Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 3.
Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865.

Speech at Paris, Illinois [1]

September 7, 1858

Let us inquire (said Mr. Lincoln) what Judge Douglas really invented when he introduced, and drove through Congress, the Nebraska bill. He called it ``Popular Sovereignty.'' What does Popular Sovereignty mean? Strictly and literally it means the Sovereignty of the People over their own affairs---in other words, the Right of the People of every nation and community to govern themselves. Did Mr. Douglas invent this? Not quite. The idea of Popular Sovereignty was floating about the world several ages before the author of the Nebraska bill saw daylight---indeed, before Columbus set foot on the American continent. In the year 1776 it took tangible form in the noble words which you are all familiarPage  91 with: ``We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; That to secure these rights governments were instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.'' Was not this the origin of Popular Sovereignty as applied to the American people? Here we are told that governments are instituted among men to secure certain rights, and that they derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. If that is not Popular Sovereignty, then I have no conception of the meaning of words.

Then if Mr. Douglas did not invent this kind of Sovereignty, let us pursue the inquiry and find out what the invention really was. Was it the right of emigrants in Kansas and Nebraska to govern themselves and a gang of niggers too, if they wanted them? Clearly this was no invention of his, because Gen. Cass put forth the same doctrine in 1848, in his so-called Nicholson letter, six years before Douglas thought of such a thing. Gen. Cass could have taken out a patent for the idea, if he had chosen to do so, and have prevented his Illinois rival from reaping a particle of benefit from it. Then what was it, I ask again, that this ``Little Giant'' invented? It never occurred to Gen. Cass to call his discovery by the odd name of ``Popular Sovereignty.'' He had not the impudence to say that the right of people to govern niggers was the right of people to govern themselves. His notions of the fitness of things were not moulded to the brazen degree of calling the right to put a hundred niggers through under the lash in Nebraska, a ``sacred right of self-government.'' And here, I submit to this intelligent audience and the whole world, was Judge Douglas' discovery, and the whole of it. He invented a name for Gen. Cass' old Nicholson letter dogma. He discovered that the right of the white man to breed and flog niggers in Nebraska was POPULAR SOVEREIGNTY!


[1]   Chicago Press and Tribune, September 11, 1858. This speech has been heretofore incorrectly dated September 8, 1858 (NH, XI, 105-106). Lincoln spoke at Tolono and Mattoon, Illinois, on the morning of September 7, and at Paris that afternoon. No reports of the Tolono and Mattoon speeches have been located.