Lincoln's speech at Ottawa was not one of his stronger presentations in the debates. He seemed to be caught off guard by Douglas's attempt to tie him to an extremist document that was alleged to be the 1854 state Republican platform. Avoiding Douglas's seven specific questions, Lincoln replied only that he was not present at the time those resolutions were adopted.[1] He spent much of his time simply reading a lengthy excerpt from his 1854 Peoria speech. After denying Douglas's charge that he had conspired with Lyman Trumbull to capture the state's two Senate seats from James Shields and Douglas, Lincoln made an even more extreme allegation: that Douglas, together with Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, had conspired to spread slavery all over the country, states as well as territories, north as well as south. He repeated the analogy of four men building a frame house (which he had advanced in the House Divided speech), carefully adding that although he did not know that there was a conspiracy, he believed it to be the case. [2] Having insisted that Douglas shoulder the burden of proof for the Trumbull conspiracy charge on the ground that "a man cannot prove a negative," he established a double standard. He did not have to prove the "frame house" charge, but Douglas should disprove it: "If I have reasoned to a false conclusion, it is the vocation of an able debater to show by argument that I have wandered to an erroneous conclusion."[3] Page  [End Page 23]

Lincoln even finished speaking with fifteen minutes left. Some of his own correspondents were concerned that he had been too defensive. One wrote, for example, that his Ottawa rebuttal came up short: "Until you shall explicitly answer [Douglas's] questions ... he will from that source derive considerable advantage." Joseph Medill wrote to Lincoln that the consensus of Republican strategists was that he should take a different approach in the second debate: "Don't act on the defensive at all ... hold Doug up as a traitor and conspirator, a proslavery, bamboozling demagogue." [4] The Democratic newspapers, as might be expected, were savage in their criticism of Lincoln's performance. The Illinois State Register cast him as having "stumbled, floundered, and, instead of the speech that he had prepared to make, bored his audience by using up a large portion of his time reading from a speech of 1854, of his own. He did not 'face the music' upon the points made by Douglas." And the Chicago Times declared, "He writhed and twisted, but he could not keep up under the infliction, and at last, long before the expiration of his time, he broke down."[5]

In this otherwise undistinguished speech, however, Lincoln articulated an important theory of political persuasion, a theory that would enable him to explain how Douglas could be part of a proslavery plot and also to defend his own moral position against the charge of hypocrisy. Describing why Douglas was so important to the alleged proslavery conspiracy, Lincoln said, "In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed."[6]

"Public sentiment is everything"—that was the key to Lincoln's explanation of why the slavery question had become so contentious and how the controversy ultimately would be resolved. What follows is an account of how Lincoln used this premise to attack Douglas, how it functioned in his own defense, and what it implied about the American public. Page  [End Page 24]

The Attack against Douglas

Lincoln's accusation was that there was a plot to spread slavery nationwide. The result would be achieved not by war nor by a forced uniformity of all state and local institutions, but rather by a second Dred Scott decision. In 1857 the Supreme Court had held that no territory could outlaw slavery; a forthcoming decision would hold that no state could do so either. That might seem preposterous, but so had the original Dred Scott decision until it was promulgated. Until Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, no major politician from either party denied the authority of Congress over slavery in the territories. It had been freely exercised in the Northwest Ordinance and in the Missouri Compromise. The only thing that made the original Dred Scott decision possible was that "public sentiment" was willing to accept it. And what had brought about the change in public sentiment was Douglas's repeated advocacy that the morality of slavery was not an a priori national concern, but a decision to be made for each territory by the inhabitants who lived there.

In Lincoln's version of the tale, Douglas played an especially important role because of his national prominence and credibility. He was not only the chair of the Senate Committee on Territories but also the most powerful Democrat in the country, with the possible exception of President James Buchanan. Immediately after pronouncing that "public sentiment is everything," Lincoln went on to state, "Judge Douglas is a man of vast influence, so great that it is enough for many men to profess to believe anything, when they once find out that Judge Douglas professes to believe it."[7]

Similarly, Lincoln alleged that Douglas was working to pave the way for a hypothetical "Dred Scott II" that would prevent any state from outlawing slavery. Douglas's role was threefold. First, in writing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he had created a niche to permit such a decision. The act contained a clause disavowing the intent "to legislate slavery into any territory or state" or to exclude it therefrom, subject only to the dictates of the Constitution. Why the reference to states in an act dealing with the organization of territories? The reference was legally unnecessary. It must have been put there, Lincoln surmised, to invite a second Dred Scott decision. The first decision had invoked "the dictates of the Constitution" to deny a territory the option to exclude slavery. A forthcoming decision would apply exactly the same reasoning to the states. Douglas must have Page  [End Page 25] been preparing for Dred Scott II; otherwise, why would he have introduced the superfluous language?[8] (In his rejoinder, Douglas stated, perhaps facetiously, that the word state was put into the Kansas-Nebraska Act "to meet just such false arguments as he has been adducing." What he meant, Douglas explained more seriously, was "to knock in the head this abolitionist doctrine of Mr. Lincoln's, that there shall be no more slave states, even if the people want them.")[9]

Second, in discussing the Lecompton Constitution in his Senate speech breaking with Buchanan, Douglas had proclaimed that he "don't care" whether slavery was voted down or voted up. The context of his statement—that he had other reasons for objecting to Lecompton than the outcome of a vote on slavery—was distorted by Republicans who cited the statement as evidence of Douglas's moral obtuseness. He did not mean that he was personally indifferent (although he never publicly condemned the institution), but that federal policy should be officially indifferent because the federal government had no proper jurisdiction over the matter. But Republicans claimed that by insisting, as a matter of public policy, that he "don't care," Douglas would lead his listeners not to care as a matter of individual moral judgment. His advocacy thus would dull the conscience of the nation. In that context, a second Dred Scott decision would not be so objectionable as it seemed in 1858. With the vital prerequisite to the extension of slavery having been achieved, only then could a future Supreme Court come forward with Dred Scott II.[10] Page  [End Page 26]

Third, the way in which Douglas defended the Dred Scott decision prepared the way for his acceptance of a second decision. On the face of it, the Dred Scott decision created a major political problem for Douglas. In holding that Congress could not outlaw slavery in the territories, the Court seemed to have dealt a fatal blow to Douglas's theory of popular sovereignty. Douglas had held that the territorial legislature could make the decision for or against slavery. But the territorial legislature was a creature of Congress, so by implication it could not exercise power denied to its creator.

Douglas did not accept that analysis, however. He believed that there was a fundamental distinction between the powers of Congress and those of the territorial legislature, so he continued to uphold popular sovereignty notwithstanding the Dred Scott decision. He supported both, although it is probably more accurate to say that he acquiesced in the Dred Scott decision rather than actively supported it. His principal ground for affirming the Dred Scott decision was that it was promulgated by the Supreme Court, the greatest tribunal in the land. It was important to abide by the decision lest the authority of the Court itself be undermined.

Lincoln turned the tables on Douglas, using this appeal to the authority of the Court against him. Douglas, he protested, was for blindly accepting decisions of the Court regardless of their merits. This very mindset would condition the public not to protest against the forthcoming Dred Scott II, no matter how outrageous it might seem now. In his Ottawa speech, Lincoln explained,

This man sticks to a decision which forbids the people of a territory from excluding slavery, and he does so not because he says it is right in itself—he does not give any opinion on that— but because it has been decided by the Court, and being decided by the Court, he is, and you are bound to take it in your political action as law—not that he judges at all of its merits, but because a decision of the Court is to him a "Thus saith the Lord." He places it on that ground alone, and you will bear in mind that Page  [End Page 27]

 Abraham Lincoln ambrotype made by Calvin Jackson, Pittsfield,
Illinois, October 1, 1858.
Abraham Lincoln ambrotype made by Calvin Jackson, Pittsfield, Illinois, October 1, 1858. Page  [End Page 28]

thus committing himself unreservedly to this decision, commits him to the next one just as firmly as to this. [11]

It was Douglas's deference to the Court that would lead him to defer to a second Dred Scott decision. And it was his great influence over others that would lead them to do so as well.

Public opinion in 1858 would not stand for a second Dred Scott decision, but Douglas was working in each of these three ways to narcotize the public mind. His "don't care" position removed the moral evil in slavery. As Lincoln put it at Alton, "No man can logically say he don't care whether a wrong is voted up or voted down."[12] If there was no evil in slavery, then why not permit it to spread? Why not allow slaveowners to take and hold property in any territory or state that they might choose? How could northern states justify outlawing slavery if there were no compelling moral interest to weigh in against the right to property enumerated in the Constitution? As more people, influenced by Douglas's prominence and reputation, accepted the "don't care" standard, public resistance to a second Dred Scott decision would vanish. Meanwhile, Douglas's wording of the Kansas-Nebraska Act gave the Supreme Court the opportunity to promulgate a second Dred Scott decision, and his argument that one should defer to the authority of the Court would pave the way for public acceptance.

The key step in the whole causal chain was changing the course of public opinion so people would see as indifferent what they previously had condemned. Well before the debates, Lincoln had spoken of the power of public opinion. In a speech in Chicago in 1856, he previewed the line of argument: "Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion can change the government, practically just so much. Public opinion, or [on?] any subject, always has a 'central idea,' from which all its minor thoughts radiate. That 'central idea' in our political opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be, 'the equality of men.'" [13] Douglas was crucial to the erosion of that "central idea" by denying the primarily moral aspect of the slavery question. That denial would create the moral climate for Dred Scott II.

In later debates, Lincoln retreated from the position that Douglas Page  [End Page 29] was an active conspirator to bring about this result, suggesting instead that—at the very least—he was the able instrument of the conspirators. His actions tended toward that end, whether or not it was his goal. In the Galesburg debate, Lincoln asked his listeners "to inquire, if you were going to get the best instrument you could, and then set it to work in the most ingenious way, to prepare the public mind for this movement, operating in the free states, where there is now an abhorrence of the institution of slavery, could you find an instrument so capable of doing it as Judge Douglas? or one employed in so apt a way to do it?"[14]

This alternate version of the argument was probably more credible. It strained belief to imagine that Douglas actively had plotted with Taney, Pierce, and Buchanan. Indeed, as the incumbent pointed out at Freeport, the alleged conspirators were not even physically together at the time the plot supposedly was made.[15] But even contemplating the possibility of active collusion made it easier to accept the claim that Douglas had been duped by the conspirators, or easier yet to conclude that his actions tended toward the same end. Even if unwittingly, he was the "instrument" leading to national slavery because of his assault on prevailing public sentiment.

Douglas, of course, consistently professed that the public forum should be neutral on the slavery issue. If local self-government meant anything, it meant that those not affected by a decision had no business expressing themselves or trying to influence that decision. The question of what rights, privileges, and immunities for blacks were compatible with the public good was best answered by the inhabitants of each territory or state, who were familiar with local conditions and would have to live with the consequences. At Quincy he told his listeners: "I do not discuss the morals of the people of Missouri. ... I hold that the people of the slaveholding states are civilized men as well as ourselves, that they bear consciences as well as we. ... It is for them to decide therefore the moral and religious right of the slavery question for themselves within their own limits." [16] And in the final debate, at Alton, he stated his position succinctly: "If the people of any other territory desire slavery let them have it. If they do not want it let them prohibit, it. It is their business not mine."[17]

The point of Lincoln's attack, of course, was to undermine this Page  [End Page 30] line of argument. If Douglas's neutral position weakened public sentiment against slavery, then it paved the way for slavery to spread. In that case, popular sovereignty was not really neutral, but—as Lincoln often said—a deceitful pretense for the spread of slavery. If Lincoln could redefine Douglas in this fashion, he would offset the credibility that derived from his senatorial experience. He would also appeal to the antislavery values of his audiences, especially the conservative old-line Whigs of central Illinois, who might be opposed to abolition but who nevertheless believed that slavery was an evil that must be ended in God's good time. If these listeners could be convinced that, because of Douglas, their view no longer was the widespread public sentiment, they might reconsider whether the incumbent senator was really serving their interests well.

The Defense of Lincoln

Although Lincoln introduced the claim that "public sentiment is everything" for the purpose of discrediting Douglas, it also served to defend him against the charge of inconsistency and hypocrisy in his own position. A brief explication of Lincoln's views about the morality of slavery and the Constitution will make clear why this is so.

Lincoln believed slavery was morally wrong because it denied to slaves the fundamental rights of human beings. He held this position consistently since he had reentered politics in 1854. He denied that slaves were property in order to deny that the constitutional protections of property rights disposed of the moral question. In his 1854 Springfield speech, he alleged that not even in the South were slaves treated like hogs or horses. And in the Peoria speech, he grounded his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the fact that "it assumes that there can be moral right in the enslaving of one man by another." [18]

If slaves were human, then, at the very least, they shared at some fundamental level in whatever it was that makes people human, the level at which "all men are created equal." Sometimes Lincoln articulated this view as a political principle, as when he stated at Peoria in 1854 that the essence of self-government was "that no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other's consent." Sometimes he developed the less radical economic implication "that whatever any one man earns with his hands and by Page  [End Page 31] the sweat of his brow, he shall enjoy in peace." [19] Whether in a political or an economic sense, there is a natural right to improve one's own condition. Slavery violated this right by permanently consigning slaves to a dependent status. Moreover, denying human rights to blacks would jeopardize them for whites. Speaking at Edwardsville in 1858, Lincoln said, "Familiarize yourself with the chains of bondage, and you are preparing your own limbs to wear them. Accustomed to trample on the rights of those around you, you have lost the genius of your own independence, and become the fit subjects of the first cunning tyrant who rises."[20]

For the most part, Lincoln's moral position was undeveloped until the later debates. He briefly alluded to it in the conclusion of his remarks at Ottawa. Referring to Henry Clay's address to the American Colonization Society, he suggested that Douglas was one "of a class of men who would repress all tendencies to liberty and ultimate emancipation," and that to do this they must "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." [21]

Why, if Lincoln held the absolute moral position that slavery was an evil, did he conceal this belief until the later debates? Why did he not contest Douglas on these grounds at Ottawa? The answer is that the seemingly logical policy to follow from such a moral judgment would be abolition, and that to support abolition would be political suicide. Chief among the constraints facing Lincoln were the racial attitudes of Illinoisans, which by today's standards must be judged racist. In some of the northern counties, there were pockets of abolitionist support and mild sympathy for blacks. On the whole, however, there was hostility. As for the crucial central counties, George H. Mayer explains that they "had drawn numerous settlers from Kentucky and Tennessee, who, like most Southern whites, took the inferiority of blacks for granted and enthusiastically supported the policy of excluding the Negro from Illinois," whether free or slave. [22] In particular, the old-line Whigs resented the moralizing of the abolitionists. Realizing the widespread hostility toward aboli- Page  [End Page 32] tionism, the Democratic press argued, his public protestations to the contrary, that Lincoln was an abolitionist in disguise. The House Divided speech already had given conservatives cause for concern. Certainly, Lincoln should do nothing more that might give credence to the charge that he was an abolitionist.

Lincoln could not call for the immediate end to slavery for another reason. The institution was protected in southern states by the Constitution, and, like most men of his era, Lincoln had profound respect for the Constitution. He repeatedly pledged not to disturb slavery where it already existed but only to oppose its extension into new territories. He attacked the institution where it did not exist; where it did exist, he let it alone.

On the face of it, Lincoln easily could seem inconsistent or hypocritical. His moral beliefs, derived from a theory of natural rights, were absolute, but the actions he supported were limited and gradual. His arguments seemed to call at least for abolition if not for social and political equality, yet he defended the much more limited measure of containing slavery where it already existed and opposing its extension. How could he justify his condemnation of the institution without calling for its immediate repeal?

The way out of Lincoln's paradox could be found in the same "public sentiment is everything" phrase he offered at Ottawa. From this standpoint, the necessary and sufficient condition for Lincoln's program was public confidence that slavery would disappear, however gradually. Or, as he phrased it in both the House Divided speech and the Ottawa debate, slavery must be placed "where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction." [23] Yet how could the public conclude that slavery was on the way out? For Lincoln, the answer lay in public condemnation of the institution on moral grounds, because one did not have a right to do wrong.

The appeal to public sentiment thus functioned as a kind of deus ex machina for Lincoln. It enabled him to work from an absolute value position while avoiding commitment to an absolutist policy. By paying homage to the virtue of public sentiment—a virtue Douglas hardly could oppose because he believed in majority rule—Lincoln was able to suggest that a public judgment that slavery eventually was on the way out would have the same ultimate effect as would its immediate abolition. He thereby could reconcile his moral conviction against slavery with his unwillingness to support Page  [End Page 33] a politically extreme position. A decision in the distant future becomes a surrogate for an unacceptable decision in the present.

This deus ex machina, however, depended on the existence of a clear and strong public consensus that slavery was doomed. In Lincoln's worldview, just such a consensus existed until Douglas set out to destroy it by introducing the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln drew from history to find evidence for this position. He cited, of course, the phrase "all men are created equal" from the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was more fundamental than any law as an expression of American values; it embodied the transcendent vision of the Union that preceded even the Constitution. Lincoln maintained that blacks were included in the scope of "all men are created equal." Before 1854, he asserted in the Galesburg debate, no one had thought otherwise—not Douglas, not Washington, not any member of Congress, not "any living man upon the whole earth ever said so, until the necessities of the present policy of the Democratic party, in regard to slavery, had to invent that affirmation." [24] From that standpoint, it was easy for Lincoln to allege that it was Douglas who had upset this clear public sentiment by retreating from the ideals set forth in the Declaration.

Douglas tried to discredit the accusation by referring to the signers of the Declaration themselves. Many were slaveowners and continued to hold their slaves even after signing the Declaration of Independence. If Lincoln's position were right, he would have to suggest that these venerated ancestors were base hypocrites. Why, then, were the words "created equal" in the Declaration, according to Douglas? As he said at Jonesboro, the signers "had no reference to the negro whatever when they declared all men to be created equal. They desired to express by that phrase, white men, men of European birth and European descent, and had no reference either to the negro, the savage Indians, the Fejee, the Malay, or any other inferior and degraded race, when they spoke of the equality of men."[25] The purpose of the phrase, Douglas insisted, was only to Page  [End Page 34] establish the political equality of individuals born in America and in Britain.

Lincoln, of course, rejected this view. His answer to the "hypocrisy" of the Founders was that they were setting forth a goal to be achieved. Equality was not a fact, but—as he said at Gettysburg—a proposition toward which the country was dedicated, and which would be proved over time through its national life. The gradual evolution of policy in line with public sentiment would prove the proposition, except that Douglas had sought to redirect public sentiment by removing the moral stigma of slavery.

The Declaration of Independence was not Lincoln's only historical evidence. He saw the American Revolution as a crusade against slavery, not an unusual view because slavery was the key devil term of the revolutionaries who described themselves as enslaved by George III. He cited Jefferson's role in drafting the Northwest Ordinance, which had preceded the Constitution and prohibited slavery in the area that would become the Northwest Territory. In his July 1858 Chicago speech, Lincoln pointed to the clause in the Constitution allowing Congress to prohibit the African slave trade after 1808 as "a clear indication that the framers of the Constitution intended and expected the ultimate extinction of that institution." [26] He regarded the Constitution itself as an antislavery document, noting that the word slavery was never to be found in it.

Throughout the debates, Lincoln denied Douglas's contention that the Founding Fathers made the nation half slave and half free. Rather, they found it that way and, not knowing what else to do, left it alone. But they made clear their desire that the institution be contained. As Lincoln summarized his position in the Ottawa debate:

[W]hen the Judge reminds me that I have often said to him that the institution of slavery has existed for eighty years in some states, and yet it does not exist in some others, I agree to the fact, and I account for it by looking at the position in which our fathers originally placed it—restricting it from the new territories where it had not gone, and legislating to cut off its source by the abrogation of the slave trade, thus putting the seal of legislation against its spread. The public mind did rest in the belief that it was in the course of ultimate extinction. [27]
It followed from Lincoln's argument that the vision of the Founders, Page  [End Page 35] which had been lost, must somehow be regained, but that could not be done so long as Douglas's "popular sovereignty" principle governed. Returning to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers required a clear public moral judgment against slavery, and that sentiment could not be created by someone who had proclaimed that he "don't care" whether slavery were voted down or voted up. [28]

Lincoln's view of the early national history is open to challenge. For example, the contention that the Founders sought to restrict slavery from new territories is overstated. Although they prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory, they permitted it in the Southwest Territory, the area that became Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. Even the Northwest Ordinance did not altogether stop the spread of slavery north of the Ohio River. The ordinance explicitly protected the slave property of the French inhabitants and those "who professed themselves citizens of Virginia," and in any case slaves were brought into the territory despite the prohibition. Many construed the language of the Northwest Ordinance as protecting property in slaves already in the territory and in all of their descendants as well, a construction that would have made slavery permanent notwithstanding the seemingly clear dictate of the ordinance to the contrary.[29]

Douglas argued that slavery had been tried in Illinois and was abandoned not for any moral reason, but only because it became unprofitable.[30] On this point, the history of the state bears him out. The 1818 state constitution, which was accepted by Congress, recognized the property rights of slaveowners already in the state. By 1820, Illinois included more than seven hundred slaves, and in N. Dwight Harris's judgment, "Slavery existed in the territory of Illinois as completely as in any of the Southern States" and was practiced as far north as Sangamon County, then in the early stages of settlement. [31] A serious effort was made in 1824 to revise the state Page  [End Page 36] constitution to make Illinois a slave state, but all vestiges of slavery were not removed until the constitutional revision of 1847.

On other counts, too, Lincoln's view of the Founding Fathers overstated the case. The Sage of Monticello, who wrote the Northwest Ordinance, also late in life opposed the Missouri Compromise partly because it restricted the spread of slavery.[32] The Constitution, although omitting the term slavery, nevertheless clearly legitimized the institution. The abolition of the slave trade in 1808 was prompted by a combination of principle and economics. In general, the Founding Fathers appear to have regarded the slavery question as a matter of expediency as much as a matter of principle.

Nor, of course, did Douglas believe that he was doing any such thing as Lincoln alleged. He consistently had deemphasized the slavery question, not because he wanted to promote national slavery but because he feared that the controversy would detract from the foremost national tasks of filling and building up the expanding country and pursuing a vigorous foreign policy. From his point of view, it was Lincoln who was upsetting the weight of tradition. The force of local self-determination over an expanding geographic area was being arrested by Lincoln's attempt to impose uniformity on a territory's domestic institutions. For the incumbent no less than the challenger, the stakes were high and there was no turning back. All the more important, then, to establish that the forces of history really were on one's side.

But history does not speak, it must be spoken for. What Lincoln did in the 1858 Senate campaign was to select from the record those details that would support his narrative. The appeal of his argument was largely in its story of degeneration from the vision of the Founders, a calamity for which Douglas was identified as the chief villain. The moral argument Lincoln developed in later debates is both embedded in and bolstered by this historical narrative. The narrative form enhanced Lincoln's credibility because history was seen as continuous, not static. The successful interpretation of the past would have a controlling influence on future policy.

Assumptions and Implications

Lincoln's Ottawa proclamation that "public sentiment is everything" did double duty for him. It enabled him to magnify the scope of Page  [End Page 37] Douglas's errors and to make believable the claim that the incumbent somehow was connected to a plot to nationalize slavery. And it enabled him to resolve what otherwise would have been a difficult tension in his own position, between espousing an absolute value and supporting a limited political program. Beyond these expedient uses, however, Lincoln's statement reflected the germ of a theory of public opinion. Unpacking its underlying assumptions is a useful exercise.

First, Lincoln clearly regarded the public as a collective noun. When he spoke of "public sentiment," he did not mean just the aggregation of individual sentiments, but a whole that somehow was greater than the sum of its parts. "The public" was an entity apart from individual advocates; it must be treated on its own terms. In contrast, Douglas espoused the more "modern" view that public opinion is the sum of individual opinions because he believed that the decision on slavery in a territory should be made by adding up the votes of the people who lived there.[33]

Second, Lincoln clearly assumed that there was a public sentiment. His references to it at Ottawa and elsewhere were not idle throw-aways. For him, public sentiment represented the working knowledge and values of the culture. It was not a mere construction of the orator, but a real thing. Although it functioned for Lincoln as a deus ex machina, he would be appalled by any suggestion that he simply had invented it for that purpose.

Third, Lincoln emphasized that it was public sentiment—not opinion, not belief, but sentiment. Lincoln chose his words with care, and it is worth noting the difference between "sentiment" and other terms he might have used. Public sentiment is more enduring than public opinion; it touches deeper roots in an individual's system of beliefs and values. And it is not purely cognitive and rational; it reflects emotional wellsprings, too. If public sentiment held that slavery was doomed to eventual extinction, that meant something more than acceptance of an abstract proposition. It meant a commitment that sprang from the nexus of religious and ethical conviction, cultural tradition and narrative, and intellectual principle and reason.

Fourth, Lincoln assumed that public sentiment can be known. It is known not by sampling and audience research but by steeping Page  [End Page 38] oneself in history and culture. The origins of public sentiment lie in myths, narratives, and reconstructions of significant events in the past. For Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence and the Northwest Ordinance were not just events from the distant past. They were vectors, pointing to the present and helping to shape what it meant.

Fifth, Lincoln believed that public sentiment had effects. It was not simply a fact of society and culture; it had causal force. Specifically, it was American society's source of legitimacy; it filled the role that hereditary authority held in a monarchy. This was what Lincoln meant when he said that the molder of public sentiment "makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed." [34] Congress could legislate, courts could adjudicate, but the outcomes were not self-executing. Only the force of public sentiment sustained them. That line of thought, for instance, led Lincoln to argue that the Dred Scott decision would not have been possible had public sentiment not been prepared for it by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the election of 1856.

Sixth, Lincoln held that public sentiment was an appropriate constraint on advocacy. The bounds of permissible action are set by a public, by citizens who are not pawns to be manipulated by leaders, but active participants in a civic dialogue. Responsible advocates recognize and respect this constraint. Irresponsible orators, like Douglas, disregard the weight of public sentiment in the pursuit of short-term personal gain, but they do so ultimately at their own peril.

Public sentiment was a constraint, but its influence was not absolute. Even as advocates recognized its weight, they tested its limits. Political rhetoric was a means to coach public judgment by stretching the meaning of prevailing sentiment, or by fitting one's own new proposal within the bounds of prevailing sentiment, or by presenting one's proposal as not radical but conservative, or in a host of other ways. Indeed, "coaching" judgment was a principal function of public political debate. Audiences could hear opposing candidates address the issues of the day and challenge each other. Inevitably, the results were not conclusive, and yet the public had to make a decision. Attending to the arguments in the debates helped make that decision as reasonable and intelligent as possible.

In short, Lincoln's theory of public opinion reflected the paradoxical nature of persuasion in a democracy. The people rule not through their wants and desires of the moment, but through a Page  [End Page 39] durable public sentiment that transcends individuals and is the product of history and culture. Politicians and orators must respect this source of the people's power and yet not regard its hold over them as absolute. They cannot deny or discredit it, but they must seek to define, interpret, and stretch it. The people's will expressed through durable public sentiment checks against the people's will expressed through the momentary wish of a majority. In the Ottawa debate, when Lincoln said, "Public sentiment is everything," he was expressing his own first principles of advocacy and of governance. Page  [End Page 40]


  1. The Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, ed. Paul M. Angle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 114 (hereafter cited as Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates). In later debates, Douglas would ridicule this response as amounting to a complaint that the platform had not been adopted at the right spot, thereby reminding audiences of the unpopular "spot" resolutions that Lincoln had introduced in the House of Representatives during the Mexican War, asking that President Polk justify American involvement by identifying the spot of American soil on which American blood had been shed. See, for example, 157.return to text
  2. Ibid., 121, 123.return to text
  3. Ibid.; cf. 115, 124.return to text
  4. L. D. Whiting to Lincoln, Aug. 23, 1858, Robert Todd Lincoln Collection of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, reel 3, frames 1279–81, Library of Congress; Joseph Medill to Lincoln, Aug. 26(?), 1858, reel 3, frames 1333–36. return to text
  5. Illinois State Register (Springfield), Aug. 24, 1858; Chicago Times, Aug. 22, 1858. return to text
  6. Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 128. return to text
  7. Ibid.return to text
  8. The possibility of a second Dred Scott decision was not as farfetched as one might suppose. It had been endorsed by an administration newspaper and was widely discussed by leading politicians. The case of Lemmon v. the People might have become Dred Scott II had the Supreme Court taken the case and overruled the decision of the New York supreme court. See Paul Finkelman, An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981), 239; Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 98; David Zarefsky, Lincoln, Douglas, and Slavery: In the Crucible of Public Debate (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 85–86. In a Senate speech in February 1858, Henry Wilson of Massachusetts had cited the Lemmon case as the vehicle for a second Dred Scott decision. See Congressional Globe, 35th Cong., 1st sess., 27, pt. 1:547.return to text
  9. Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 136. Douglas's assumption was that without such language, a future abolitionist-minded Congress might refuse to admit new states unless they outlawed slavery. Given the unpopularity of abolitionism, this was an unlikely prospect. Many Republicans believed, however, that they could avoid having to decide this question. If slavery were kept out of the territories, there was little chance that a territory seeking admission as a state would decide in favor of slavery.return to text
  10. Jaffa has argued that a shift in public opinion was likewise a prerequisite for the 1857 Dred Scott decision. He believes that the public would not have stood for such a decision in 1854; the way for it had to be paved by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the 1856 election campaign. See Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), 287. Lincoln made a similar argument in the Galesburg debate: "It is my opinion that the Dred Scott decision, as it is, never would have been made in its present form if the party that made it had not been sustained previously by the elections"; Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 309. return to text
  11. Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 128–29.return to text
  12. Ibid., 392.return to text
  13. Speech at a Republican banquet, Dec. 10, 1856, in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, with Marion Dolores Pratt and Lloyd A. Dunlap, asst. eds., 9 vols. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953–55), 2:385 (hereafter cited as Collected Works). return to text
  14. Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 311. return to text
  15. Ibid., 169.return to text
  16. Ibid., 351.return to text
  17. Ibid., 367.return to text
  18. Collected Works, 2:245, 274. return to text
  19. Speech at Peoria, Oct. 16, 1854, ibid., 2:266; speech at Cincinnati, Sept. 17, 1859, in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln: First Supplement, 1832–1865, ed. Roy P. Basler (1974, repr. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 44.return to text
  20. Speech at Edwardsville, Sept. 11, 1858, in Collected Works, 3:95.return to text
  21. Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 130. return to text
  22. George H. Mayer, The Republican Party, 1854–1964 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 56. return to text
  23. Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 2, 120.return to text
  24. Ibid., 298. Jaffa strongly supports Lincoln's position, writing, "That Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, Patrick Henry, and all others of their general philosophic persuasion understood the Declaration in its universalistic sense, and as including the Negro, is beyond doubt or cavil"; Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided, 314. return to text
  25. Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 201. In some formulations of this argument, Douglas had limited the applicability of the Declaration to Englishmen, enabling Lincoln to appeal for the immigrant vote by pointing out that Douglas excluded from the American covenant not only blacks but also all whites of European descent. See, for example, Lincoln's June 26, 1857, Springfield speech, in which he states that "the French, Germans, and other white people of the world are all gone to pot along with the Judge's inferior races"; see Collected Works, 2:407.return to text
  26. Collected Works, 2:492. return to text
  27. Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 119. return to text
  28. A corollary benefit for Lincoln of this line of argument was that it sought to blunt the charge that he was a dangerous radical, a charge Douglas had advanced throughout the senatorial campaign. Rather, Lincoln was proposing only to return public policy to the course established by the venerated Founding Fathers. If anything, Douglas was the radical because it was he who upset the strong national consensus. return to text
  29. See Paul Finkelman, "Slavery and the Northwest Ordinance: A Study in Ambiguity," Journal of the Early Republic 6 (Winter 1986): 343–70; Finkelman, "Evading the Ordinance: The Persistence of Bondage in Indiana and Illinois," Journal of the Early Republic 9 (Spring 1989): 21–51. return to text
  30. Finkelman, An Imperfect Union, 84; Douglas's speech at Springfield, July 17, 1858, in Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 59–60.return to text
  31. N. Dwight Harris, The History of Negro Servitude in Illinois and of the Slavery Agitation in That State, 1719–1864 (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1904), 10, 15. return to text
  32. See Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982), 164. return to text
  33. The transformation in the concept of "public opinion" from a property of the community to the statistical aggregation of individual preferences is described in Susan Herbst, Numbered Voices (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). In a sense, Lincoln and Douglas can be said to represent the two poles in this contrast.return to text
  34. Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 128. return to text