The Writings of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 1-7

In the beginning of the year 1854, a new policy was inaugurated with
the avowed object and confident promise that it would entirely and
forever put an end to the slavery agitation. It was again and again
declared that under this policy, when once successfully established,
the country would be forever rid of this whole question. Yet under
the operation of that policy this agitation has not only not ceased,
but it has been constantly augmented. And this too, although, from
the day of its introduction, its friends, who promised that it would
wholly end all agitation, constantly insisted, down to the time that
the Lecompton Bill was introduced, that it was working admirably, and
that its inevitable tendency was to remove the question forever from
the politics of the country. Can you call to mind any Democratic
speech, made after the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, down to the
time of the Lecompton Bill, in which it was not predicted that the
slavery agitation was just at an end, that “the abolition excitement
was played out,” “the Kansas question was dead,” “they have made the
most they can out of this question and it is now forever settled”?
But since the Lecompton Bill no Democrat, within my experience, has
ever pretended that he could see the end. That cry has been dropped.
They themselves do not pretend, now, that the agitation of this
subject has come to an end yet.

The truth is that this question is one of national importance, and we
cannot help dealing with it; we must do something about it, whether
we will or not. We cannot avoid it; the subject is one we cannot
avoid considering; we can no more avoid it than a man can live
without eating. It is upon us; it attaches to the body politic as
much and closely as the natural wants attach to our natural bodies.
Now I think it important that this matter should be taken up in
earnest, and really settled: And one way to bring about a true
settlement of the question is to understand its true magnitude.

There have been many efforts made to settle it. Again and again it
has been fondly hoped that it was settled; but every time it breaks
out afresh, and more violently than ever. It was settled, our
fathers hoped, by the Missouri Compromise, but it did not stay
settled. Then the compromises of 1850 were declared to be a full and
final settlement of the question. The two great parties, each in
national convention, adopted resolutions declaring that the
settlement made by the Compromise of 1850 was a finality that it
would last forever. Yet how long before it was unsettled again?
It broke out again in 1854, and blazed higher and raged more
furiously than ever before, and the agitation has not rested since.

These repeated settlements must have some faults about them. There
must be some inadequacy in their very nature to the purpose to which
they were designed. We can only speculate as to where that fault,
that inadequacy, is, but we may perhaps profit by past experiences.

I think that one of the causes of these repeated failures is that our
best and greatest men have greatly underestimated the size of this
question. They have constantly brought forward small cures for great
sores–plasters too small to cover the wound. That is one reason
that all settlements have proved temporary–so evanescent.

Look at the magnitude of this subject: One sixth of our population,
in round numbers–not quite one sixth, and yet more than a seventh,–
about one sixth of the whole population of the United States are
slaves. The owners of these slaves consider them property. The
effect upon the minds of the owners is that of property, and nothing
else it induces them to insist upon all that will favorably affect
its value as property, to demand laws and institutions and a public
policy that shall increase and secure its value, and make it durable,
lasting, and universal. The effect on the minds of the owners is to
persuade them that there is no wrong in it. The slaveholder does not
like to be considered a mean fellow for holding that species of
property, and hence, he has to struggle within himself and sets about
arguing himself into the belief that slavery is right. The property
influences his mind. The dissenting minister who argued some
theological point with one of the established church was always met
with the reply, “I can’t see it so.” He opened a Bible and pointed
him a passage, but the orthodox minister replied, “I can’t see it
so.” Then he showed him a single word –“Can you see that?” “Yes, I
see it,” was the reply. The dissenter laid a guinea over the word
and asked, “Do you see it now?” So here. Whether the owners of this
species of property do really see it as it is, it is not for me to
say, but if they do, they see it as it is through two thousand
millions of dollars, and that is a pretty thick coating. Certain it
is that they do not see it as we see it. Certain it is that this two
thousand millions of dollars, invested in this species of property,
all so concentrated that the mind can grasp it at once–this immense
pecuniary interest–has its influence upon their minds.

But here in Connecticut and at the North slavery does not exist, and
we see it through no such medium.

To us it appears natural to think that slaves are human beings; men,
not property; that some of the things, at least, stated about men in
the Declaration of Independence apply to them as well as to us.
I say we think, most of us, that this charter of freedom applies to
the slaves as well as to ourselves; that the class of arguments put
forward to batter down that idea are also calculated to break down
the very idea of a free government, even for white men, and to
undermine the very foundations of free society. We think slavery a
great moral wrong, and, while we do not claim the right to touch it
where it exists, we wish to treat it as a wrong in the Territories,
where our votes will reach it. We think that a respect for
ourselves, a regard for future generations and for the God that made
us, require that we put down this wrong where our votes will properly
reach it. We think that species of labor an injury to free white men
–in short, we think slavery a great moral, social, and political
evil, tolerable only because, and so far as, its actual existence
makes it necessary to tolerate it, and that beyond that it ought to
be treated as a wrong.

Now these two ideas, the property idea that slavery is right, and the
idea that it is wrong, come into collision, and do actually produce
that irrepressible conflict which Mr. Seward has been so roundly
abused for mentioning. The two ideas conflict, and must conflict.

Again, in its political aspect, does anything in any way endanger the
perpetuity of this Union but that single thing, slavery? Many of our
adversaries are anxious to claim that they are specially devoted to
the Union, and take pains to charge upon us hostility to the Union.
Now we claim that we are the only true Union men, and we put to them
this one proposition: Whatever endangers this Union, save and except
slavery? Did any other thing ever cause a moment’s fear? All men
must agree that this thing alone has ever endangered the perpetuity
of the Union. But if it was threatened by any other influence, would
not all men say that the best thing that could be done, if we could
not or ought not to destroy it, would be at least to keep it from
growing any larger? Can any man believe, that the way to save the
Union is to extend and increase the only thing that threatens the
Union, and to suffer it to grow bigger and bigger?

Whenever this question shall be settled, it must be settled on some
philosophical basis. No policy that does not rest upon some
philosophical opinion can be permanently maintained. And hence there
are but two policies in regard to slavery that can be at all
maintained. The first, based on the property view that slavery is
right, conforms to that idea throughout, and demands that we shall do
everything for it that we ought to do if it were right. We must
sweep away all opposition, for opposition to the right is wrong; we
must agree that slavery is right, and we must adopt the idea that
property has persuaded the owner to believe that slavery is morally
right and socially elevating. This gives a philosophical basis for a
permanent policy of encouragement.

The other policy is one that squares with the idea that slavery is
wrong, and it consists in doing everything that we ought to do if it
is wrong. Now, I don’t wish to be misunderstood, nor to leave a gap
down to be misrepresented, even. I don’t mean that we ought to
attack it where it exists. To me it seems that if we were to form a
government anew, in view of the actual presence of slavery we should
find it necessary to frame just such a government as our fathers did-
-giving to the slaveholder the entire control where the system was
established, while we possessed the power to restrain it from going
outside those limits. From the necessities of the case we should be
compelled to form just such a government as our blessed fathers gave
us; and, surely, if they have so made it, that adds another reason
why we should let slavery alone where it exists.

If I saw a venomous snake crawling in the road, any man would say I
might seize the nearest stick and kill it; but if I found that snake
in bed with my children, that would be another question. I might
hurt the children more than the snake, and it might bite them. Much
more if I found it in bed with my neighbor’s children, and I had
bound myself by a solemn compact not to meddle with his children
under any circumstances, it would become me to let that particular
mode of getting rid of the gentleman alone. But if there was a bed
newly made up, to which the children were to be taken, and it was
proposed to take a batch of young snakes and put them there with
them, I take it no man would say there was any question how I ought
to decide!

That is just the case. The new Territories are the newly made bed to
which our children are to go, and it lies with the nation to say
whether they shall have snakes mixed up with them or not. It does
not seem as if there could be much hesitation what our policy should

Now I have spoken of a policy based on the idea that slavery is
wrong, and a policy based on the idea that it is right. But an
effort has been made for a policy that shall treat it as neither
right nor wrong. It is based upon utter indifference. Its leading
advocate [Douglas] has said, “I don’t care whether it be voted up or
down.” “It is merely a matter of dollars and cents.” “The Almighty
has drawn a line across this continent, on one side of which all soil
must forever be cultivated by slave labor, and on the other by free.”
“When the struggle is between the white man and the negro, I am for
the white man; when it is between the negro and the crocodile, I am
for the negro.” Its central idea is indifference. It holds that it
makes no more difference to us whether the Territories become free or
slave States than whether my neighbor stocks his farm with horned
cattle or puts in tobacco. All recognize this policy, the plausible
sugar-coated name of which is “popular sovereignty.”

This policy chiefly stands in the way of a permanent settlement of
the question. I believe there is no danger of its becoming the
permanent policy of the country, for it is based on a public
indifference. There is nobody that “don’t care.” All the people do
care one way or the other! I do not charge that its author, when he
says he “don’t care,” states his individual opinion; he only
expresses his policy for the government. I understand that he has
never said as an individual whether he thought slavery right or
wrong–and he is the only man in the nation that has not! Now such a
policy may have a temporary run; it may spring up as necessary to the
political prospects of some gentleman; but it is utterly baseless:
the people are not indifferent, and it can therefore have no
durability or permanence.

But suppose it could: Then it could be maintained only by a public
opinion that shall say, “We don’t care.” There must be a change in
public opinion; the public mind must be so far debauched as to square
with this policy of caring not at all. The people must come to
consider this as “merely a question of dollars and cents,” and to
believe that in some places the Almighty has made slavery necessarily
eternal. This policy can be brought to prevail if the people can be
brought round to say honestly, “We don’t care”; if not, it can never
be maintained. It is for you to say whether that can be done.

You are ready to say it cannot, but be not too fast! Remember what a
long stride has been taken since the repeal of the Missouri
Compromise! Do you know of any Democrat, of either branch of the
party–do you know one who declares that he believes that the
Declaration of Independence has any application to the negro? Judge
Taney declares that it has not, and Judge Douglas even vilifies me
personally and scolds me roundly for saying that the Declaration
applies to all men, and that negroes are men. Is there a Democrat
here who does not deny that the Declaration applies to the negro? Do
any of you know of one? Well, I have tried before perhaps fifty
audiences, some larger and some smaller than this, to find one such
Democrat, and never yet have I found one who said I did not place him
right in that. I must assume that Democrats hold that, and now, not
one of these Democrats can show that he said that five years ago! I
venture to defy the whole party to produce one man that ever uttered
the belief that the Declaration did not apply to negroes, before the
repeal of the Missouri Compromise! Four or five years ago we all
thought negroes were men, and that when “all men” were named, negroes
were included. But the whole Democratic party has deliberately taken
negroes from the class of men and put them in the class of brutes.
Turn it as you will it is simply the truth! Don’t be too hasty, then,
in saying that the people cannot be brought to this new doctrine, but
note that long stride. One more as long completes the journey from
where negroes are estimated as men to where they are estimated as
mere brutes–as rightful property!

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