The Writings of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 1-7

Now, it so happens that these amendments were framed by the first
Congress which sat under the Constitution–the identical Congress
which passed the act already mentioned, enforcing the prohibition of
slavery in the Northwestern Territory. Not only was it the same
Congress, but they were the identical same individual men who, at the
same session, and at the same time within the session, had under
consideration, and in progress toward maturity, these Constitutional
amendments, and this act prohibiting slavery in all the territory the
nation then owned. The Constitutional amendments were introduced
before and passed after the act enforcing the Ordinance of ’87; so
that, during the whole pendency of the act to enforce the Ordinance,
the Constitutional amendments were also pending.

The seventy-six members of that Congress, including sixteen of the
framers of the original Constitution, as before stated, were
pre-eminently our fathers who framed that part of “the Government
under which we live,” which is now claimed as forbidding the Federal
Government to control slavery in the Federal Territories.

Is it not a little presumptuous in any one at this day to affirm that
the two things which that Congress deliberately framed, and carried
to maturity at the same time, are absolutely inconsistent with each
other? And does not such affirmation become impudently absurd when
coupled with the other affirmation from the same mouth, that those
who did the two things alleged to be inconsistent understood whether
they really were inconsistent better than we–better than he who
affirms that they are inconsistent?

It is surely safe to assume that the thirty-nine framers of the
original Constitution, and the seventy-six members of the Congress
which framed the amendments thereto, taken together, do certainly
include those who may be fairly called “our fathers who framed the
Government under which we live.” And, so assuming, I defy any man to
show that any one of them ever, in his whole life, declared that, in
his understanding, any proper division of local from Federal
authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal
Government to control as to slavery in the Federal Territories. I go
a step further. I defy any one to show that any living man in the
world ever did, prior to the beginning of the present century (and I
might almost say prior to the beginning of the last half of the
present century), declare that, in his understanding, any proper
division of local from Federal authority, or any part of the
Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control as to slavery
in the Federal Territories. To those who now so declare, I give not
only “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live,” but
with them all other living men within the century in which it was
framed, among whom to search, and they shall not be able to find the
evidence of a single man agreeing with them.

Now and here let me guard a little against being misunderstood. I do
not mean to say we are bound to follow implicitly in whatever our
fathers did. To do so would be to discard all the lights of current
experience to reject all progress, all improvement. What I do say is
that, if we would supplant the opinions and policy of our fathers in
any case, we should do so upon evidence so conclusive, and argument
so clear, that even their great authority, fairly considered and
weighed, cannot stand; and most surely not in a case whereof we
ourselves declare they understood the question better than we.

If any man at this day sincerely believes that proper division of
local from Federal authority, or any part of the Constitution,
forbids the Federal Government to control as to slavery in the
Federal Territories, he is right to say so, and to enforce his
position by all truthful evidence and fair argument which he can.
But he has no right to mislead others who have less access to
history, and less leisure to study it, into the false belief that
“our fathers who framed the Government under which we live” were of
the same opinion thus substituting falsehood and deception for
truthful evidence and fair argument. If any man at this day
sincerely believes “our fathers, who framed the Government under
which we live,” used and applied principles, in other cases, which
ought to have led them to understand that a proper division of local
from Federal authority, or some part of the Constitution, forbids the
Federal Government to control as to slavery in the Federal
Territories, he is right to say so. But he should, at the same time,
brave the responsibility of declaring that, in his opinion, he
understands their principles better than they did themselves; and
especially should he not shirk that responsibility by asserting that
they “understood the question just as well, and even better than we
do now.”

But enough! Let all who believe that “our fathers, who framed the
Government under which we live, understood this question just as
well, and even better than we do now,” speak as they spoke, and act
as they acted upon it. This is all Republicans ask–all Republicans
desire–in relation to slavery. As those fathers marked it, so let
it be again marked, as an evil not to be extended, but to be
tolerated and protected only because of, and so far as, its actual
presence among us makes that toleration and protection a necessity.
Let all the guaranties those fathers gave it be not grudgingly, but
fully and fairly maintained. For this Republicans contend, and with
this, so far as I know or believe, they will be content.

And now, if they would listen–as I suppose they will not–I would
address a few words to the Southern people.

I would say to them: You consider yourselves a reasonable and a just
people; and I consider that in the general qualities of reason and
justice you are not inferior to any other people. Still, when you
speak of us Republicans, you do so only to denounce us as reptiles,
or, at the best, as no better than outlaws. You will grant a hearing
to pirates or murderers, but nothing like it to “Black Republicans.”
In all your contentions with one another, each of you deems an
unconditional condemnation of “Black Republicanism” as the first
thing to be attended to. Indeed, such condemnation of us seems to be
an indispensable prerequisite license, so to speak among you, to be
admitted or permitted to speak at all: Now; can you, or not, be
prevailed upon to pause, and to consider whether this is quite just
to us, or even to yourselves? Bring forward your charges and
specifications, and then be patient long enough to hear us deny or

You say we are sectional. We deny it. That makes an issue; and the
burden of proof is upon you. You produce your proof; and what is it?
Why, that our party has no existence in your section–gets no votes
in your section. The fact is substantially true; but does it prove
the issue? If it does, then in case we should, without change of
principle, begin to get votes in your section, we should thereby
cease to be sectional. You cannot escape this conclusion; and yet,
are you willing to abide by it? If you are, you will probably soon
find that we have ceased to be sectional, for we shall get votes in
your section this very year. You will then begin to discover, as the
truth plainly is, that your proof, does not touch the issue. The fact
that we get no votes in your section is a fact of your making, and
not of ours. And if there be fault in that fact, that fault is
primarily yours, and remains so until you show that we repel you by,
some wrong principle or practice. If we do repel you by any wrong
principle or practice, the fault is ours; but this brings you to
where you ought to have started to a discussion of the right or wrong
of our principle. If our principle, put in practice, would wrong
your section for the benefit of ours, or for any other object, then
our principle, and we with it, are sectional, and are justly opposed
and denounced as such. Meet us, then, on the question of whether our
principle, put in practice, would wrong your section; and so meet us
as if it were possible that something may be said on our side. Do
you accept the challenge? No! Then you really believe that the
principle which “our fathers who framed the Government under which we
live” thought so clearly right as to adopt it, and indorse it again
and again, upon their official oaths, is in fact so clearly wrong as
to demand your condemnation without a moment’s consideration.

Some of you delight to flaunt in our faces the warning against
sectional parties given by Washington in his Farewell Address. Less
than eight years before Washington gave that warning, he had, as
President of the United States, approved and signed an act of
Congress enforcing the prohibition of slavery in the Northwestern
Territory, which act embodied the policy of the Government upon that
subject up to, and at, the very moment he penned that warning; and
about one year after he penned it, he wrote La Fayette that he
considered that prohibition a wise measure, expressing in the same
connection his hope that we should at some time have a confederacy of
free States.

Bearing this in mind, and seeing that sectionalism has since arisen
upon this same subject, is that warning a weapon in your hands
against us, or in our hands against you? Could Washington himself
speak, would he cast the blame of that sectionalism upon us, who
sustain his policy, or upon you, who repudiate it? We respect that
warning of Washington, and we commend it to you, together with his
example pointing to the right application of it.

But you say you are conservative–eminently conservative–while we
are revolutionary, destructive, or something, of the sort. What is
conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against a
new and untried? We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy
on the point in controversy which was adopted by “our fathers who
framed the Government under which we live”; while you with one accord
reject, and scout, and spit upon that old policy and insist upon
substituting something new. True, you disagree among yourselves as
to what that substitute shall be. You are divided on new
propositions and plans, but you are unanimous in rejecting and
denouncing the old policy of the fathers. Some of you are for
reviving the foreign slave trade; some for a Congressional slave code
for the Territories; some for Congress forbidding the Territories to
prohibit slavery within their limits; some for maintaining slavery in
the Territories through the judiciary; some for the “gur-reat
pur-rinciple” that “if one man would enslave another, no third man
should object,” fantastically called “popular sovereignty”; but never
a man among you in favor of Federal prohibition of slavery in Federal
Territories, according to the practice of “our fathers who framed the
Government under which we live.” Not one of all your various plans
can show a precedent or an advocate in the century within which our
Government originated. Consider, then, whether your claim of
conservatism for yourselves, and your charge of destructiveness
against us, are based on the most clear and stable foundations.

Again: You say we have made the slavery question more prominent than
it formerly was. We deny it. We admit that it is more prominent,
but we deny that we made it so. It was not we, but you, who
discarded the old policy of the fathers. We resisted and still
resist your innovation; and thence comes the greater prominence of
the question. Would you have that question reduced to its former
proportions? Go back to that old policy. What has been will be
again, under the same conditions. If you would have the peace of the
old times, readopt the precepts and policy of the old times.

You charge that we stir up insurrections among your slaves. We deny
it; and what is your proof’? Harper’s Ferry! John Brown!! John
Brown was no Republican; and you have failed to implicate a single
Republican in his Harper’s Ferry enterprise. If any member of our
party is guilty in that matter you know it or you do not know it. If
you do know it, you are inexcusable for not designating the man and
proving the fact. If you do not know it, you are inexcusable for
asserting it, and especially for persisting in the assertion after
you have tried and failed to make the proof. You need not be told
that persisting in a charge which one does not know to be true is
simply malicious slander.

Some of you admit that no Republican designedly aided or encouraged
the Harper’s Ferry affair, but still insist that our doctrines and
declarations necessarily lead to such results. We do not believe it.
We know we hold to no doctrine, and make no declaration, which were
not held to and made by our fathers who framed the Government under
which we live” You never dealt fairly by us in relation to this
affair. When it occurred, some important State elections were near
at hand, and you were in evident glee with the belief that, by
charging the blame upon us, you could get an advantage of us in those
elections. The elections came, and your expectations were not quite
fulfilled. Every Republican man knew that, as to himself at least,
your charge was a slander, and he was not much inclined by it to cast
his vote in your favor. Republican doctrines and declarations are
accompanied with a continued protest against any interference
whatever with your slaves, or with you about your slaves. Surely,
this does not encourage them to revolt. True, we do, in common with
“our fathers, who framed the Government under which we live,” declare
our belief that slavery is wrong; but the slaves do not hear us
declare even this. For any thing we say or do, the slaves would
scarcely know there is a Republican party. I believe they would not,
in fact, generally know it but for your misrepresentations of us in
their hearing. In your political contests among yourselves, each
faction charges the other with sympathy with Black Republicanism; and
then, to give point to the charge, defines Black Republicanism to
simply be insurrection, blood, and thunder among the slaves.

Slave insurrections are no more common now than they were before the
Republican party was organized. What induced the Southampton
insurrection, twenty-eight years ago, in which, at least, three times
as many lives were lost as at Harper’s Ferry? You can scarcely
stretch your very elastic fancy to the conclusion that Southampton
was “got up by Black Republicanism.” In the present state of things
in the United States, I do not think a general or even a very
extensive slave insurrection is possible. The indispensable concert
of action cannot be attained. The slaves have no means of rapid
communication; nor can incendiary freemen, black or white, supply it.
The explosive materials are everywhere in parcels; but there neither
are, nor can be supplied the indispensable connecting trains.

Much is said by Southern people about the affection of slaves for
their masters and mistresses; and a part of it, at least, is true. A
plot for an uprising could scarcely be devised and communicated to
twenty individuals before some one of them, to save the life of a
favorite master or mistress, would divulge it. This is the rule; and
the slave revolution in Hayti was not an exception to it, but a case
occurring under peculiar circumstances. The gunpowder plot of
British history, though not connected with slaves, was more in point.
In that case, only about twenty were admitted to the secret; and yet
one of them, in his anxiety to save a friend, betrayed the plot to
that friend, and, by consequence, averted the calamity. Occasional
poisonings from the kitchen, and open or stealthy assassinations in
the field, and local revolts, extending to a score or so, will
continue to occur as the natural results of slavery; but no general
insurrection of slaves, as I think, can happen in this country for a
long time. Whoever much fears or much hopes for such an event will
be alike disappointed.

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