Guest Essayist: Professor Joerg Knipprath, Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School

American politics in the 1850s were dominated by the polarization over slavery, which was reflected in the increasingly menacing tone of the national political “conversation” and the retreat into starker sectionalism of political allegiances. Attempts at political compromise over this national sickness initially appeared promising, but ultimately provided only bandages, not cures. When politics failed, the doctors of the law on the Supreme Court stepped in with a massive dose of controversial and untried constitutional medicine in the Dred Scott decision. When that, too, failed, the only means left to stop the spread of the poison was through the extreme surgery of military conflict that cost the blood of over 600,000 Americans. The South wanted amputation of what it saw as the source of the poison—the North’s crusade of political domination. The North rejected amputation and wanted to save the whole patient through radical surgery to cut out the evil—Southern slavery. Read more

A month before this speech, the Democratic National Convention had convened in Charleston, South Carolina. When the delegates failed to adopt an explicitly pro-slavery platform, the Convention dissolved. Rival Southern and Northern Conventions reconvened in June 1860, each nominating their own presidential candidate: Stephen Douglas for the North and John Breckinridge for the South. With the Democratic vote thus divided, the Republican candidate was widely expected to win the 1860 election. Here Davis laments the Kansas-Nebraska solution, explaining how Douglas, once a Southern hero, had become a villain.

May 17, 1860

…It is this confusion of ideas, it is this confounding of terms, this changing of language, this applying of special meanings to words, out of which, I think, a large portion of the dispute arises. Read more