October 16, 1854 – Lincoln Speaks at Peoria

The Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed on May 30, 1854, was “one of the most explosive congressional statutes of American history” according to Lewis Lehrman, whose book Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point focuses on Lincoln’s reaction to this legislation. The act repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which restricted slavery to territory south of the 36 degrees and 30 minutes parallel) and mandated that “popular sovereignty” would decide whether Kansas and Nebraska would come into the Union as slave or free states.

Judge Stephen Douglas, Senator from Illinois, had pushed through the Kansas-Nebraska Act as part of a quid pro quo with Southerners so he could get a transcontinental railroad built along a northern route. Had he failed, Attorney Abraham Lincoln might never have gotten back into politics, having “retired” from that pursuit after finding that his success didn’t match his ambition.

Lincoln and Douglas

Lincoln and Douglas

But Lincoln could not sit by and let the great moral wrong, as he saw it, of the extension of slavery prevail. He hated slavery, and he loved the Union, and thought that the Kansas-Nebraska Act threatened to destroy the latter by extending the former. Separation into two nations was not an option for Lincoln. He believed, as Lehrman explains, “if the American Union were divided between slave states and free states, the extinction of slavery in the South would become implausible.” Thus he began his crusade to save “the last best hope of earth.”

The speech he made at Peoria, Illinois on October 16, 1854, running over three hours, is considered to be the most seminal in Lincoln’s career, containing most of the ideas that informed his politics and presidency ever after. Because of the importance of this speech; the respect it is accorded by historians; and the rhetoric that would be later refined and reiterated by Lincoln in other platforms, Lehrman undertook a detailed analysis of this speech along with its historical antecedents. He follows his analysis with a reproduction of the speech in full. The book is repetitive, but the complexity of the arguments made by Lincoln and Douglas merits multiple approaches from different angles.

Lincoln was trying to establish a civil religion, with the Founding Fathers as the Patriarchs and the Declaration of Independence as scripture. The underlying principle of this religion was that “all men are created equal.” Lincoln acknowledged that the Founders had difficulty executing policies fully reflecting their loathing of slavery in light of the compromises necessary for union, but argued that their words and enactments signaled the intent that slavery should “wither away” as soon as possible.

Lincoln contended that the Founders “meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence. …” In other words, the purpose of law is to establish normative standards, and act as a bridge, from that which is, to that which ought to be. This philosophy was reified in the Declaration of Independence.

At Peoria, Lincoln laid out his objections to slavery from historical, moral, logical, and political perspectives. Lehrman emphasizes Lincoln’s moral arguments, but Lincoln wasn’t exactly addressing an audience of abolitionists. Fortunately, Lincoln had more than one arrow in his quiver.

First he cited the actions taken by the Founders that proved they wanted slavery to die out (such as the ban against slave trading and the forbidding of slavery in the new Northwest Territories). He asserted that “the argument of ‘necessity’ was the only argument they ever admitted in favor of slavery.”

Next he rebutted the legitimacy of the claim that popular sovereignty was justified [on the slavery issue] by the founding principle of “consent of the governed.” Popular sovereignty for Kansas and Nebraska meant that the people themselves in those territories could decide whether or not to allow slavery. Lincoln noted that blacks certainly wouldn’t give such consent. And aren’t blacks men? Lincoln maintained that whites couldn’t possibly think slaves were not men and only property; else why would “this vast amount of property [free black men] be running about without owners? We do not see horses or free cattle running at large.”

Abraham Lincoln, 1854

Furthermore, he charged, the ostensible neutrality [Lincoln called it “declared indifference”] of popular sovereignty merely hides “covert real zeal for the spread of slavery,” and establishes “no right principle of action but self-interest.” By way of explanation, he denied that whites would necessarily opt not to take advantage of free slave labor if given the opportunity, or that blacks would have the wherewithal to defend themselves from the practice. (The previous week in Bloomington Lincoln averred that Southern slaveholders were neither better nor worse than the Northerners: “If we were situated as they are, we should act no better than they…. We never ought to lose sight of this fact in discussing the subject.”)

He also reminded his audience that slave states got extra votes in Congress from having slaves, with their influence double that of the number of their free citizens. (In order to ascertain the number of Representatives and presidential electors a state could have, five slaves were counted as equal to three whites.) Not only did this confer disproportionate power on the South, but it also thereby reduced each vote of free white men in the North by half! “It is an absolute truth,” he said, “that there is no voter in any slave State, but who has more legal power in the government, than any voter in any free State.” Lincoln wryly observed that “whether I shall be a whole man, or only, the half of one, in comparison with others, is a question in which I am somewhat concerned…” This de facto result of slavery, he charged, was just not fair.

He emphasized that the rest of the world looked to America as a beacon of liberty, but “our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust.” He advocated that voters help “turn slavery from its claims of ’moral right,’ back upon its existing legal rights, and its arguments of ‘necessity’” so that “we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.”

This book is not an easy account of the ideological contours of Lincoln’s thought. It requires hard work on the part of the reader. In return, however, you are rewarded with a much deeper understanding of the passions that drove Lincoln and that shaped his policies in the critical years in which he guided our Ship of State.

Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point by Lewis E. Lehrman published by Stackpole Books, 2008

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