Words That Men Live By
Abraham Lincoln (1858)
SPRINGFIELD, Ill., June 16, 1858 - Abraham Lincoln today challenged the Federal Government and the very decisions of Federal courts with the thesis, advanced in the slavery issue within the United States, or this institution itself will bring down the whole structure of the Republic.
He spoke in accepting the Republican nomination for the Senate. In this contest his opponent is Stephen A. Douglas, the Democrat whose smallness of stature (compared with Mr. Lincoln's unusual height) makes a startling contrast with his nationally known oratorical gifts.
The two candidates will campaign for the election, not by popular vote, but in the accepted present custom of attempting to impress the members of the State Legislature, by whose vote one or the other will be chosen.
The theme of Mr. Lincoln's acceptance speech was the Biblical quotation, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."
However, his speech is more notable for the detailed and yet graphic exposition given to the whole issue of slavery and its political ramifications, with the qualification that he speaks the viewpoint of the Abolitionists.
What effect this will have upon Mr. Lincoln's political future is as yet hard to predict, but he has laid down a new summary of the Northern argument that makes a notable paper in political annals.
Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Convention: If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation not only has not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. "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 that 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 the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward till it shall be- come alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South. ...
The new year of 1854 found slavery excluded from more than half the states by state constitutions, and from most of the national territory by Congressional prohibition. Four days later commenced the struggle which ended in repealing that Congressional prohibition. This opened all the national territory to slavery, and was the first point gained. But, so far, Congress only had acted, and an endorsement, by the people, real or apparent, was indispensable, to save the point already gained and give chance for more. This necessity had not been overlooked, but had been provided for, as well as might be, in the notable argument of "squatter sovereignty," otherwise called "sacred right of self-government"; which latter phrase though expressive of the only rightful basis of any government, was so perverted in this attempted use of it as to amount to just this: That, if anyone man choose to enslave another, no third man shall be allowed to object. That argument was incorporated with the Nebraska bill itself. ...Then opened the roar of loose declamation in favor of "squatter sovereignty," and "sacred right of self-government." "But," said opposition members, "let us amend the bill so as to expressly declare that the people of the territory may exclude slavery." "Not we," said the friends of the measure; and down they voted the amendment.
While the Nebraska bill was passing through Congress, a law-case, involving the question of a Negro's freedom, by reason of his owner having voluntarily taken him first into a free State, and then into a territory covered by the Congressional prohibition, and held him as a slave for a long time in each, was passing through the United States Circuit Court for the District of Missouri; and both Nebraska bill and lawsuit were brought to a decision in the same month of May, 1854. The Negro's name was Dred Scott, which name now designates the decision finally made in the case. Before the then next Presidential election, the law-case came to, and was argued in, the Supreme Court of the United States; but the decision of it was deferred until after the election. Still, before the election, Senator Trumbull, on the floor of the Senate, requested the leading advocate of the Nebraska bill to state his opinion whether the people of a territory can constitutionally exclude slavery from their limits; and the latter answers: "That is a question for the Supreme Court."
The election came, Mr. Buchanan was elected, and the endorsement, such as it was, secured. That was the second point gained. The endorsement, however, fell short of a clear popular majority by nearly four hundred thousand votes, and so, perhaps, was not overwhelmingly reliable and satisfactory. The outgoing President, in his last annual message, as impressively as possible, echoed back upon the people the weight and authority of the endorsement. The Supreme Court met again, did not announce their decision, but ordered a reargument. The Presidential inauguration came, and still no decision of the court; but the incoming President, in his inaugural address, fervently exhorted the people to abide by the forthcoming decision, whatever it might be. Then, in a few days, came the decision. The reputed author of the Nebraska bill finds an early occasion to make a speech at this capital, endorsing the Dred Scott decision, and vehemently denouncing all opposition to it. The new President, too, seizes the early occasion of the Silliman letter to endorse and strongly construe that decision, and to express his astonishment that any different view had ever been entertained.
At length a squabble springs up between the President and the author of the Nebraska bill, on the mere question of fact, whether the Lecompton constitution was, or was not, in any just sense, made by the people of Kansas; and in that quarrel the latter declares that all he wants is a fair vote for the people, and that he cares not whether slavery be voted down or voted up. I do not understand his declaration, that he cares not whether slavery be voted down or voted up, to be intended by him other than as an apt definition of the policy he would impress upon the public mind- the principle for which he declares he has suffered so much, and is ready to suffer to the end. And well may he cling to that principle. If he has any parental feeling, well may he cling to it. That principle is the only shred left of his original Nebraska doctrine. Under the Dred Scott decision squatter sovereignty squattered out of existence - tumbled down like temporary scaffolding-like the mould at the foundry, served through one blast, and fell back into loose sand-helped to carry an election, and then was kicked to the winds. His late joint struggle with the Republicans against the Lecompton constitution involves nothing of the original Nebraska doctrine. That struggle was made on a point-the right of a people to make their own constitution-upon which he and the Republicans have never differed.
The several points of the Dred Scott decision, in connection with Senator Douglas's "care-not" policy, constitute the piece of machinery in its present state of advancement. This was the third point gained. The working points of that machinery are: (I) That no Negro slave, imported as such from Africa, and no descendant of such slave, can ever be a citizen of the United States. This point is made in order to deprive the Negro, in every possible event, of the benefit of that provision of the United States constitution, which declares that "the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States." (2) That, "subject to the constitution of the United States," neither Congress nor a territorial legislature can exclude slavery from any United States territory. This point is made in order that individual men may fill up the territories with slaves, without danger of losing them as property, and thus to enhance the chances of permanency to the institution through all the future. (3) That whether the holding a Negro in actual slavery in a free State makes him free, as against the holder, the United States courts will not decide, but will leave to be decided by the courts of any slave State the Negro may be forced into by the master. This point is made, not to be pressed immediately; but, if acquiesced in for a while, and apparently endorsed by the people at an election, then to sustain the logical conclusion that what Dred Scott's master might lawfully do with Dred Scott, in the State of Illinois, every other master may lawfully do with any other one or one thousand slaves, in Illinois, or in any other free State.
Auxiliary to all this, and working hand in hand with it, the Nebraska doctrine, or what is left of it, is to educate and mould public opinion, at least Northern public opinion, not to care whether slavery is voted down or voted up. This shows exactly where we now are, and partially, also, whither we are tending. ...
Such a decision is all that slavery now lacks of being alike lawful in all the States. Welcome or unwelcome, such decision is probably coming, and will soon be upon us, unless the power of the present political dynasty shall be met and overthrown. 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 meet and overthrow that dynasty is the work before all those who would prevent that consummation. That is what we have to do.
There are those who denounce us openly to their own mends, and yet whisper to us softly that Senator Douglas is the aptest instrument there is with which to effect that object. They wish us to infer all, from the fact that he now has a little quarrel with the present head of the dynasty; and that he has regularly voted with us on a single point, upon which he and we have never differed. They remind us that he is a great man, and that the largest of us are very small ones. Let this be granted. "But a living dog is better than a dead lion." Judge Douglas, if not a dead lion, for this work, is at least a caged and toothless one. How can he oppose the advances of slavery? He doesn't care anything about it. His avowed mission is impressing the "public heart" to care nothing about it. ...
Now, as ever, I wish not to misrepresent Judge Douglas's position, question his motives, or do aught that can be personally offensive to him. Whenever, if ever, he and we can come together on principle, so that our cause may have assistance from his great ability, I hope to have interposed no adventitious obstacle. But, dearly, he is not now with us - he does not pretend to be, he does not promise ever to be.
Our cause then, must be entrusted 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. ...
~ Postlogue ~
This campaign was a "failure" in its immediate results. The Illinois legislature, swayed partially by Senator Douglas's oratory but more largely by the logic of events and their legal interpretations, elected Douglas to the Senate.
All of which was perhaps a happy circumstance for Mr. Lincoln's political ambitions. Two years later it was Lincoln who was nominated and elected President - a result that might, have been otherwise had he been pitched into the maelstrom of Washington debate between 1858 and 1860.
From this acceptance speech, with its notable contribution toward increasing Lincoln's stature, he went on to the notable series of debates with Senator Douglas, whose "Reply to Lincoln" is a classic of northern Democratic doctrine. And in the meantime, the East was seething with the same issue, debated by speakers who in some cases had never heard Lincoln speak, if they were even familiar with his name. Printable version