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This Week in History

August 12-18, 1858
Lincoln Debunks the Sophistry of Stephen Douglas

August 2012

Abraham Lincoln
Stephen Arnold Douglas

In the summer of 1858, lawyer and former Congressman Abraham Lincoln was nominated by the new Republican Party as its candidate for U.S. Senator from Illinois. At first, Lincoln followed in the wake of the much more well-known Democratic Party candidate and current U.S. Senator, Stephen A. Douglas, as he campaigned around the state. Douglas would give a speech in a particular town, and then Lincoln would speak on that evening, or the next day. After following this procedure for a number of weeks, Lincoln sent emissaries to Douglas, proposing a series of debates in a number of Illinois towns. Counting on his fame and speaking prowess, Douglas agreed.

The first debate was held in Ottawa, Illinois, with Douglas speaking first, Lincoln speaking second, and then Douglas returning for rebuttal. At the next debate, Lincoln would speak first, and thus they would alternate back and forth around the state. Interest in the debates ran high, as Lincoln and Douglas had vividly contrasting views on the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision.[1] Although Douglas maintained that he was perfectly neutral on the issue of the spread of slavery, his actual position, measured by his actions, was quite different. The truth of Douglas's intentions was what Lincoln set out to unmask.

When Lincoln gave his acceptance speech at Springfield for the Republican nomination, he cited the conspiracy which appeared to exist between Sen. Stephen Douglas, former President Franklin Pierce, current President James Buchanan, and Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney to extend slavery to every state in the Union, whether it was barred by law or not. Douglas claimed he believed that "popular sovereignty" should decide whether or not slavery should exist in a territory, but the example of "Bleeding Kansas"[2] had shown that "popular sovereignty" was just a phrase on paper when pro-slavery forces were determined to establish slavery, and would use violence to accomplish it.

The idea of Lincoln charging that he seemed to be involved in a conspiracy rankled and scared Douglas, and in his opening remarks at Ottawa he scoffed at the existence of such a plot, charging in turn that Lincoln and the Republicans were "trying to array all the Northern States in one body against the South, to excite a sectional war between the free states and the slave States, in order that the one or the other may be driven to the wall."

When Lincoln answered the Senator's charges, he knew he was speaking to the entire country, not just to an audience in Ottawa. He quoted from part of his Springfield acceptance speech to jog the nation's memory and to set up his attack on Douglas' false position:

"Now my friends I wish you to attend for a little while to one or two other things in that Springfield speech. My main object was to show, so far as my humble ability was capable of showing to the people of this country, what I believed was the truth—that there was a tendency, if not a conspiracy among those who have engineered this slavery question for the last four or five years, to make slavery perpetual and universal in this nation. Having made that speech principally for that object, after arranging the evidences that I thought tended to prove my proposition, I concluded with this bit of comment:

"'We cannot absolutely know that these exact adaptations are the result of pre-concert, but when we see a lot of framed timbers, different portions of which we know have been gotten out at different times and places, and by different workmen—Stephen, Franklin, Roger and James, for instance—and when we see these timbers joined together, and see they exactly make the frame of a house or a mill, all the tenons and mortices exactly fitting and all the lengths and proportions of the different pieces exactly adapted to their respective places and not a piece too many or too few—not omitting even the scaffolding—or if a single piece be lacking we see the place in the frame exactly fitted and prepared yet to bring such piece in—in such a case we feel it impossible not to believe that Stephen and Franklin, and Roger and James, all understood one another from the beginning, and all worked upon a common plan or draft drawn before the first blow was struck.'" [Great cheers.]

"I want to ask your attention to a portion of the Nebraska Bill, which Judge Douglas has quoted: 'It being the true intent and meaning of this act, not to legislate slavery into any Territory or State, nor to exclude it therefrom, but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the Constitution of the United States.' Thereupon Judge Douglas and others began to argue in favor of 'Popular Sovereignty'—the right of the people to have slaves if they wanted them, and to exclude slavery if they did not want them.

"'But,' said, in substance, a Senator from Ohio, (Mr. Chase, I believe,) 'we more than suspect that you do not mean to allow the people to exclude slavery if they wish to, and if you do mean it, accept an amendment which I propose expressly authorizing the people to exclude slavery.' I believe I have the amendment here before me, which was offered, and under which the people of the Territory, through their proper representatives, might if they saw fit, prohibit the existence of slavery therein. And now I state it as a fact, to be taken back if there is any mistake about it, that Judge Douglas and those acting with him, voted that amendment down. [Tremendous applause.]

"I now think that those men who voted it down, had a real reason for doing so. They know what that reason was. It looks to us, since we have seen the Dred Scott decision pronounced holding that 'under the Constitution' the people cannot exclude slavery—I say it looks to outsiders, poor, simple, 'amiable, intelligent gentlemen,' [great laughter,] as though the niche was left as a place to put that Dred Scott decision in—[laughter and cheers]—a niche which would have been spoiled by adopting the amendment. And now, I say again, if this was not the reason, it will avail the Judge much more to calmly and good-humoredly point out to these people what that other reason was for voting the amendment down, than, swelling himself up, to vociferate that he may be provoked to call somebody a liar. [Tremendous applause.]

"Again: there is in that same quotation from the Nebraska bill this clause—'It being the true intent and meaning of this bill not to legislate slavery into any Territory or State.' I have always been puzzled to know what business the word 'State' had in that connection. Judge Douglas knows. He put it there. He knows what he put it there for. We outsiders cannot say what he put it there for. The law they were passing was not about States, and was not making provisions for States. What was it placed there for? After seeing the Dred Scott decision which holds that the people cannot exclude slavery from a Territory, if another Dred Scott decision shall come, holding that they cannot exclude it from a State, we shall discover that when the word was originally put there, it was in view of something which was to come in due time, we shall see that it was the other half of something. [Applause.] I now say again, if there is any different reason for putting it there, Judge Douglas, in a good-humored way, without calling anybody a liar, can tell what the reason was." [Renewed cheers.]

Lincoln ended his speech by humorously referring to how pertinaciously Douglas was clinging to the Dred Scott decision, in effect presenting it to the public as "Thus saith the Lord." Yet Lincoln catalogued the many times during his career when Douglas had defied and attacked judicial decisions.

"But I cannot shake Judge Douglas' teeth loose from the Dred Scott decision. Like some obstinate animal (I mean no disrespect,) that will hang on when he has once got his teeth fixed, you may cut off a leg, or you may tear away an arm, still he will not relax his hold. And so I may point out to the Judge, and say that he is bespattered all over, from the beginning of his political life to the present time, with attacks upon judicial decisions—I may cut off limb after limb of his public record, and strive to wrench him from a single dictum of the Court—yet I cannot divert him from it. He hangs to the last, to the Dred Scott decision. [Loud cheers.] These things show there is a purpose strong as death and eternity for which he adheres to this decision, and for which he will adhere to all other decisions of the same Court. [Vociferous applause.]

"Now, having spoken of the Dred Scott decision, one more word and I am done. Henry Clay, my beau ideal of a statesman, the man for whom I fought all my humble life—Henry Clay once said of a class of men who would repress all tendencies to liberty and ultimate emancipation, that they must, if they would do this, go back to the era of our Independence, and muzzle the cannon which thunders its annual joyous return; they must blow out the moral lights around us; they must penetrate the human soul, and eradicate there the love of liberty; and then and not till then, could they perpetuate slavery in this country! [Loud cheers.]

"To my thinking, Judge Douglas is, by his example and vast influence, doing that very thing in this community, [cheers.] when he says that the Negro has nothing in the Declaration of Independence. Henry Clay plainly understood the contrary. Judge Douglas is going back to the era of our Revolution, and to the extent of his ability, muzzling the cannon which thunders its annual joyous return. When he invites any people willing to have slavery, to establish it, he is blowing out the moral lights around us. [Cheers.] When he says he 'cares not whether slavery is voted down or voted up,'—that it is a sacred right of self government—he is in my judgment penetrating the human soul and eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty in this American people. [Enthusiastic and continued applause.] And now I will only say that when, by all these means and appliances, Judge Douglas shall succeed in bringing public sentiment to an exact accordance with his own views—when these vast assemblages shall echo back all these sentiments—when they shall come to repeat his views and to avow his principles, and to say all that he says on these mighty questions—then it needs only the formality of the second Dred Scott decision, which he endorses in advance, to make Slavery alike lawful in all the States—old as well as new, North as well as South."

[1.] In March of 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court, led by the pro-slavery Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, declared that all blacks—slaves as well as free—were not, and could never become citizens of the United States. The court also declared the 1820 Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, thus permitting slavery in all of the country's territories. In his decision, Taney wrote that the framers of the Constitution believed that blacks "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it."

Referring to the language in the Declaration of Independence that includes the phrase, "all men are created equal," Taney, the Antonin Scalia of his day, reasoned that, "it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this Declaration...."

[2.] "Bleeding Kansas" was a term used to describe the violence that broke out between pro- and anti-slavery forces in the Kansas Territory, following passage of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, introduced by Sen. Stephen Douglas. The Act provided that "popular sovereignty" would determine whether the territories of Kansas and Nebraska would be slave or free.


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.