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This Week in History
February 26 - March 3, 1860:
Presidential Candidate Abraham Lincoln
Makes His Principles Crystal-Clear

February 2012

Abraham Lincoln.

On February 28, 1860, Abraham Lincoln boarded a train in New York City and headed for New England. He had just made his memorable speech at the Cooper Union the night before, and was now looking forward to visiting his son Robert, who was studying at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. During the round trip, Lincoln would also make nine major speeches in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, all of them at the request of Republican Party leaders in those states.

During the past year, Lincoln had stood firm on principle, while others wavered or capitulated. During 1859, Lincoln had travelled from state to state, combating the sophistry coming from both Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and pro-slavery Southerners. Douglas was using the soothing phrase "popular sovereignty" to mask the spread of slavery to every part of the nation, including the Federal territories. The pro-slavery faction, strongly encouraged and supported by Britain and other European oligarchies, who aimed to thus destroy the American Republic, repeated the mantra that everything would be fine if they were just left alone.

On Oct. 16, 1859, the nation was stunned by John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Southern members of Congress immediately accused the Republicans of having masterminded this "invasion of Southern territory." Senator Douglas, the leading Democratic Presidential hopeful, agreed with them, and stated that the violence at Harper's Ferry was the "natural" and "logical" outcome of the policies of the Northern Republican Party.

Many Republicans began waffling and back-peddling, but not Lincoln. A Chicago editor wrote to Lincoln that he and his colleagues were worried about "the moral health of the Republican Party," and Lincoln agreed. In November and December, he was making almost daily speeches in Kansas, and on December 3, the day after John Brown died on the gallows, Lincoln addressed an audience in Leavenworth, Kansas.

Lincoln told his auditors that hanging Brown was just, "even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong. That cannot excuse violence, bloodshed, and treason. It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right." But, Lincoln warned the pro-slavery ideologues, "If, constitutionally, we elect a President, and therefore you undertake to destroy the Union, it will be our duty to deal with you as old John Brown has been dealt with."

In contrast, the leading contender for the Republican Presidential nomination, Sen. William H. Seward of New York, was very worried about accusations that his statement on the "irrepressible conflict" between free and slave states had led to Harper's Ferry. Two days after Lincoln's Cooper Union speech, Seward rose in the Senate and gave a speech which contrasted the "capital states" of the South, presumably referring to their capital investment in slaves, with the "labor states" of the North, saying that the differences were merely economic.

Lincoln, in his speech at New Haven, Connecticut, on March 6, clearly defined the issue which had to be dealt with, used humor as his ally, and appealed to the audience's principled patriotism. He began by saying that if the Republican Party "shall ever have the national house entrusted to its keeping, it will be the duty of that party to attend to all the affairs of national housekeeping." It was true that there were many national questions that needed answers, such as the tariff, the management of financial affairs, and how the national lands would be settled. Yet, none of these could get a hearing at present, because of the overriding nature of the slavery question. "For, whether we will or not, the question of Slavery is the question, the all absorbing topic of the day."

After tracing all the policies which the Democrats, especially Douglas, had guaranteed would end the agitation over slavery, Lincoln said that even the Democrats now did not pretend that the problem had been solved.

"The truth is, that this question is one of national importance, and we cannot help dealing with it: We must do something about it, whether we will or not. We cannot avoid it; the subject is one we cannot avoid considering; we can no more avoid it than a man can live without eating. It is upon us; it attaches to the body politic as much and as closely as the natural wants attach to our natural bodies. Now I think it important that this matter should be taken up in earnest, and really settled. And one way to bring about a true settlement of the question is to understand its true magnitude."

"I think that one of the causes of these repeated failures is that our best and greatest men have greatly underestimated the size of this question. They have constantly brought forward small cures for great sores—plasters too small to cover the wound. That is one reason that all settlements have proved so temporary—so evanescent.

"Look at the magnitude of this subject! One-sixth of our population, in round numbers—not quite one-sixth, and yet more than a seventh—about one-sixth of the whole population of the United States are slaves! The owners of these slaves consider them property. The effect upon the minds of the owners is that of property, and nothing else—it induces them to insist upon all that will favorably affect its value as property, to demand laws and institutions and a public policy that shall increase and secure its value, and make it durable, lasting, and universal. The effect on the minds of the owners is to persuade them that there is no wrong in it. The slaveholder does not like to be considered a mean fellow, for holding that species of property, and hence he has to struggle within himself and sets about arguing himself into the belief that slavery is right. The property influences his mind.

"The dissenting minister, who argued some theological point with one of the established church, was always met by the reply, 'I can't see it so.' He opened the Bible, and pointed him to a passage, but the orthodox minister replied, 'I can't see it so.' Then he showed him a single word—'Can you see that?' 'Yes, I see it,' was the reply. The dissenter laid a guinea over the word and asked, 'Do you see it now?' So here. Whether the owners of this species of property do really see it as it is, it is not for me to say, but if they do, they see it as it is through 2,000 million of dollars, and that is a pretty thick coating. Certain it is, that they do not see it as we see it. Certain it is, that this 2,000 million of dollars, invested in this species of property, all so concentrated that the mind can grasp it at once—this immense pecuniary interest, has its influence upon their minds.

"But here in Connecticut and at the North, slavery does not exist, and we see it through no such medium. To us it appears natural to think that slaves are human beings; men, not property; that some of the things, at least, stated about men in the Declaration of Independence apply to them as well as to us. I say, we think, most of us, that this Charter of Freedom applies to the slave as well as to ourselves, that the class of arguments put forward to batter down that idea, are also calculated to break down the very idea of a free government, even for white men, and to undermine the very foundations of free society."

"Now I have spoken of a policy based on the idea that slavery is wrong, and a policy based upon the idea that it is right. But an effort has been made for a policy that shall treat it as neither right or wrong. It is based upon utter indifference. Its leading advocate has said 'I don't care whether it be voted up or down.' 'It is merely a matter of dollars and cents.' 'The Almighty has drawn a line across this continent, on one side of which all soil must forever be cultivated by slave labor, and on the other by free'; 'When the struggle is between the white man and the Negro, I am for the white man; when it is between the Negro and the crocodile, I am for the Negro.' Its central idea is indifference. It holds that it makes no more difference to us whether the Territories become free or slave States, than whether my neighbor stocks his farm with horned cattle or puts it into tobacco. All recognize this policy, the plausible sugar-coated name of which is 'popular sovereignty.'

"This policy chiefly stands in the way of a permanent settlement of the question. I believe there is no danger of its becoming the permanent policy of the country, for it is based on a public indifference. There is nobody that 'don't care.' ALL THE PEOPLE DO CARE! one way or the other. This policy can be brought to prevail if the people can be brought round to say honestly 'we don't care;' if not, it can never be maintained. It is for you to say whether that can be done.

"You are ready to say it cannot, but be not too fast! Remember what a long stride has been taken since the repeal of the Missouri Compromise! Do you know of any Democrat, of either branch of the party—do you know one who declares that he believes that the Declaration of Independence has any application to the Negro? Judge Taney declares that it has not, and Judge Douglas even vilifies me personally and scolds me roundly for saying that the Declaration applies to all men, and that Negroes are men. Is there a Democrat here who does not deny that the Declaration applies to a Negro? Do any of you know of one? Well, I have tried before perhaps 50 audiences, some larger and some smaller than this, to find one such Democrat, and never yet have I found one who said I did not place him right in that. I must assume that Democrats hold that, and now, not one of these Democrats can show that he said that five years ago!

"I venture to defy the whole party to produce one man that ever uttered the belief that the Declaration did not apply to Negroes, before the repeal of the Missouri Compromise! Four or five years ago we all thought Negroes were men, and that when 'all men' were named, Negroes were included. But the whole Democratic Party has deliberately taken Negroes from the class of men and put them in the class of brutes. Turn it as you will it is simply the truth! Don't be too hasty then in saying that the people cannot be brought to this new doctrine, but note that long stride. One more as long completes the journey, from where Negroes are estimated as men to where they are estimated as mere brutes—as rightful property!"

When Lincoln came to the end of his speech, he exhorted his audience not to adopt the view of those who looked at slavery as a good or as something neutral.

"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 of Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington did."

Then Lincoln repeated the final phrases from his Cooper Union speech—

"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."