The Writings of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 1-7


iSpeech

Lincoln opened the campaign on his side at the convention which
nominated him as the Republican candidate for the senatorship,
with a memorable saying which sounded like a shout from the
watchtower of history: "A house divided against itself cannot
stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half
slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved.
I do not expect the house to fall, but I expect it will cease to
be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.
Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of
it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief
that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates
will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all
the States,--old as well as new, North as well as South." Then
he proceeded to point out that the Nebraska doctrine combined
with the Dred Scott decision worked in the direction of making
the nation "all slave." Here was the "irrepressible conflict"
spoken of by Seward a short time later, in a speech made famous
mainly by that phrase. If there was any new discovery in it, the
right of priority was Lincoln's. This utterance proved not only
his statesmanlike conception of the issue, but also, in his
situation as a candidate, the firmness of his moral courage. The
friends to whom he had read the draught of this speech before he
delivered it warned him anxiously that its delivery might be
fatal to his success in the election. This was shrewd advice, in
the ordinary sense. While a slaveholder could threaten disunion
with impunity, the mere suggestion that the existence of slavery
was incompatible with freedom in the Union would hazard the
political chances of any public man in the North. But Lincoln
was inflexible. "It is true," said he, "and I will deliver it as
written.... I would rather be defeated with these expressions in
my speech held up and discussed before the people than be
victorious without them." The statesman was right in his far-
seeing judgment and his conscientious statement of the truth, but
the practical politicians were also right in their prediction of
the immediate effect. Douglas instantly seized upon the
declaration that a house divided against itself cannot stand as
the main objective point of his attack, interpreting it as an
incitement to a "relentless sectional war," and there is no doubt
that the persistent reiteration of this charge served to frighten
not a few timid souls.

Lincoln constantly endeavored to bring the moral and
philosophical side of the subject to the foreground. "Slavery is
wrong" was the keynote of all his speeches. To Douglas's
glittering sophism that the right of the people of a Territory to
have slavery or not, as they might desire, was in accordance with
the principle of true popular sovereignty, he made the pointed
answer: "Then true popular sovereignty, according to Senator
Douglas, means that, when one man makes another man his slave, no
third man shall be allowed to object." To Douglas's argument
that the principle which demanded that the people of a Territory
should be permitted to choose whether they would have slavery or
not "originated when God made man, and placed good and evil
before him, allowing him to choose upon his own responsibility,"
Lincoln solemnly replied: "No; God--did not place good and evil
before man, telling him to make his choice. On the contrary, God
did tell him there was one tree of the fruit of which he should
not eat, upon pain of death." He did not, however, place himself
on the most advanced ground taken by the radical anti-slavery
men. He admitted that, under the Constitution, "the Southern
people were entitled to a Congressional fugitive slave law,"
although he did not approve the fugitive slave law then existing.
He declared also that, if slavery were kept out of the
Territories during their territorial existence, as it should be,
and if then the people of any Territory, having a fair chance and
a clear field, should do such an extraordinary thing as to adopt
a slave constitution, uninfluenced by the actual presence of the
institution among them, he saw no alternative but to admit such a
Territory into the Union. He declared further that, while he
should be exceedingly glad to see slavery abolished in the
District of Columbia, he would, as a member of Congress, with his
present views, not endeavor to bring on that abolition except on
condition that emancipation be gradual, that it be approved by
the decision of a majority of voters in the District, and that
compensation be made to unwilling owners. On every available
occasion, he pronounced himself in favor of the deportation and
colonization of the blacks, of course with their consent. He
repeatedly disavowed any wish on his part to have social and
political equality established between whites and blacks. On
this point he summed up his views in a reply to Douglas's
assertion that the Declaration of Independence, in speaking of
all men as being created equal, did not include the negroes,
saying: " I do not understand the Declaration of Independence to
mean that all men were created equal in all respects. They are
not equal in color. But I believe that it does mean to declare
that all men are equal in some respects; they are equal in their
right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

With regard to some of these subjects Lincoln modified his
position at a later period, and it has been suggested that he
would have professed more advanced principles in his debates with
Douglas, had he not feared thereby to lose votes. This view can
hardly be sustained. Lincoln had the courage of his opinions,
but he was not a radical. The man who risked his election by
delivering, against the urgent protest of his friends, the speech
about "the house divided against itself" would not have shrunk
from the expression of more extreme views, had he really
entertained them. It is only fair to assume that he said what at
the time he really thought, and that if, subsequently, his
opinions changed, it was owing to new conceptions of good policy
and of duty brought forth by an entirely new set of circumstances
and exigencies. It is characteristic that he continued to adhere
to the impracticable colonization plan even after the
Emancipation Proclamation had already been issued.

But in this contest Lincoln proved himself not only a debater,
but also a political strategist of the first order. The "kind,
amiable, and intelligent gentleman," as Douglas had been pleased
to call him, was by no means as harmless as a dove. He possessed
an uncommon share of that worldly shrewdness which not seldom
goes with genuine simplicity of character; and the political
experience gathered in the Legislature and in Congress, and in
many election campaigns, added to his keen intuitions, had made
him as far-sighted a judge of the probable effects of a public
man's sayings or doings upon the popular mind, and as accurate a
calculator in estimating political chances and forecasting
results, as could be found among the party managers in Illinois.
And now he perceived keenly the ugly dilemma in which Douglas
found himself, between the Dred Scott decision, which declared
the right to hold slaves to exist in the Territories by virtue of
the Federal Constitution, and his "great principle of popular
sovereignty," according to which the people of a Territory, if
they saw fit, were to have the right to exclude slavery
therefrom. Douglas was twisting and squirming to the best of his
ability to avoid the admission that the two were incompatible.
The question then presented itself if it would be good policy for
Lincoln to force Douglas to a clear expression of his opinion as
to whether, the Dred Scott decision notwithstanding, "the people
of a Territory could in any lawful way exclude slavery from its
limits prior to the formation of a State constitution." Lincoln
foresaw and predicted what Douglas would answer: that slavery
could not exist in a Territory unless the people desired it and
gave it protection by territorial legislation. In an improvised
caucus the policy of pressing the interrogatory on Douglas was
discussed. Lincoln's friends unanimously advised against it,
because the answer foreseen would sufficiently commend Douglas to
the people of Illinois to insure his re-election to the Senate.
But Lincoln persisted. "I am after larger game," said he. "If
Douglas so answers, he can never be President, and the battle of
1860 is worth a hundred of this." The interrogatory was pressed
upon Douglas, and Douglas did answer that, no matter what the
decision of the Supreme Court might be on the abstract question,
the people of a Territory had the lawful means to introduce or
exclude slavery by territorial legislation friendly or unfriendly
to the institution. Lincoln found it easy to show the absurdity
of the proposition that, if slavery were admitted to exist of
right in the Territories by virtue of the supreme law, the
Federal Constitution, it could be kept out or expelled by an
inferior law, one made by a territorial Legislature. Again the
judgment of the politicians, having only the nearest object in
view, proved correct: Douglas was reelected to the Senate. But
Lincoln's judgment proved correct also: Douglas, by resorting to
the expedient of his "unfriendly legislation doctrine," forfeited
his last chance of becoming President of the United States. He
might have hoped to win, by sufficient atonement, his pardon from
the South for his opposition to the Lecompton Constitution; but
that he taught the people of the Territories a trick by which
they could defeat what the proslavery men considered a
constitutional right, and that he called that trick lawful, this
the slave power would never forgive. The breach between the
Southern and the Northern Democracy was thenceforth irremediable
and fatal.

The Presidential election of 1860 approached. The struggle in
Kansas, and the debates in Congress which accompanied it, and
which not unfrequently provoked violent outbursts, continually
stirred the popular excitement. Within the Democratic party
raged the war of factions. The national Democratic convention
met at Charleston on the 23d of April, 1860. After a struggle of
ten days between the adherents and the opponents of Douglas,
during which the delegates from the cotton States had withdrawn,
the convention adjourned without having nominated any candidates,
to meet again in Baltimore on the 18th of June. There was no
prospect, however, of reconciling the hostile elements. It
appeared very probable that the Baltimore convention would
nominate Douglas, while the seceding Southern Democrats would set
up a candidate of their own, representing extreme proslavery
principles.

Meanwhile, the national Republican convention assembled at
Chicago on the 16th of May, full of enthusiasm and hope. The
situation was easily understood. The Democrats would have the
South. In order to succeed in the election, the Republicans had
to win, in addition to the States carried by Fremont in 1856,
those that were classed as "doubtful,"--New Jersey, Pennsylvania,
and Indiana, or Illinois in the place of either New Jersey or
Indiana. The most eminent Republican statesmen and leaders of
the time thought of for the Presidency were Seward and Chase,
both regarded as belonging to the more advanced order of
antislavery men. Of the two, Seward had the largest following,
mainly from New York, New England, and the Northwest. Cautious
politicians doubted seriously whether Seward, to whom some
phrases in his speeches had undeservedly given the reputation of
a reckless radical, would be able to command the whole Republican
vote in the doubtful States. Besides, during his long public
career he had made enemies. It was evident that those who
thought Seward's nomination too hazardous an experiment would
consider Chase unavailable for the same reason. They would then
look round for an "available" man; and among the "available" men
Abraham Lincoln was easily discovered to stand foremost. His
great debate with Douglas had given him a national reputation.
The people of the East being eager to see the hero of so dramatic
a contest, he had been induced to visit several Eastern cities,
and had astonished and delighted large and distinguished
audiences with speeches of singular power and originality. An
address delivered by him in the Cooper Institute in New York,
before an audience containing a large number of important
persons, was then, and has ever since been, especially praised as
one of the most logical and convincing political speeches ever
made in this country. The people of the West had grown proud of
him as a distinctively Western great man, and his popularity at
home had some peculiar features which could be expected to
exercise a potent charm. Nor was Lincoln's name as that of an
available candidate left to the chance of accidental discovery.
It is indeed not probable that he thought of himself as a
Presidential possibility, during his contest with Douglas for the
senatorship. As late as April, 1859, he had written to a friend
who had approached him on the subject that he did not think
himself fit for the Presidency. The Vice-Presidency was then the
limit of his ambition. But some of his friends in Illinois took
the matter seriously in hand, and Lincoln, after some hesitation,
then formally authorized "the use of his name." The matter was
managed with such energy and excellent judgment that, in the
convention, he had not only the whole vote of Illinois to start
with, but won votes on all sides without offending any rival. A
large majority of the opponents of Seward went over to Abraham
Lincoln, and gave him the nomination on the third ballot. As had
been foreseen, Douglas was nominated by one wing of the
Democratic party at Baltimore, while the extreme proslavery wing
put Breckinridge into the field as its candidate. After a
campaign conducted with the energy of genuine enthusiasm on the
antislavery side the united Republicans defeated the divided
Democrats, and Lincoln was elected President by a majority of
fifty-seven votes in the electoral colleges.

The result of the election had hardly been declared when the
disunion movement in the South, long threatened and carefully
planned and prepared, broke out in the shape of open revolt, and
nearly a month before Lincoln could be inaugurated as President
of the United States seven Southern States had adopted ordinances
of secession, formed an independent confederacy, framed a
constitution for it, and elected Jefferson Davis its president,
expecting the other slaveholding States soon to join them. On
the 11th of February, 1861, Lincoln left Springfield for
Washington; having, with characteristic simplicity, asked his law
partner not to change the sign of the firm "Lincoln and Herndon "
during the four years unavoidable absence of the senior partner,
and having taken an affectionate and touching leave of his
neighbors.

The situation which confronted the new President was appalling:
the larger part of the South in open rebellion, the rest of the
slaveholding States wavering preparing to follow; the revolt
guided by determined, daring, and skillful leaders; the Southern
people, apparently full of enthusiasm and military spirit,
rushing to arms, some of the forts and arsenals already in their
possession; the government of the Union, before the accession of
the new President, in the hands of men some of whom actively
sympathized with the revolt, while others were hampered by their
traditional doctrines in dealing with it, and really gave it aid
and comfort by their irresolute attitude; all the departments
full of "Southern sympathizers" and honeycombed with disloyalty;
the treasury empty, and the public credit at the lowest ebb; the
arsenals ill supplied with arms, if not emptied by treacherous
practices; the regular army of insignificant strength, dispersed
over an immense surface, and deprived of some of its best
officers by defection; the navy small and antiquated. But that
was not all. The threat of disunion had so often been resorted
to by the slave power in years gone by that most Northern people
had ceased to believe in its seriousness. But, when disunion
actually appeared as a stern reality, something like a chill
swept through the whole Northern country. A cry for union and
peace at any price rose on all sides. Democratic partisanship
reiterated this cry with vociferous vehemence, and even many
Republicans grew afraid of the victory they had just achieved at
the ballot-box, and spoke of compromise. The country fairly
resounded with the noise of "anticoercion meetings." Expressions
of firm resolution from determined antislavery men were indeed
not wanting, but they were for a while almost drowned by a
bewildering confusion of discordant voices. Even this was not
all. Potent influences in Europe, with an ill-concealed desire
for the permanent disruption of the American Union, eagerly
espoused the cause of the Southern seceders, and the two
principal maritime powers of the Old World seemed only to be
waiting for a favorable opportunity to lend them a helping hand.

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