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Chapter 9.

  • The senatorial contest in Illinois-“House divided against itself” speech the Lincoln
  • -- Douglas debates -- the Freeport Doctrine -- Douglas Deposed from chairmanship of Committee on Territories -- Benjamin on Douglas -- Lincoln's popular majority -- Douglas gains legislature -- Greeley, Crittenden, et al.-“the fight must go on” -- Douglas's Southern speeches -- Senator Brown's questions -- Lincoln's warning against popular sovereignty -- the War of pamphlets -- Lincoln's Ohio speeches -- the John Brown raid -- Lincoln's comment
    The hostility of the Buchanan administration to Douglas for his part in defeating the Lecompton Constitution, and the multiplying chances against him, served only to stimulate his followers in Illinois to greater efforts to secure his reelection. Precisely the same elements inspired the hope and increased the enthusiasm. of the Republicans of the State to accomplish his defeat. For a candidate to oppose the “Little giant,” there could be no rival in the Republican ranks to Abraham Lincoln. He had in 1854 yielded his priority of claim to Trumbull; he alone had successfully encountered Douglas in debate. The political events themselves seemed to have selected and pitted these two champions against each other. Therefore, when the Illinois State convention on June 16, 1858, passed by acclamation a separate resolution, “That Abraham Lincoln is the first and only choice of the Republicans [119] of Illinois for the United States Senate as the successor of Stephen A. Douglas,” it only recorded the well-known judgment of the party. After its routine work was finished, the convention adjourned to meet again in the hall of the State House at Springfield at eight o'clock in the evening. At that hour Mr. Lincoln appeared before the assembled delegates and delivered a carefully studied speech, which has become historic. After a few opening sentences, he uttered the following significant prediction:

    “ ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall-but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.”

    Then followed his critical analysis of the legislative objects and consequences of the Nebraska Bill, and the judicial effects and doctrines of the Dred Scott decision, with their attendant and related incidents. The first of these had opened all the national territory to slavery. The second established the constitutional interpretation that neither Congress nor a territorial legislature could exclude slavery from any United States territory. The President had declared Kansas to be already practically a slave State. Douglas had announced that he did not care whether slavery was voted down or voted up. Adding to these many other indications of current politics, Mr. Lincoln proceeded:

    Put this and that together, and we have another [120] nice little niche, which we may, ere long, see filled with another Supreme Court decision declaring that the Constitution of the United States does not permit a State to exclude slavery from its limits. . Such a decision is all that slavery now lacks of being alike lawful in all the States. . . . We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free, and we shall awake to the reality, instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State.

    To avert this danger, Mr. Lincoln declared it was the duty of Republicans to overthrow both Douglas and the Buchanan political dynasty.

    “Two years ago the Republicans of the nation mustered over thirteen hundred thousand strong. We did this under the single impulse of resistance to a common danger, with every external circumstance against us. Of strange, discordant, and even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought the battle through, under the constant hot fire of a disciplined, proud, and pampered enemy. Did we brave all then to falter now?-now, when that same enemy is wavering, dissevered, and belligerent? The result is not doubtful. We shall not fail — if we stand firm, we shall not fail. Wise counsels may accelerate or mistakes delay it, but, sooner or later, the victory is sure to come.”

    Lincoln's speech excited the greatest interest everywhere throughout the free States. The grave peril he so clearly pointed out came home to the people of the North almost with the force of a revelation; and thereafter their eyes were fixed upon the Illinois senatorial campaign with undivided attention. Another incident also drew to it the equal notice and interest of the politicians of the slave States. [121]

    Within a month from the date of Lincoln's speech, Douglas returned from Washington and began his campaign of active speech-making in Illinois. The fame he had acquired as the champion of the Nebraska Bill, and, more recently, the prominence into which his opposition to the Lecompton fraud had lifted him in Congress, attracted immense crowds to his meetings, and for a few days it seemed as if the mere contagion of popular enthusiasm would submerge all intelligent political discussion. To counteract this, Mr. Lincoln, at the advice of his leading friends, sent him a letter challenging him to joint public debate. Douglas accepted the challenge, but with evident hesitation; and it was arranged that they should jointly address the same meetings at seven towns in the State, on dates extending through August, September, and October. The terms were, that, alternately, one should speak an hour in opening, the other an hour and a half in reply, and the first again have half an hour in closing. This placed the contestants upon an equal footing before their audiences. Douglas's senatorial prestige afforded him no advantage. Face to face with the partizans of both, gathered in immense numbers and alert with critical and jealous watchfulness, there was no evading the square, cold, rigid test of skill in argument and truth in principle. The processions and banners, the music and fireworks, of both parties, were stilled and forgotten while the audience listened with high-strung nerves to the intellectual combat of three hours duration, It would be impossible to give the scope and spirit of these famous debates in the space allotted to these pages, but one of the turning-points in the oratorical contest needs particular mention. Northern Illinois, peopled mostly from free States, and southern Illinois, peopled mostly from slave States, were radically opposed [122] in sentiment on the slavery question; even the old Whigs of central Illinois had to a large extent joined the Democratic party, because of their ineradicable prejudice against what they stigmatized as “abolitionism.” To take advantage of this prejudice, Douglas, in his opening speech in the first debate at Ottawa in northern Illinois, propounded to Lincoln a series of questions designed to commit him to strong antislavery doctrines. He wanted to know whether Mr. Lincoln stood pledged to the repeal of the fugitive-slave law; against the admission of any more slave States; to the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia; to the prohibition of the slave trade between different States; to prohibit slavery in all the Territories; to oppose the acquisition of any new territory unless slavery were first prohibited therein.

    In their second joint debate at Freeport, Lincoln answered that he was pledged to none of these propositions, except the prohibition of slavery in all Territories of the United States. In turn he propounded four questions to Douglas, the second of which was:

    Can the people of a United States Territory in any lawful way, against the wish of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a State constitution?

    Mr. Lincoln had long and carefully studied the import and effect of this interrogatory, and nearly a month before, in a private letter, accurately foreshadowed Douglas's course upon it:

    You shall have hard work,

    he wrote, “to get him directly to the point whether a territorial legislature has or has not the power to exclude slavery. But if you succeed in bringing him to it-though he will-be compelled to say it possesses no such power-he will instantly take ground that slavery cannot actually exist [123] in the Territories unless the people desire it and so give it protection by territorial legislation. If this offends the South, he will let it offend them, as at all events he means to hold on to his chances in Illinois.”

    On the night before the Freeport debate the question had also been considered in a hurried caucus of Lincoln's party friends. They all advised against propounding it, saying, “If you do, you can never be senator.” “Gentlemen,” replied Lincoln, “I am killing larger game; if Douglas answers, he can never be President, and the battle of 1860 is worth a hundred of this.”

    As Lincoln had predicted, Douglas had no resource but to repeat the sophism he had hastily invented in his Springfield speech of the previous year.

    “It matters not,” replied he, “what way the Supreme Court may hereafter decide as to the abstract question whether slavery may or may not go into a Territory under the Constitution, the people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it, as they please, for the reason that slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere unless it is supported by local police regulations. Those police regulations can only be established by the local legislature, and if the people are opposed to slavery they will elect representatives to that body who will by unfriendly legislation effectually prevent the introduction of it into their midst. If, on the contrary, they are for it, their legislation will favor its extension. Hence, no matter what the decision of the Supreme Court may be on that abstract question, still the right of the people to make a slave Territory or a free Territory is perfect and complete under the Nebraska Bill.”

    In the course of the next joint debate at Jonesboroa, Mr. Lincoln easily disposed of this sophism by showing: [124] I. That, practically, slavery had worked its way into Territories without “police regulations” in almost every instance; 2. That United States courts were established to protect and enforce rights under the Constitution; 3. That members of a territorial legislature could not violate their oath to support the Constitution of the United States; and, 4. That in default of legislative support, Congress would be bound to supply it for any right under the Constitution.

    The serious aspect of the matter, however, to Douglas was not the criticism of the Republicans, but the view taken by Southern Democratic leaders, of his “Freeport doctrine,” or doctrine of “unfriendly legislation.” His opposition to the Lecompton Constitution in the Senate, grievous stumbling-block to their schemes as it had proved, might yet be passed over as a reckless breach of party discipline; but this new announcement at Freeport was unpardonable doctrinal heresy, as rank as the abolitionism of Giddings and Lovejoy.

    The Freeport joint debate took place August 27, 1858. When Congress convened on the first Monday in December of the same year, one of the first acts of the Democratic senators was to put him under party ban by removing him from the chairmanship of the Committee on Territories, a position he had held for eleven years. In due time, also, the Southern leaders broke up the Charleston convention rather than permit him to be nominated for President; and, three weeks later, Senator Benjamin of Louisiana frankly set forth, in a Senate speech, the light in which they viewed his apostacy:

    We accuse him for this, to wit: that having bargained with us upon a point upon which we were at issue, that it should be considered a judicial point; that [125] he would abide the decision; that he would act under the decision, and consider it a doctrine of the party; that having said that to us here in the Senate, he went home, and, under the stress of a local election, his knees gave way; his whole person trembled. His adversary stood upon principle and was beaten; and, lo! he is the candidate of a mighty party for the presidency of the United States. The senator from Illinois faltered. He got the prize for which he faltered; but, lo! the grand prize of his ambition to-day slips from his grasp, because of his faltering in his former contest, and his success in the canvass for the Senate, purchased for an ignoble price, has cost him the loss of the presidency of the United States.

    In addition to the seven joint debates, both Lincoln and Douglas made speeches at separate meetings of their own during almost every day of the three months campaign, and sometimes two or three speeches a day. At the election which was held on November 2, 1858, a legislature was chosen containing fifty-four Democrats and forty-six Republicans, notwithstanding the fact that the Republicans had a plurality of thirty-eight hundred and twenty-one on the popular vote. But the apportionment was based on the census of 1850, and did not reflect recent changes in political sentiment, which, if fairly represented, would have given them an increased strength of from six to ten members in the legislature. Another circumstance had great influence in causing Lincoln's defeat. Douglas's opposition to the Lecompton Constitution in Congress had won him great sympathy among a few Republican leaders in the Eastern States. It was even whispered that Seward wished Douglas to succeed as a strong rebuke to the Buchanan administration. The most potent expression and influence of this feeling came, [126] however, from another quarter. Senator Crittenden of Kentucky, who, since Clay's death in 1852, was the acknowledged leader of what remained of the Whig party, wrote a letter during the campaign, openly advocating the reelection of Douglas, and this, doubtless, influenced the vote of all the Illinois Whigs who had not yet formally joined the Republican party. Lincoln's own analysis gives, perhaps, the clearest view of the unusual political conditions:

    Douglas had three or four very distinguished men of the most extreme antislavery views of any men in the Republican party expressing their desire for his reelection to the Senate last year. That would of itself have seemed to be a little wonderful, but that wonder is heightened when we see that Wise of Virginia, a man exactly opposed to them, a man who believes in the divine right of slavery, was also expressing his desire that Douglas should be reelected; that another man that may be said to be kindred to Wise, Mr. Breckinridge, the Vice-President, and of your own State, was also agreeing with the antislavery men in the North that Douglas ought to be reelected. Still to heighten the wonder, a senator from Kentucky, whom I have always loved with an affection as tender and endearing as I have ever loved any man, who was opposed to the antislavery men for reasons which seemed sufficient to him, and equally opposed to Wise and Breckinridge, was writing letters to Illinois to secure the reelection of Douglas. Now that all these conflicting elements should be brought, while at daggers' points with one another, to support him, is a feat that is worthy for you to note and consider. It is quite probable that each of these classes of men thought by the reelection of Douglas their peculiar views would gain something; it is probable that the [127] antislavery men thought their views would gain something; that Wise and Breckinridge thought so too, as regards their opinions; that Mr. Crittenden thought that his views would gain something, although he was opposed to both these other men. It is probable that each and all of them thought they were using Douglas, and it is yet an unsolved problem whether he was not using them all.

    Lincoln, though beaten in his race for the Senate, was by no means dismayed, nor did he lose his faith in the ultimate triumph of the cause he had so ably championed. Writing to a friend, he said:

    You doubtless have seen ere this the result of the election here. Of course I wished, but I did not much expect a better result. . . I am glad I made the late race. It gave me a hearing on the great and durable question of the age, which I could have had in no other way; and though I now sink out of view, and shall be forgotten, I believe I have made some marks which will tell for the cause of civil liberty long after I am gone.

    And to another:

    Yours of the 13th was received some days ago. The fight must go on. The cause of civil liberty must not be surrendered at the end of one or even one hundred defeats. Douglas had the ingenuity to be supported in the late contest, both as the best means to break down and to uphold the slave interest. No ingenuity can keep these antagonistic elements in harmony long. Another explosion will soon come.

    In his “House divided against itself” speech, Lincoln had emphatically cautioned Republicans not to be led on a false trail by the opposition Douglas had made to the Lecompton Constitution; that his temporary quarrel with the Buchanan administration could not [128] be relied upon to help overthrow that pro-slavery dynasty.

    “How can he oppose the advances of slavery? He don't care anything about it. His avowed mission is impressing the ‘public heart’ to care nothing about it. ... Whenever, if ever, he and we can come together on principle so that our great cause may have assistance from his great ability, I hope to have interposed no adventitious obstacle. But, clearly, he is not now with us-he does not pretend to be-he does not promise ever to be. Our cause, then, must be intrusted to, and conducted by, its own undoubted friends-those whose hands are free, whose hearts are in the work, who do care for the result.”

    Since the result of the Illinois senatorial campaign had assured the reelection of Douglas to the Senate, Lincoln's sage advice acquired a double significance and value. Almost immediately after the close of the campaign Douglas took a trip through the Southern States, and in speeches made by him at Memphis, at New Orleans, and at Baltimore sought to regain the confidence of Southern politicians by taking decidedly advanced ground toward Southern views on the slavery question. On the sugar plantations of Louisiana, he said, it was not a question between the white man and the negro, but between the negro and the crocodile. He would say that between the negro and the crocodile, he took the side of the negro; but between the negro and the white man, he would go for the white man. The Almighty had drawn a line on this continent, on the one side of which the soil must be cultivated by slave labor; on the other, by white labor. That line did not run on 360 and 30 “ [the Missouri Compromise line], for 360 and 30” runs over mountains and through valleys. But this slave line, he [129] said, meanders in the sugar-fields and plantations of the South, and the people living in their different localities and in the Territories must determine for themselves whether their “middle belt” were best adapted to slavery or free labor. He advocated the eventual annexation of Cuba and Central America. Still going a step further, he-laid down a far-reaching principle.

    “It is a law of humanity,” he said, “a law of civilization, that whenever a man or a race of men show themselves incapable of managing their own affairs. they must consent to be governed by those who are capable of performing the duty. . . . In accordance with this principle, I assert that the negro race, under all circumstances, at all times, and in all countries, has shown itself incapable of self-government.”

    This pro-slavery coquetting, however, availed him nothing, as he felt himself obliged in the same speeches to defend his Freeport doctrine. Having taken his seat in Congress, Senator Brown of Mississippi, toward the close of the short session, catechized him sharply on this point.

    “If the territorial legislature refuses to act,” he inquired, “will you act? If it pass unfriendly acts, will you pass friendly? If it pass laws hostile to slavery, will you annul them, and substitute laws favoring slavery in their stead?”

    There was no evading these direct questions, and Douglas answered frankly:

    I tell you, gentlemen of the South, in all candor, I do not believe a Democratic candidate can ever carry any one Democratic State of the North on the platform that it is the duty of the Federal government to force the people of a Territory to have slavery when they do not want it.


    An extended discussion between Northern and Southern Democratic senators followed the colloquy, which showed that the Freeport doctrine had opened up an irreparable schism between the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic party.

    In all the speeches made by Douglas during his Southern tour, he continually referred to Mr. Lincoln as the champion of abolitionism, and to his doctrines as the platform of the abolition or Republican party. The practical effect of this course was to extend and prolong the Illinois senatorial campaign of 1858, to expand it to national breadth, and gradually to merge it in the coming presidential campaign. The effect of this was not only to keep before the public the position of Lincoln as the Republican champion of Illinois, but also gradually to lift him into general recognition as a national leader. Throughout the year 1859 politicians and newspapers came to look upon Lincoln as the one antagonist who could at all times be relied on to answer and refute the Douglas arguments. His propositions were so forcible and direct, his phraseology so apt and fresh, that they held the attention and excited comment. A letter written by him in answer to an invitation to attend a celebration of Jefferson's birthday in Boston, contains some notable passages:

    Soberly, it is now no child's play to save the principles of Jefferson from total overthrow in this nation. One would state with great confidence that he could convince any sane child that the simpler propositions of Euclid are true; but, nevertheless, he would fail, utterly, with one who should deny the definitions and axioms. The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society. And yet they are denied and evaded with no small show of success. One dashingly calls them ‘glittering generalities.’ Another [131] bluntly calls them ‘self-evident lies.’ And others insidiously argue that they apply to ‘superior races.’ These expressions, differing in form, are identical in object and effect — the supplanting the principles of free government, and restoring those of classification, caste, and legitimacy. They would delight a convocation of crowned heads plotting against the people. They are the vanguard, the miners and sappers of returning despotism. We must repulse them, or they will subjugate us. This is a world of compensation; and he who would be no slave must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and, under a just God, cannot long retain it.

    Douglas's quarrel with the Buchanan administration had led many Republicans to hope that they might be able to utilize his name and his theory of popular sovereignty to aid them in their local campaigns. Lincoln knew from his recent experience the peril of this delusive party strategy, and was constant and earnest in his warnings against adopting it. In a little speech after the Chicago municipal election on March I, 1859, he said:

    If we, the Republicans of this State, had made Judge Douglas our candidate for the Senate of the United States last year, and had elected him, there would to-day be no Republican party in this Union. ... Let the Republican party of Illinois dally with Judge Douglas, let them fall in behind him and make him their candidate, and they do not absorb him-he absorbs them. They would come out at the end all Douglas men, all claimed by him as having indorsed every one of his doctrines upon the great subject with which the whole nation is engaged at this hour-that the question of negro slavery is simply a question of [132] dollars and cents; that the Almighty has drawn a line across the continent, on one side of which labor — the cultivation of the soil-must always be performed by slaves. It would be claimed that we, like him, do not care whether slavery is voted up or voted down. Had we made him our candidate and given him a great majority, we should never have heard an end of declarations by him that we had indorsed all these dogmas.

    To a Kansas friend he wrote on May 14, 1859:

    You will probably adopt resolutions in the nature of a platform. I think the only temptation will be to lower the Republican standard in order to gather recruits. In my judgment, such a step would be a serious mistake, and open a gap through which more would pass out than pass in. And this would be the same whether the letting down should be in deference to Douglasism, or to the Southern opposition element; either would surrender the object of the Republican organization — the preventing of the spread and nationalization of slavery.. Let a union be attempted on the basis of ignoring the slavery question, and magnifying other questions which the people are just now not caring about, and it will result in gaining no single electoral vote in the South, and losing every one in the North.

    To Schuyler Colfax (afterward Vice-President) he said in a letter dated July 6, 1859:

    My main object in such conversation would be to hedge against divisions in the Republican ranks generally, and particularly for the contest of 1860. The point of danger is the temptation in different localities to ‘platform’ for something which will be popular just there, but which, nevertheless, will be a firebrand elsewhere, and especially in a national convention. As instances: the movement against foreigners in Massahlusetts; [133] in New Hampshire, to make obedience to the fugitive-slave law punishable as a crime; in Ohio, to repeal the fugitive-slave law; and squatter sovereignty, in Kansas. In these things there is explosive matter enough to blow up half a dozen national conventions, if it gets into them; and what gets very rife outside of conventions is very likely to find its way into them.

    And again, to another warm friend in Columbus, Ohio, he wrote in a letter dated July 28, 1859:

    There is another thing our friends are doing which gives me some uneasiness. It is their leaning toward ‘popular sovereignty.’ There are three substantial objections to this. First, no party can command respect which sustains this year what it opposed last. Secondly, Douglas (who is the most dangerous enemy of liberty, because the most insidious one) would have little support in the North, and, by consequence, no capital to trade on in the South, if it were not for his friends thus magnifying him and his humbug. But lastly, and chiefly, Douglas's popular sovereignty, accepted by the public mind as a just principle, nationalizes slavery, and revives the African slave-trade inevitably. Taking slaves into new Territories, and buying slaves in Africa, are identical things, identical rights or identical wrongs, and the argument which establishes one will establish the other. Try a thousand years for a sound reason why Congress shall not hinder the people of Kansas from having slaves, and when you have found it, it will be an equally good one why Congress should not hinder the people of Georgia from importing slaves from Africa.

    An important election occurred in the State of Ohio in the autumn of 1859, and during the canvass Douglas made two speeches in which, as usual, his pointed attacks were directed against Lincoln by name. Quite [134] naturally, the Ohio Republicans called Lincoln to answer him, and the marked impression created by Lincoln's replies showed itself not alone in their unprecedented circulation in print in newspapers and pamphlets, but also in the decided success which the Ohio Republicans gained at the polls. About the same time, also, Douglas printed a long political essay in “Harper's Magazine,” using as a text quotations from Lincoln's “House divided against itself” speech, and Seward's Rochester speech defining the “irrepressible conflict.” Attorney-General Black of President Buchanan's cabinet here entered the lists with an anonymously printed pamphlet in pungent criticism of Douglas's “Harper” essay; which again was followed by reply and rejoinder on both sides.

    Into this field of overheated political controversy the news of the John Brown raid at Harper's Ferry on Sunday, October 19, fell with startling portent. The scattering and tragic fighting in the streets of the little town on Monday; the dramatic capture of the fanatical leader on Tuesday by a detachment of Federal marines under the command of Robert E. Lee, the famous Confederate general of subsequent years; the undignified haste of his trial and condemnation by the Virginia authorities; the interviews of Governor Wise, Senator Mason, and Representative Vallandigham with the prisoner; his sentence, and execution on the gallows on December 2; and the hysterical laudations of his acts by a few prominent and extreme abolitionists in the East, kept public opinion, both North and South, in an inflamed and feverish state for nearly six weeks.

    Mr. Lincoln's habitual freedom from passion, and the steady and common-sense judgment he applied to this exciting event, which threw almost everybody into [135] an extreme of feeling or utterance, are well illustrated by the temperate criticism he made of it a few months later:

    John Brown's effort was peculiar. It was not a slave insurrection. It was an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among slaves, in which the slaves refused to participate. In fact, it was so absurd that the slaves, with all their ignorance, saw plainly enough it could not succeed. That affair, in its philosophy, corresponds with the many attempts, related in history, at the assassination of kings and emperors. An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt, which ends in little else than his own execution. Orsini's attempt on Louis Napoleon and John Brown's attempt at Harper's Ferry were; in their philosophy, precisely the same. The eagerness to cast blame on old England in the one case, and on New England in the other, does not disprove the sameness of the two things.

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