In 1820, the U.S. Congress passed the Missouri Compromise in an effort to settle disagreements between pro and anti-slavery factions regarding the admission of new states to the union. The Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery in new states north of the 36°30Ëˆ north parallel, with the exception of Missouri. In 1854, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois proposed, and succeeded in passing, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which unraveled the Missouri Compromise. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, signed into law by President Franklin Pierce on May 30, 1854, allowed citizens within the Kansas and Nebraska territories to decide by what they called “Popular Sovereignty” (a popular vote) as to whether they would allow slavery.
Abraham Lincoln, having been out of political office since retiring from his one term in the U.S. Congress in 1849, re-engaged into the political world by giving several speeches in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Like his well-researched speech he would give some years later at Cooper Union in New York that kicked off his presidential campaign, Lincoln studied the subject intensely, and he modified each speech after hearing Stephen Douglas’ discourses on the subject. Lincoln gave his most inspired and comprehensive speech in Peoria, Illinois on October 16, 1854, or at least since this was the only one of the three talks that he personally transcribed, it appears to be his best. In the following paragraphs, any emphasis shown in the quotations from Lincoln’s transcription are as written by Lincoln himself.
The Peoria speech sparked Lincoln’s political resurrection, and he was elected as a member of the Illinois House of Representatives a few weeks later. This momentum, though slowed at times, propelled him to the presidency in 1860. Stephen Douglas, with whom Lincoln would more famously debate in their 1858 U.S. Senate contest, was in attendance.
Lincoln spoke for three hours, walking the difficult path of boldly speaking against the institution of slavery and any expansion of it, while, in order to maintain the union, supporting the continuation of the institution in the states where it currently existed. From the outset and throughout, Lincoln’s speech resounded with support for individual freedom and equality, frequently invoking the themes and words of the Declaration of Independence. On the other hand, Lincoln expressed support for the rule of law and settled compromises and respect for the Constitution’s provisions pertaining to apportionment of representation.
There was no question that Lincoln’s main point was in opposition to slavery, and just a few sentences into his speech, Lincoln quickly express his opposition to the practice. He referred to the “monstrous injustice of slavery,” and argued that permitting it in these new territories deprived the young nation of its just righteousness as a free state. He explained that enemies of freedom could call the nation hypocrites, and supporters of freedom could question the nation’s sincerity.
Lincoln also discussed “the right of self-government” which he described as a state in which “each man should do precisely as he pleases with all which is exclusively his own… .” While supportive of self-government, Lincoln noted that the concept could not be applied to the question of whether slavery should be permitted in Kansas or Nebraska, as slaves were also men. Lincoln reasoned that self-government was totally inconsistent with slavery, as slavery would prevent slaves from governing themselves. He further argued that “that no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent.” This he tied into the Declaration of Independence’s affirmation of the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the fact that those rights should be secured by governments, “DERIVING THEIR JUST POWERS FROM THE CONSENT OF THE GOVERNED.”
Lincoln also mentioned that the Kansas-Nebraska Act, by repealing the Missouri Compromise, threatened to undermine the public’s trust of a national compromise, noting that in fact, the Constitution itself was created in the spirit of compromise. Lincoln warned that the effect of the repeal of the compromise would be that “[o]ne side will provoke; the other resent. The one will taunt, the other defy; one agrees, the other retaliates.”
As he began concluding his speech, Lincoln again referred to the Declaration of Independence: “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 can not stand together. They are as opposite as God and mammon; and whoever holds to the one, must despise the other.”
Lincoln’s love of freedom, equality, morality, and representative governance with the consent of the governed was clear in this speech. He echoed Thomas Jefferson’s words from the Declaration of Independence to make the point that slavery was wholly inconsistent with those loves.
Read Abraham Lincoln’s Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=4295
Frank M. Reilly is a partner at the law firm of Potts & Reilly, L.L.P. in Horseshoe Bay, Texas.