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.
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, 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, 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 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 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 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 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 pro-slavery 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 super-serviceable zeal in behalf of slavery which he so obediently 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. Mr. 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 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 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.'"
Buchanan Elected President—The Dred Scott Decision—Douglas's Springfield Speech, 1857—Lincoln's Answering Speech—Criticism of Dred Scott Decision—Kansas Civil War—Buchanan Appoints Walker—Walker's Letter on Kansas—The Lecompton Constitution—Revolt of Douglas
The election of 1856 once more restored the Democratic party to full political control in national affairs. James Buchanan was elected President to succeed Pierce; the Senate continued, as before, to have a decided Democratic majority; and a clear Democratic majority of twenty-five was chosen to the House of Representatives to succeed the heavy opposition majority of the previous Congress.
Though the new House did not organize till a year after it was elected, the certainty of its coming action was sufficient not only to restore, but greatly to accelerate the pro-slavery reaction begun by the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. This impending drift of national policy now received a powerful impetus by an act of the third cooerdinate branch, the judicial department of the government.
Very unexpectedly to the public at large, the Supreme Court of the United States, a few days after Buchanan's inauguration, announced its judgment in what quickly became famous as the Dred Scott decision. Dred Scott, a negro slave in Missouri, sued for his freedom on the ground that his master had taken him to reside in the State of Illinois and the Territory of Wisconsin, where slavery was prohibited by law. The question had been twice decided by Missouri courts, once for and then against Dred Scott's claim; and now the Supreme Court of the United States, after hearing the case twice elaborately argued by eminent counsel, finally decided that Dred Scott, being a negro, could not become a citizen, and therefore was not entitled to bring suit. This branch, under ordinary precedent, simply threw the case out of court; but in addition, the decision, proceeding with what lawyers call obiter dictum, went on to declare that under the Constitution of the United States neither Congress nor a territorial legislature possessed power to prohibit slavery in Federal Territories.
The whole country immediately flared up with the agitation of the slavery question in this new form. The South defended the decision with heat, the North protested against it with indignation, and the controversy was greatly intensified by a phrase in the opinion of Chief Justice Taney, that at the time of the Declaration of Independence negroes were considered by general public opinion to be so far inferior "that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."
This decision of the Supreme Court placed Senator Douglas in a curious dilemma. While it served to indorse and fortify his course in repealing the Missouri Compromise, it, on the other hand, totally negatived his theory by which he had sought to make the repeal palatable, that the people of a Territory, by the exercise of his great principle of popular sovereignty, could decide the slavery question for themselves. But, being a subtle sophist, he sought to maintain a show of consistency by an ingenious evasion. In the month of June following the decision, he made a speech at Springfield, Illinois, in which he tentatively announced what in the next year became widely celebrated as his Freeport doctrine, and was immediately denounced by his political confreres of the South as serious party heterodoxy. First lauding the Supreme Court as "the highest judicial tribunal on earth," and declaring that violent resistance to its decrees must be put down by the strong arm of the government, he went on thus to define a master's right to his slave in Kansas:
"While the right continues in full force under the guarantees of the Constitution, and cannot be divested or alienated by an act of Congress, it necessarily remains a barren and a worthless right unless sustained, protected, and enforced by appropriate police regulations and local legislation prescribing adequate remedies for its violation. These regulations and remedies must necessarily depend entirely upon the will and wishes of the people of the Territory, as they can only be prescribed by the local legislatures. Hence, the great principle of popular sovereignty and self-government is sustained and firmly established by the authority of this decision."
Both the legal and political aspects of the new question immediately engaged the earnest attention of Mr. Lincoln; and his splendid power of analysis set its ominous portent in a strong light. He made a speech in reply to Douglas about two weeks after, subjecting the Dred Scott decision to a searching and eloquent criticism. He said:
"That decision declares two propositions—first, that a negro cannot sue in the United States courts; and secondly, that Congress cannot prohibit slavery in the Territories. It was made by a divided court—dividing differently on the different points. Judge Douglas does not discuss the merits of the decision, and in that respect I shall follow his example, believing I could no more improve on McLean and Curtis than he could on Taney.... We think the Dred Scott decision was erroneous. We know the court that made it has often overruled its own decisions, and we shall do what we can to have it overrule this. We offer no resistance to it.... If this important decision had been made by the unanimous concurrence of the judges, and without any apparent partizan bias, and in accordance with legal public expectation and with the steady practice of the departments throughout our history and had been in no part based on assumed historical facts which are not really true; or if, wanting in some of these, it had been before the court more than once, and had there been affirmed and reaffirmed through a course of years, it then might be, perhaps would be, factious, nay, even revolutionary, not to acquiesce in it as a precedent. But when, as is true, we find it wanting in all these claims to the public confidence, it is not resistance, it is not factious, it is not even disrespectful, to treat it as not having yet quite established a settled doctrine for the country....
"The Chief Justice does not directly assert, but plainly assumes, as a fact, that the public estimate of the black man is more favorable now than it was in the days of the Revolution. This assumption is a mistake. In some trifling particulars the condition of that race has been ameliorated; but as a whole, in this country, the change between then and now is decidedly the other way; and their ultimate destiny has never appeared so hopeless as in the last three or four years. In two of the five States—New Jersey and North Carolina—that then gave the free negro the right of voting, the right has since been taken away; and in the third—New York—it has been greatly abridged; while it has not been extended, so far as I know, to a single additional State, though the number of the States has more than doubled. In those days, as I understand, masters could, at their own pleasure, emancipate their slaves; but since then such legal restraints have been made upon emancipation as to amount almost to prohibition. In those days, legislatures held the unquestioned power to abolish slavery in their respective States, but now it is becoming quite fashionable for State constitutions to withhold that power from the legislatures. In those days, by common consent, the spread of the black man's bondage to the new countries was prohibited, but now Congress decides that it will not continue the prohibition and the Supreme Court decides that it could not if it would. In those days, our Declaration of Independence was held sacred by all, and thought to include all; but now, to aid in making the bondage of the negro universal and eternal, it is assailed and sneered at and construed, and hawked at and torn, till, if its framers could rise from their graves, they could not at all recognize it. All the powers of earth seem rapidly combining against him. Mammon is after him, ambition follows, philosophy follows, and the theology of the day is fast joining the cry. They have him in his prison-house; they have searched his person, and left no prying instrument with him. One after another they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him; and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrence of every key—the keys in the hands of a hundred different men, and they scattered to a hundred different and distant places; and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced to make the impossibility of his escape more complete than it is."
There is not room to quote the many other equally forcible points in Mr. Lincoln's speech. Our narrative must proceed to other significant events in the great pro-slavery reaction. Thus far the Kansas experiment had produced nothing but agitation, strife, and bloodshed. First the storm in Congress over repeal; then a mad rush of emigration to occupy the Territory. This was followed by the Border Ruffian invasions, in which Missouri voters elected a bogus territorial legislature, and the bogus legislature enacted a code of bogus laws. In turn, the more rapid emigration from free States filled the Territory with a majority of free-State voters, who quickly organized a compact free-State party, which sent a free-State constitution, known as the Topeka Constitution, to Congress, and applied for admission. This movement proved barren, because the two houses of Congress were divided in sentiment. Meanwhile, President Pierce recognized the bogus laws, and issued proclamations declaring the free-State movement illegal and insurrectionary; and the free-State party had in its turn baffled the enforcement of the bogus laws, partly by concerted action of nonconformity and neglect, partly by open defiance. The whole finally culminated in a chronic border war between Missouri raiders on one hand, and free-State guerrillas on the other; and it became necessary to send Federal troops to check the disorder. These were instructed by Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War, that "rebellion must be crushed." The future Confederate President little suspected the tremendous prophetic import of his order. The most significant illustration of the underlying spirit of the struggle was that President Pierce had successively appointed three Democratic governors for the Territory, who, starting with pro-slavery bias, all became free-State partizans, and were successively insulted and driven from the Territory by the pro-slavery faction when in manly protest they refused to carry out the behests of the Missouri conspiracy. After a three years' struggle neither faction had been successful, neither party was satisfied; and the administration of Pierce bequeathed to its successor the same old question embittered by rancor and defeat.
President Buchanan began his administration with a boldly announced pro-slavery policy. In his inaugural address he invoked the popular acceptance of the Dred Scott decision, which he already knew was coming; and a few months later declared in a public letter that slavery "exists in Kansas under the Constitution of the United States.... How it ever could have been seriously doubted is a mystery." He chose for the governorship of Kansas, Robert J. Walker, a citizen of Mississippi of national fame and of pronounced pro-slavery views, who accepted his dangerous mission only upon condition that a new constitution, to be formed for that State, must be honestly submitted to the real voters of Kansas for adoption or rejection. President Buchanan and his advisers, as well as Senator Douglas, accepted this condition repeatedly and emphatically. But when the new governor went to the Territory, he soon became convinced, and reported to his chief, that to make a slave State of Kansas was a delusive hope. "Indeed," he wrote, "it is universally admitted here that the only real question is this: whether Kansas shall be a conservative, constitutional, Democratic, and ultimately free State, or whether it shall be a Republican and abolition State."
As a compensation for the disappointment, however, he wrote later direct to the President:
"But we must have a slave State out of the southwestern Indian Territory, and then a calm will follow; Cuba be acquired with the acquiescence of the North; and your administration, having in reality settled the slavery question, be regarded in all time to come as a re-signing and re-sealing of the Constitution.... I shall be pleased soon to hear from you. Cuba! Cuba! (and Porto Rico, if possible) should be the countersign of your administration, and it will close in a blaze of glory."
And the governor was doubtless much gratified to receive the President's unqualified indorsement in reply: "On the question of submitting the constitution to the bona fide resident settlers of Kansas, I am willing to stand or fall."
The sequel to this heroic posturing of the chief magistrate is one of the most humiliating chapters in American politics. Attendant circumstances leave little doubt that a portion of Mr. Buchanan's cabinet, in secret league and correspondence with the pro-slavery Missouri-Kansas cabal, aided and abetted the framing and adoption of what is known to history as the Lecompton Constitution, an organic instrument of a radical pro-slavery type; that its pretended submission to popular vote was under phraseology, and in combination with such gigantic electoral frauds and dictatorial procedure, as to render the whole transaction a mockery of popular government; still worse, that President Buchanan himself, proving too weak in insight and will to detect the intrigue or resist the influence of his malign counselors, abandoned his solemn pledges to Governor Walker, adopted the Lecompton Constitution as an administration measure, and recommended it to Congress in a special message, announcing dogmatically: "Kansas is therefore at this moment as much a slave State as Georgia or South Carolina."
The radical pro-slavery attitude thus assumed by President Buchanan and Southern leaders threw the Democratic party of the free States into serious disarray, while upon Senator Douglas the blow fell with the force of party treachery—almost of personal indignity. The Dred Scott decision had rudely brushed aside his theory of popular sovereignty, and now the Lecompton Constitution proceedings brutally trampled it down in practice. The disaster overtook him, too, at a critical moment. His senatorial term was about to expire; the next Illinois legislature would elect his successor. The prospect was none too bright for him, for at the late presidential election Illinois had chosen Republican State officers. He was compelled either to break his pledges to the Democratic voters of Illinois, or to lead a revolt against President Buchanan and the Democratic leaders in Congress. Party disgrace at Washington, or popular disgrace in Illinois, were the alternatives before him. To lose his reelection to the Senate would almost certainly end his public career. When, therefore, Congress met in December, 1857, Douglas boldly attacked and denounced the Lecompton Constitution, even before the President had recommended it in his special message.
"Stand by the doctrine," he said, "that leaves the people perfectly free to form and regulate their institutions for themselves, in their own way, and your party will be united and irresistible in power.... If Kansas wants a slave-State constitution, she has a right to it; if she wants a free-State constitution, she has a right to it. It is none of my business which way the slavery clause is decided. I care not whether it is voted down or voted up. Do you suppose, after the pledges of my honor that I would go for that principle and leave the people to vote as they choose, that I would now degrade myself by voting one way if the slavery clause be voted down, and another way if it be voted up? I care not how that vote may stand.... Ignore Lecompton; ignore Topeka; treat both those party movements as irregular and void; pass a fair bill—the one that we framed ourselves when we were acting as a unit; have a fair election—and you will have peace in the Democratic party, and peace throughout the country, in ninety days. The people want a fair vote. They will never be satisfied without it.... But if this constitution is to be forced down our throats in violation of the fundamental principle of free government, under a mode of submission that is a mockery and insult, I will resist it to the last."
Walker, the fourth Democratic governor who had now been sacrificed to the interests of the Kansas pro-slavery cabal, also wrote a sharp letter of resignation denouncing the Lecompton fraud and policy; and such was the indignation aroused in the free States, that although the Senate passed the Lecompton Bill, twenty-two Northern Democrats joining their vote to that of the Republicans, the measure was defeated in the House of Representatives. The President and his Southern partizans bitterly resented this defeat; and the schism between them, on the one hand, and Douglas and his adherents, on the other, became permanent and irreconcilable.
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 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 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.
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 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 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 Jonesboro', Mr. Lincoln easily disposed of this sophism by showing: 1. 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 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, 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 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 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 36 deg. and 30' [the Missouri Compromise line], for 36 deg. and 30' runs over mountains and through valleys. But this slave line, he 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 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 1, 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 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 Massachusetts; 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 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 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."
Lincoln's Kansas Speeches—The Cooper Institute Speech—New England Speeches—The Democratic Schism—Senator Brown's Resolutions—Jefferson Davis's Resolutions—The Charleston Convention—Majority and Minority Reports—Cotton State Delegations Secede—Charleston Convention Adjourns—Democratic Baltimore Convention Splits—Breckinridge Nominated—Douglas Nominated—Bell Nominated by Union Constitutional Convention—Chicago Convention—Lincoln's Letters to Pickett and Judd—The Pivotal States—Lincoln Nominated
During the month of December, 1859, Mr. Lincoln was invited to the Territory of Kansas, where he made speeches at a number of its new and growing towns. In these speeches he laid special emphasis upon the necessity of maintaining undiminished the vigor of the Republican organization and the high plane of the Republican doctrine.
"We want, and must have," said he, "a national policy as to slavery which deals with it as being a wrong. Whoever would prevent slavery becoming national and perpetual yields all when he yields to a policy which treats it either as being right, or as being a matter of indifference." "To effect our main object we have to employ auxiliary means. We must hold conventions, adopt platforms, select candidates, and carry elections. At every step we must be true to the main purpose. If we adopt a platform falling short of our principle, or elect a man rejecting our principle, we not only take nothing affirmative by our success, but we draw upon us the positive embarrassment of seeming ourselves to have abandoned our principle."
A still more important service, however, in giving the Republican presidential campaign of 1860 precise form and issue was rendered by him during the first three months of the new year. The public mind had become so preoccupied with the dominant subject of national politics, that a committee of enthusiastic young Republicans of New York and Brooklyn arranged a course of public lectures by prominent statesmen and Mr. Lincoln was invited to deliver the third one of the series. The meeting took place in the hall of the Cooper Institute in New York, on the evening of February 27, 1860; and the audience was made up of ladies and gentlemen comprising the leading representatives of the wealth, culture, and influence of the great metropolis.
Mr. Lincoln's name and arguments had filled so large a space in Eastern newspapers, both friendly and hostile, that the listeners before him were intensely curious to see and hear this rising Western politician. The West was even at that late day but imperfectly understood by the East. The poets and editors, the bankers and merchants of New York vaguely remembered having read in their books that it was the home of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, the country of bowie-knives and pistols, of steamboat explosions and mobs, of wild speculation and the repudiation of State debts; and these half-forgotten impressions had lately been vividly recalled by a several years' succession of newspaper reports retailing the incidents of Border Ruffian violence and free-State guerrilla reprisals during the civil war in Kansas. What was to be the type, the character, the language of this speaker? How would he impress the great editor Horace Greeley, who sat among the invited guests? David Dudley Field, the great lawyer, who escorted him to the platform; William Cullen Bryant, the great poet, who presided over the meeting?
Judging from after effects, the audience quickly forgot these questioning thoughts. They had but time to note Mr. Lincoln's impressive stature, his strongly marked features, the clear ring of his rather high-pitched voice, and the almost commanding earnestness of his manner. His beginning foreshadowed a dry argument using as a text Douglas's phrase that "our fathers, when they framed the government under which we live, understood this question just as well and even better than we do now," But the concise statements, the strong links of reasoning, and the irresistible conclusions of the argument with which the speaker followed his close historical analysis of how "our fathers" understood "this question," held every listener as though each were individually merged in the speaker's thought and demonstration.
"It is surely safe to assume," said he, with emphasis, "that the thirty-nine framers of the original Constitution and the seventy-six members of the Congress which framed the amendments thereto, taken together, do certainly include those who may be fairly called 'our fathers who framed the government under which we live.' And, so assuming, I defy any man to show that any one of them ever, in his whole life, declared that, in his understanding, any proper division of local from Federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal government to control as to slavery in the Federal Territories."
With equal skill he next dissected the complaints, the demands, and the threats to dissolve the Union made by the Southern States, pointed out their emptiness, their fallacy, and their injustice, and defined the exact point and center of the agitation.
"Holding, as they do," said he, "that slavery is morally right and socially elevating, they cannot cease to demand a full national recognition of it, as a legal right and a social blessing. Nor can we justifiably withhold this on any ground, save our conviction that slavery is wrong. If slavery is right, all words, acts, laws, and constitutions against it are themselves wrong, and should be silenced and swept away. If it is right, we cannot justly object to its nationality—its universality! If it is wrong, they cannot justly insist upon its extension—its enlargement. All they ask we could readily grant, if we thought slavery right; all we ask they could as readily grant, if they thought it wrong. Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy.... Wrong as we think slavery is we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the national Territories, and to overrun us here in the free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored, contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man; such as a policy of 'don't care,' on a question about which all true men do care; such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to disunionists; reversing the divine rule, and calling, not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance; such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did. Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."
The close attention bestowed on its delivery, the hearty applause that greeted its telling points, and the enthusiastic comments of the Republican journals next morning showed that Lincoln's Cooper Institute speech had taken New York by storm. It was printed in full in four of the leading New York dailies, and at once went into large circulation in carefully edited pamphlet editions. From New York, Lincoln made a tour of speech-making through several of the New England States, and was everywhere received with enthusiastic welcome and listened to with an eagerness that bore a marked result in their spring elections. The interest of the factory men who listened to these addresses was equaled, perhaps excelled, by the gratified surprise of college professors when they heard the style and method of a popular Western orator that would bear the test of their professional criticism and compare with the best examples in their standard text-books.
The attitude of the Democratic party in the coming presidential campaign was now also rapidly taking shape. Great curiosity existed whether the radical differences between its Northern and Southern wings could by any possibility be removed or adjusted, whether the adherents of Douglas and those of Buchanan could be brought to join in a common platform and in the support of a single candidate. The Democratic leaders in the Southern States had become more and more out-spoken in their pro-slavery demands. They had advanced step by step from the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854, the attempt to capture Kansas by Missouri invasions in 1855 and 1856, the support of the Dred Scott decision and the Lecompton fraud in 1857, the repudiation of Douglas's Freeport heresy in 1858, to the demand for a congressional slave code for the Territories and the recognition of the doctrine of property in slaves. These last two points they had distinctly formulated in the first session of the Thirty-sixth Congress. On January 18, 1860, Senator Brown of Mississippi introduced into the Senate two resolutions, one asserting the nationality of slavery, the other that, when necessary, Congress should pass laws for its protection in the Territories. On February 2 Jefferson Davis introduced another series of resolutions intended to serve as a basis for the national Democratic platform, the central points of which were that the right to take and hold slaves in the Territories could neither be impaired nor annulled, and that it was the duty of Congress to supply any deficiency of laws for its protection. Perhaps even more significant than these formulated doctrines was the pro-slavery spirit manifested in the congressional debates. Two months were wasted in a parliamentary struggle to prevent the election of the Republican, John Sherman, as Speaker of the House of Representatives, because the Southern members charged that he had recommended an "abolition" book; during which time the most sensational and violent threats of disunion were made in both the House and the Senate, containing repeated declarations that they would never submit to the inauguration of a "Black Republican" President.
When the national Democratic convention met at Charleston, on April 23, 1860, there at once became evident the singular condition that the delegates from the free States were united and enthusiastic in their determination to secure the nomination of Douglas as the Democratic candidate for President, while the delegates from the slave States were equally united and determined upon forcing the acceptance of an extreme pro-slavery platform. All expectations of a compromise, all hope of coming to an understanding by juggling omissions or evasions in their declaration of party principles were quickly dissipated. The platform committee, after three days and nights of fruitless effort, presented two antagonistic reports. The majority report declared that neither Congress nor a territorial legislature could abolish or prohibit slavery in the Territories, and that it was the duty of the Federal government to protect it when necessary. To this doctrine the Northern members could not consent; but they were willing to adopt the ambiguous declaration that property rights in slaves were judicial in their character, and that they would abide the decisions of the Supreme Court on such questions.
The usual expedient of recommitting both reports brought no relief from the deadlock. A second majority and a second minority report exhibited the same irreconcilable divergence in slightly different language, and the words of mutual defiance exchanged in debating the first report rose to a parliamentary storm when the second came under discussion. On the seventh day the convention came to a vote, and, the Northern delegates being in the majority, the minority report was substituted for that of the majority of the committee by one hundred and sixty-five to one hundred and thirty-eight delegates—in other words, the Douglas platform was declared adopted. Upon this the delegates of the cotton States—Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, and Arkansas—withdrew from the convention. It soon appeared, however, that the Douglas delegates had achieved only a barren victory. Their majority could indeed adopt a platform, but, under the acknowledged two-thirds rule which governs Democratic national conventions, they had not sufficient votes to nominate their candidate. During the fifty-seven ballots taken, the Douglas men could muster only one hundred and fifty-two and one half votes of the two hundred and two necessary to a choice; and to prevent mere slow disintegration the convention adjourned on the tenth day, under a resolution to reassemble in Baltimore on June 18.
Nothing was gained, however, by the delay. In the interim, Jefferson Davis and nineteen other Southern leaders published an address commending the withdrawal of the cotton States delegates, and in a Senate debate Davis laid down the plain proposition, "We want nothing more than a simple declaration that negro slaves are property, and we want the recognition of the obligation of the Federal government to protect that property like all other."
Upon the reassembling of the Charleston convention at Baltimore, it underwent a second disruption on the fifth day; the Northern wing nominated Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, and the Southern wing John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky as their respective candidates for President. In the meanwhile, also, regular and irregular delegates from some twenty-two States, representing fragments of the old Whig party, had convened at Baltimore on May 9 and nominated John Bell of Tennessee as their candidate for President, upon a platform ignoring the slavery issue and declaring that they would "recognize no other political principle than the Constitution of the country, the union of the States, and the enforcement of the laws."
In the long contest between slavery extension and slavery restriction which was now approaching its culmination the growing demands and increasing bitterness of the pro-slavery party had served in an equal degree to intensify the feelings and stimulate the efforts of the Republican party; and, remembering the encouraging opposition strength which the united vote of Fremont and Fillmore had shown in 1856, they felt encouraged to hope for possible success in 1860, since the Fillmore party had practically disappeared throughout the free States. When, therefore, the Charleston convention was rent asunder and adjourned on May 10 without making a nomination, the possibility of Republican victory seemed to have risen to probability. Such a feeling inspired the eager enthusiasm of the delegates to the Republican national convention which met, according to appointment, at Chicago on May 16.
A large, temporary wooden building, christened "The Wigwam," had been erected in which to hold its sessions, and it was estimated that ten thousand persons were assembled in it to witness the proceedings. William H. Seward of New York was recognized as the leading candidate, but Chase of Ohio, Cameron of Pennsylvania, Bates of Missouri, and several prominent Republicans from other States were known to have active and zealous followers. The name of Abraham Lincoln had also often been mentioned during his growing fame, and, fully a year before, an ardent Republican editor of Illinois had requested permission to announce him in his newspaper. Lincoln, however, discouraged such action at that time, answering him:
"As to the other matter you kindly mention, I must in candor say I do not think myself fit for the presidency. I certainly am flattered and gratified that some partial friends think of me in that connection; but I really think it best for our cause that no concerted effort, such as you suggest, should be made."
He had given an equally positive answer to an eager Ohio friend in the preceding July; but about Christmas 1859, an influential caucus of his strongest Illinois adherents made a personal request that he would permit them to use his name, and he gave his consent, not so much in any hope of becoming the nominee for President, as in possibly reaching the second place on the ticket; or at least of making such a showing of strength before the convention as would aid him in his future senatorial ambition at home, or perhaps carry him into the cabinet of the Republican President, should one succeed. He had not been eager to enter the lists, but once having agreed to do so, it was but natural that he should manifest a becoming interest, subject, however, now as always, to his inflexible rule of fair dealing and honorable faith to all his party friends.
"I do not understand Trumbull and myself to be rivals," he wrote December 9, 1859. "You know I am pledged not to enter a struggle with him for the seat in the Senate now occupied by him; and yet I would rather have a full term in the Senate than in the presidency."
And on February 9 he wrote to the same Illinois friend:
"I am not in a position where it would hurt much for me not to be nominated on the national ticket; but I am where it would hurt some for me not to get the Illinois delegates. What I expected when I wrote the the letter to Messrs. Dole and others is now happening. Your discomfited assailants are most bitter against me; and they will, for revenge upon me, lay to the Bates egg in the South, and to the Seward egg in the North, and go far toward squeezing me out in the middle with nothing. Can you not help me a little in this matter in your end of the vineyard?"
It turned out that the delegates whom the Illinois State convention sent to the national convention at Chicago were men not only of exceptional standing and ability, but filled with the warmest zeal for Mr. Lincoln's success; and they were able at once to impress upon delegates from other States his sterling personal worth and fitness, and his superior availability. It needed but little political arithmetic to work out the sum of existing political chances. It was almost self-evident that in the coming November election victory or defeat would hang upon the result in the four pivotal States of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois. It was quite certain that no Republican candidate could carry a single one of the fifteen slave States; and equally sure that Breckinridge, on his extreme pro-slavery platform, could not carry a single one of the eighteen free States. But there was a chance that one or more of these four pivotal free States might cast its vote for Douglas and popular sovereignty.
A candidate was needed, therefore, who could successfully cope with Douglas and the Douglas theory; and this ability had been convincingly demonstrated by Lincoln. As a mere personal choice, a majority of the convention would have preferred Seward; but in the four pivotal States there were many voters who believed Seward's antislavery views to be too radical. They shrank apprehensively from the phrase in one of his speeches that "there is a higher law than the Constitution." These pivotal States all lay adjoining slave States, and their public opinion was infected with something of the undefined dread of "abolitionism." When the delegates of the pivotal States were interviewed, they frankly confessed that they could not carry their States for Seward, and that would mean certain defeat if he were the nominee for President. For their voters Lincoln stood on more acceptable ground. His speeches had been more conservative; his local influence in his own State of Illinois was also a factor not to be idly thrown away.
Plain, practical reasoning of this character found ready acceptance among the delegates to the convention. Their eagerness for the success of the cause largely overbalanced their personal preferences for favorite aspirants. When the convention met, the fresh, hearty hopefulness of its members was a most inspiring reflection of the public opinion in the States that sent them. They went at their work with an earnestness which was an encouraging premonition of success, and they felt a gratifying support in the presence of the ten thousand spectators who looked on at their work. Few conventions have ever been pervaded by such a depth of feeling, or exhibited such a reserve of latent enthusiasm. The cheers that greeted the entrance of popular favorites, and the short speeches on preliminary business, ran and rolled through the great audience in successive moving waves of sound that were echoed and reechoed from side to side of the vast building. Not alone the delegates on the central platform, but the multitude of spectators as well, felt that they were playing a part in a great historical event.
The temporary, and afterward the permanent organization, was finished on the first day, with somewhat less than usual of the wordy and tantalizing small talk which these routine proceedings always call forth. On the second day the platform committee submitted its work, embodying the carefully considered and skilfully framed body of doctrines upon which the Republican party, made up only four years before from such previously heterogeneous and antagonistic political elements was now able to find common and durable ground of agreement. Around its central tenet, which denied "the authority of Congress, of a territorial legislature, or of any individuals, to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States," were grouped vigorous denunciations of the various steps and incidents of the pro-slavery reaction, and its prospective demands; while its positive recommendations embraced the immediate admission of Kansas, free homesteads to actual settlers, river and harbor improvements of a national character, a railroad to the Pacific Ocean, and the maintenance of existing naturalization laws.