The Writings of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 1-7

When they remind us of their constitutional rights, I acknowledge
them–not grudgingly, but fully and fairly; and I would give them
any legislation for the reclaiming of their fugitives which
should not in its stringency be more likely to carry a free man
into slavery than our ordinary criminal laws are to hang an
innocent one.

But all this, to my judgment, furnishes no more excuse for
permitting slavery to go into our own free territory than it
would for reviving the African slave trade by law. The law which
forbids the bringing of slaves from Africa, and that which has so
long forbidden the taking of them into Nebraska, can hardy be
distinguished on any moral principle, and the repeal of the
former could find quite as plausible excuses as that of the

The arguments by which the repeal of the Missouri Compromise is
sought to be justified are these:

First. That the Nebraska country needed a territorial

Second. That in various ways the public had repudiated that
compromise and demanded the repeal, and therefore should not now
complain of it.

And, lastly, That the repeal establishes a principle which is
intrinsically right.

I will attempt an answer to each of them in its turn.

First, then: If that country was in need of a territorial
organization, could it not have had it as well without as with a
repeal? Iowa and Minnesota, to both of which the Missouri
restriction applied,
had, without its repeal, each in succession, territorial
organizations. And even the year before, a bill for Nebraska
itself was within an ace of passing without the repealing clause,
and this in the hands of the same men who are now the champions
of repeal. Why no necessity then for repeal? But still later,
when this very bill was first brought in, it contained no repeal.
But, say they, because the people had demanded, or rather
commanded, the repeal, the repeal was to accompany the
organization whenever that should occur.

Now, I deny that the public ever demanded any such thing–ever
repudiated the Missouri Compromise, ever commanded its repeal. I
deny it, and call for the proof. It is not contended, I believe,
that any such command has ever been given in express terms. It
is only said that it was done in principle. The support of the
Wilmot Proviso is the first fact mentioned to prove that the
Missouri restriction was repudiated in principle, and the second
is the refusal to extend the Missouri line over the country
acquired from Mexico. These are near enough alike to be treated
together. The one was to exclude the chances of slavery from the
whole new acquisition by the lump, and the other was to reject a
division of it, by which one half was to be given up to those
chances. Now, whether this was a repudiation of the Missouri
line in principle depends upon whether the Missouri law contained
any principle requiring the line to be extended over the country
acquired from Mexico. I contend it did not. I insist that it
contained no general principle, but that it was, in every sense,
specific. That its terms limit it to the country purchased from
France is undenied and undeniable. It could have no principle
beyond the intention of those who made it. They did not intend
to extend the line to country which they did not own. If they
intended to extend it in the event of acquiring additional
territory, why did they not say so? It was just as easy to say
that “in all the country west of the Mississippi which we now
own, or may hereafter acquire, there shall never be slavery,” as
to say what they did say; and they would have said it if they had
meant it. An intention to extend the law is not only not
mentioned in the law, but is not mentioned in any contemporaneous
history. Both the law itself, and the history of the times, are
a blank as to any principle of extension; and by neither the
known rules of construing statutes and contracts, nor by common
sense, can any such principle be inferred.

Another fact showing the specific character of the Missouri law–
showing that it intended no more than it expressed, showing that
the line was not intended as a universal dividing line between
Free and Slave territory, present and prospective, north of which
slavery could never go–is the fact that by that very law
Missouri came in as a slave State, north of the line. If that
law contained any prospective principle, the whole law must be
looked to in order to ascertain what the principle was. And by
this rule the South could fairly contend that, inasmuch as they
got one slave State north of the line at the inception of the
law, they have the right to have another given them north of it
occasionally, now and then, in the indefinite westward extension
of the line. This demonstrates the absurdity of attempting to
deduce a prospective principle from the Missouri Compromise line.

When we voted for the Wilmot Proviso we were voting to keep
slavery out of the whole Mexican acquisition, and little did we
think we were thereby voting to let it into Nebraska lying
several hundred miles distant. When we voted against extending
the Missouri line, little did we think we were voting to destroy
the old line, then of near thirty years’ standing.

To argue that we thus repudiated the Missouri Compromise is no
less absurd than it would be to argue that because we have so far
forborne to acquire Cuba, we have thereby, in principle,
repudiated our former acquisitions and determined to throw them
out of the Union. No less absurd than it would be to say that
because I may have refused to build an addition to my house, I
thereby have decided to destroy the existing house! And if I
catch you setting fire to my house, you will turn upon me and say
I instructed you to do it!

The most conclusive argument, however, that while for the Wilmot
Proviso, and while voting against the extension of the Missouri
line, we never thought of disturbing the original Missouri
Compromise, is found in the fact that there was then, and still
is, an unorganized tract of fine country, nearly as large as the
State of Missouri, lying immediately west of Arkansas and south
of the Missouri Compromise line, and that we never attempted to
prohibit slavery as to it. I wish particular attention to this.
It adjoins the original Missouri Compromise line by its northern
boundary, and consequently is part of the country into which by
implication slavery was permitted to go by that compromise.
There it has lain open ever s, and there it still lies, and yet
no effort has been made at any time to wrest it from the South.
In all our struggles to prohibit slavery within our Mexican
acquisitions, we never so much as lifted a finger to prohibit it
as to this tract. Is not this entirely conclusive that at all
times we have held the Missouri Compromise as a sacred thing,
even when against ourselves as well as when for us?

Senator Douglas sometimes says the Missouri line itself was in
principle only an extension of the line of the Ordinance of ’87–
that is to say, an extension of the Ohio River. I think this is
weak enough on its face. I will remark, however, that, as a
glance at the map will show, the Missouri line is a long way
farther south than the Ohio, and that if our Senator in proposing
his extension had stuck to the principle of jogging southward,
perhaps it might not have been voted down so readily.

But next it is said that the compromises of ’50, and the
ratification of them by both political parties in ’52,
established a new principle which required the repeal of the
Missouri Compromise. This again I deny. I deny it, and demand
the proof. I have already stated fully what the compromises of
’50 are. That particular part of those measures from which the
virtual repeal of the Missouri Compromise is sought to be
inferred (for it is admitted they contain nothing about it in
express terms) is the provision in the Utah and New Mexico laws
which permits them when they seek admission into the Union as
States to come in with or without slavery, as they shall then see
fit. Now I insist this provision was made for Utah and New
Mexico, and for no other place whatever. It had no more direct
reference to Nebraska than it had to the territories of the moon.
But, say they, it had reference to Nebraska in principle. Let us
see. The North consented to this provision, not because they
considered it right in itself, but because they were compensated-
-paid for it.

They at the same time got California into the Union as a free
State. This was far the best part of all they had struggled for
by the Wilmot Proviso. They also got the area of slavery
somewhat narrowed in the settlement of the boundary of Texas.
Also they got the slave trade abolished in the District of

For all these desirable objects the North could afford to yield
something; and they did yield to the South the Utah and New
Mexico provision. I do not mean that the whole North, or even a
majority, yielded, when the law passed; but enough yielded–when
added to the vote of the South, to carry the measure. Nor can it
be pretended that the principle of this arrangement requires us
to permit the same provision to be applied to Nebraska, without
any equivalent at all. Give us another free State; press the
boundary of Texas still farther back; give us another step toward
the destruction of slavery in the District, and you present us a
similar case. But ask us not to repeat, for nothing, what you
paid for in the first instance. If you wish the thing again, pay
again. That is the principle of the compromises of ’50, if,
indeed, they had any principles beyond their specific terms–it
was the system of equivalents.

Again, if Congress, at that time, intended that all future
Territories should, when admitted as States, come in with or
without slavery at their own option, why did it not say so?
With such a universal provision, all know the bills could not
have passed. Did they, then–could they-establish a principle
contrary to their own intention? Still further, if they intended
to establish the principle that, whenever Congress had control,
it should be left to the people to do as they thought fit with
slavery, why did they not authorize the people of the District of
Columbia, at their option, to abolish slavery within their

I personally know that this has not been left undone because it
was unthought of. It was frequently spoken of by members of
Congress, and by citizens of Washington, six years ago; and I
heard no one express a doubt that a system of gradual
emancipation, with compensation to owners, would meet the
approbation of a large majority of the white people of the
District. But without the action of Congress they could say
nothing; and Congress said “No.” In the measures of 1850,
Congress had the subject of slavery in the District expressly on
hand. If they were then establishing the principle of allowing
the people to do as they please with slavery, why did they not
apply the principle to that people?

Again it is claimed that by the resolutions of the Illinois
Legislature, passed in 1851, the repeal of the Missouri
Compromise was demanded. This I deny also. Whatever may be
worked out by a criticism of the language of those resolutions,
the people have never understood them as being any more than an
indorsement of the compromises of 1850, and a release of our
senators from voting for the Wilmot Proviso. The whole people
are living witnesses that this only was their view. Finally, it
is asked, “If we did not mean to apply the Utah and New Mexico
provision to all future territories, what did we mean when we, in
1852, indorsed the compromises of 1850?”

For myself I can answer this question most easily. I meant not
to ask a repeal or modification of the Fugitive Slave law. I
meant not to ask for the abolition of slavery in the District of
Columbia. I meant not to resist the admission of Utah and New
Mexico, even should they ask to come in as slave States. I meant
nothing about additional Territories, because, as I understood,
we then had no Territory whose character as to slavery was not
already settled. As to Nebraska, I regarded its character as
being fixed by the Missouri Compromise for thirty years–as
unalterably fixed as that of my own home in Illinois. As to new
acquisitions, I said, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil
thereof.” When we make new acquisitions, we will, as heretofore,
try to manage them somehow. That is my answer; that is what I
meant and said; and I appeal to the people to say each for
himself whether that is not also the universal meaning of the
free States.

And now, in turn, let me ask a few questions. If, by any or all
these matters, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise was
commanded, why was not the command sooner obeyed? Why was the
repeal omitted in the Nebraska Bill of 1853? Why was it omitted
in the original bill of 1854? Why in the accompanying report was
such a repeal characterized as a departure from the course
pursued in 1850 and its continued omission recommended?

I am aware Judge Douglas now argues that the subsequent express
repeal is no substantial alteration of the bill. This argument
seems wonderful to me. It is as if one should argue that white
and black are not different. He admits, however, that there is a
literal change in the bill, and that he made the change in
deference to other senators who would not support the bill
without. This proves that those other senators thought the
change a substantial one, and that the Judge thought their
opinions worth deferring to. His own opinions, therefore, seem
not to rest on a very firm basis, even in his own mind; and I
suppose the world believes, and will continue to believe, that
precisely on the substance of that change this whole agitation
has arisen.

I conclude, then, that the public never demanded the repeal of
the Missouri Compromise

I now come to consider whether the appeal with its avowed
principles, is intrinsically right. I insist that it is not.
Take the particular case. A controversy had arisen between the
advocates and opponents of slavery, in relation to its
establishment within the country we had purchased of France. The
southern, and then best, part of the purchase was already in as a
slave State. The controversy was settled by also letting
Missouri in as a slave State; but with the agreement that within
all the remaining part of the purchase, north of a certain line,
there should never be slavery. As to what was to be done with
the remaining part, south of the line, nothing was said; but
perhaps the fair implication was, it should come in with slavery
if it should so choose. The southern part, except a portion
heretofore mentioned, afterward did come in with slavery, as the
State of Arkansas. All these many years, since 1820, the
northern part had remained a wilderness. At length settlements
began in it also. In due course Iowa came in as a free State,
and Minnesota was given a territorial government, without
removing the slavery restriction. Finally, the sole remaining
part north of the line–Kansas and Nebraska–was to be organized;
and it is proposed, and carried, to blot out the old dividing
line of thirty-four years’ standing, and to open the whole of
that country to the introduction of slavery. Now this, to my
mind, is manifestly unjust. After an angry and dangerous
controversy, the parties made friends by dividing the bone of
contention. The one party first appropriates her own share,
beyond all power to be disturbed in the possession of it, and
then seizes the share of the other party. It is as if two
starving men had divided their only loaf, the one had hastily
swallowed his half, and then grabbed the other’s half just as he
was putting it to his mouth.

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