Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 3.

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Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 3.
Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865.
New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press

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Speech at Edwardsville, Illinois1Jump to section

September 11, 1858

I have been requested to give a concise statement, as I understand it, of the difference between the Democratic and the Republican

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parties on the leading issues of this campaign. The question has just been put to me by a gentleman whom I do not know. I do not even know whether he is a friend of mine or a supporter of Judge Douglas in this contest; nor does that make any difference. His question is a pertinent one and, though it has not been asked me anywhere in the State before, I am very glad that my attention has been called to it to-day. Lest I should forget it, I will give you my answer before proceeding with the line of argument I had marked out for this discussion.

The difference between the Republican and the Democratic parties on the leading issue of this contest, as I understand it, is, that the former consider slavery a moral, social and political wrong, while the latter do not consider it either a moral, social or political wrong; and the action of each, as respects the growth of the country and the expansion of our population, is squared to meet these views. I will not allege that the Democratic party consider slavery morally, socially and politically right; though their tendency to that view has, in may opinion, been constant and unmistakable for the past five years. I prefer to take, as the accepted maxim of the party, the idea put forth by Judge Douglas, that he ``don't care whether slavery is voted down or voted up.'' I am quite willing to believe that many Democrats would prefer that slavery be always voted down, and I am sure that some prefer that it be always ``voted up''; but I have a right to insist that their action, especially if it be their constant and unvarying action, shall determine their ideas and preferences on the subject. Every measure of the Democratic party of late years, bearing directly or indirectly on the slavery question, has corresponded with this notion of utter indifference whether slavery or freedom shall outrun in the race of empire across the Pacific---every measure, I say, up to the Dred Scott decision, where, it seems to me, the idea is boldly suggested that slavery is better than freedom. The Republican party, on the contrary, hold that this government was instituted to secure the blessings of freedom, and that slavery is an unqualified evil to the negro, to the white man, to the soil, and to the State. Regarding it an evil, they will not molest it in the States where it exists; they will not overlook the constitutional guards which our forefathers have placed around it; they will do nothing which can give proper offence to those who hold slaves by legal sanction; but they will use every constitutional method to prevent the evil from becoming larger and involving more negroes, more white men, more soil, and more States in its deplorable consequences. They will, if possible, place it where the public mind shall

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rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate peaceable extinction, in God's own good time. And to this end they will, if possible, restore the government to the policy of the fathers---the policy of preserving the new territories from the baneful influence of human bondage, as the Northwestern territories were sought to be preserved by the ordinance of 1787 and the compromise act of 1820. They will oppose, in all its length and breadth, the modern Democratic idea that slavery is as good as freedom, and ought to have room for expansion all over the continent, if people can be found to carry it. All, or very nearly all, of Judge Douglas' arguments about ``Popular Sovereignty,'' as he calls it, are logical if you admit that slavery is as good and as right as freedom; and not one of them is worth a rush if you deny it. This is the difference, as I understand it, between the Republican and the Democratic parties; and I ask the gentleman, and all of you, whether his question is not satisfactorily answered.---[Cries of ``Yes, yes.'']


In this connection let me read to you the opinions of our old leader Henry Clay, on the question of whether slavery is as good as freedom. The extract which I propose to read is contained [in]2Jump to section a letter written by Mr. Clay in his old age, as late as 1849. The circumstances which called it forth were these. A convention had been called to form a new constitution for the State of Kentucky. The old Constitution had been adopted in the year 1799---half a century before, when Mr. Clay was a young man just rising into public notice. As long ago as the adoption of the old Constitution, Mr. Clay had been the earnest advocate of a system of gradual emancipation and colonization of the state of Kentucky. And again in his old age, in the maturity of his great mind, we find the same wise project still uppermost in his thoughts. Let me read a few passages from his letter of 1849: ``I know there are those who draw an argument in favor of slavery from the alleged intellectual inferiority of the black race. Whether this argument is founded in fact or not, I will not now stop to inquire, but merely say that if it proves anything at all, it proves too much. It proves that among the white races of the world any one might properly be enslaved by any other which had made greater advances in civilization. And, if this rule applies to nations there is no reason why it should not apply to individuals; and it might easily be proved that the wisest man in the world could rightfully reduce all other men and women to bondage,'' &c., &c. [Mr. Lincoln read at considerable

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length from Mr. Clay's letter---earnestly pressing the material advantages and moral considerations in favor of gradual emancipation in Kentucky.]


Let us inquire, what 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 familiar 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 are 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 whole 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

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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!---[Great applause and laughter.]


My friends, I have endeavored to show you the logical consequences of the Dred Scott decision, which holds that the people of a Territory cannot prevent the establishment of Slavery in their midst. I have stated what cannot be gainsayed---that the grounds upon which this decision is made are equally applicable to the Free States as to the Free Territories, and that the peculiar reasons put forth by Judge Douglas for endorsing this decision, commit him in advance to the next decision, and to all other decisions emanating from the same source. Now, when by all these means you have succeeded in dehumanizing the negro; when you have put him down, and made it forever impossible for him to be but as the beasts of the field; when you have extinguished his soul, and placed him where the ray of hope is blown out in darkness like that which broods over the spirits of the damned; are you quite sure the demon which you have roused will not turn and rend you? What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, the guns of our war steamers, or the strength of our gallant and disciplined army. These are not our reliance against a resumption of tyranny in our fair land. All of them may be turned against our liberties, without making us stronger or weaker for the struggle. Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms. Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, every where. Destroy this spirit, and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors. Familiarize yourselves 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. And let me tell you, all these things are prepared for you with the logic of history, if the elections shall promise that the next Dred Scott decision and all

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future decisions will be quietly acquiesced in by the people.---[Loud applause.]


[1]   Alton Weekly Courier, September 16, 1858. Brackets are in the source unless otherwise noted.

[2]   Not in the source.

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