leaders of political thought. Happily, a mysterious Providence reserved him for larger and nobler uses.

    The nominations thus made at Philadelphia completed the array for the presidential battle of 1856. The Democratic national convention had met at Cincinnati on June 2, and nominated James Buchanan for President and John C. Breckinridge for Vice-President. Its work presented two points of noteworthy interest, namely: that the South, in an arrogant proslavery dictatorship, relentlessly cast aside the claims of Douglas and Pierce, who had effected the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and nominated Buchanan, in apparently sure confidence of that superserviceable zeal in behalf of slavery which he so obediently [105] rendered; also, that in a platform of intolerable length there was such a cunning ambiguity of word and concealment of sense, such a double dealing of phrase and meaning, as to render it possible that the pro-slavery Democrats of the South and some antislavery Democrats of the North might join for the last time to elect a “Northern man with Southern principles.”

    Again, in this campaign, as in several former presidential elections, Mr. Lincoln was placed upon the electoral ticket of Illinois, and he made over fifty speeches in his own and adjoining States in behalf of Fremont and Dayton. Not one of these speeches was reported in full, but the few fragments which have been preserved show that he occupied no doubtful ground on the pending issues. Already the Democrats were raising the potent alarm cry that the Republican party was sectional, and that its success would dissolve the Union. M/r. Lincoln did not then dream that he would ever have to deal practically with such a contingency, but his mind was very clear as to the method of meeting it. Speaking for the Republican party, he said:

    But the Union in any event will not be dissolved. We don't want to dissolve it, and if you attempt it, we won't let you. With the purse and sword, the army and navy and treasury, in our hands and at our command, you could not do it. This government would be very weak, indeed, if a majority, with a disciplined army and navy and a well-filled treasury, could not preserve itself when attacked by an unarmed, undisciplined, unorganized minority. All this talk about the dissolution of the Union is humbug, nothing but folly. We do not want to dissolve the Union; you shall not.

    While the Republican party was much cast down by the election of Buchanan in November, the Democrats [106] found significant cause for apprehension in the unexpected strength with which the Fremont ticket had been supported in the free States. Especially was this true in Illinois, where the adherents of Fremont and Fillmore had formed a fusion, and thereby elected a Republican governor and State officers. One of the strong elements of Mr. Lincoln's leadership was the cheerful hope he was always able to inspire in his followers, and his abiding faith in the correct political instincts of popular majorities. This trait was happily exemplified in a speech he made at a Republican banquet in Chicago about a month after the presidential election. Recalling the pregnant fact that though Buchanan gained a majority of the electoral vote, he was in a minority of about four hundred thousand of the popular vote for President, Mr. Lincoln thus summed up the chances of Republican success in the future:

    Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically, just so much. Public opinion on any subject always has a ‘central idea,’ from which all its minor thoughts radiate. That ‘central idea’ in our political public opinion at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be, ‘the equality of men.’ And although it has always submitted patiently to whatever of inequality there seemed to be as matter of actual necessity, its constant working has been a steady progress towards the practical equality of all men. The late presidential election was a struggle by one party to discard that central idea and to substitute for it the opposite idea that slavery is right in the abstract; the workings of which as a central idea may be the perpetuity of human slavery and its extension to all countries and colors. ... All of us who did not vote for Mr. Buchanan, taken together, are a majority [107] of four hundred thousand. But in the late contest we were divided between Fremont and Fillmore. Can we not come together for the future? Let every one who really believes, and is resolved, that free society is not and shall not be a failure, and who can conscientiously declare that in the past contest he has done only what he thought best-let every such one have charity to believe that every other one can say as much. Thus let bygones be bygones; let past differences as nothing be; and with steady eye on the real issue, let us reinaugurate the good old ‘central ideas’ of the republic. We can do it. The human heart is with us; God is with us. We shall again be able, not to declare that ‘all States as States are equal,’ nor yet that ‘all citizens as citizens are equal,’ but to renew the broader, better declaration, including both these and much more, that ‘all men are created equal.’

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