The Writings of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 1-7

Have we no tendency to the latter condition?

Let any one who doubts, carefully contemplate that now almost
complete legal combination-piece of machinery, so to speak
compounded of the Nebraska doctrine and the Dred Scott decision.
Let him consider, not only what work the machinery is adapted to
do, and how well adapted, but also let him study the history of
its construction, and trace, if he can, or rather fail, if he
can, to trace the evidences of design, and concert of action,
among its chief architects, from the beginning.

The new year of 1854 found slavery excluded from more than half
the States by State Constitutions, and from most of the National
territory by Congressional prohibition. Four days later,
commenced the struggle which ended in repealing that
Congressional prohibition. This opened all the National
territory to slavery, and was the first point gained.

But, so far, Congress only had acted, and an indorsement by the
people, real or apparent, was indispensable to save the point
already gained, and give chance for more.

This necessity had not been overlooked, but had been provided
for, as well as might be, in the notable argument of “squatter
sovereignty,” otherwise called “sacred right of self-government,”
which latter phrase, though expressive of the only rightful basis
of any government, was so perverted in this attempted use of it
as to amount to just this: That if any one man choose to enslave
another, no third man shall be allowed to object. That argument
was incorporated into the Nebraska Bill itself, in the language
which follows:

“It being the true intent and meaning of this Act not to
legislate slavery into any Territory or State, nor to exclude it
therefrom, but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form
and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way,
subject only to the Constitution of the United States.”

Then opened the roar of loose declamation in favor of “squatter
sovereignty,” and “sacred right of self-government.” “But,” said
opposition members, “let us amend the bill so as to expressly
declare that the people of the Territory may exclude slavery.”
“Not we,” said the friends of the measure, and down they voted
the amendment.

While the Nebraska Bill was passing through Congress, a law case,
involving the question of a negro’s freedom, by reason of his
owner having voluntarily taken him first into a free State, and
then into a territory covered by the Congressional Prohibition,
and held him as a slave for a long time in each, was passing
through the United States Circuit Court for the District of
Missouri; and both Nebraska Bill and lawsuit were brought to a
decision in the same month of May, 1854. The negro’s name was
“Dred Scott,” which name now designates the decision finally made
in the case. Before the then next Presidential election, the law
case came to, and was argued in, the Supreme Court of the United
States; but the decision of it was deferred until after the
election. Still, before the election, Senator Trumbull, on the
floor of the Senate, requested the leading advocate of the
Nebraska Bill to state his opinion whether the people of a
territory can constitutionally exclude slavery from their limits;
and the latter answers: “That is a question for the Supreme

The election came. Mr. Buchanan was elected, and the
indorsement, such as it was, secured. That was the second point
gained. The indorsement, however, fell short of a clear popular
majority by nearly four hundred thousand votes,(approximately 10%
of the vote) and so, perhaps, was not overwhelmingly reliable and
satisfactory. The outgoing President, in his last annual
message, as impressively as possible echoed back upon the people
the weight and authority of the indorsement. The Supreme Court
met again, did not announce their decision, but ordered a
reargument. The Presidential inauguration came, and still no
decision of the court; but the incoming President, in his
inaugural address, fervently exhorted the people to abide by the
forth-coming decision, whatever it might be. Then, in a few
days, came the decision.

The reputed author of the Nebraska Bill finds an early occasion
to make a speech at this capital indorsing the Dred Scott
decision, and vehemently denouncing all opposition to it. The
new President, too, seizes the early occasion of the Silliman
letter to indorse and strongly construe that decision, and to
express his astonishment that any different view had ever been

At length a squabble springs up between the President and the
author of the Nebraska Bill, on the mere question of fact,
whether the Lecompton Constitution was or was not in any just
sense made by the people of Kansas; and in that quarrel the
latter declares that all he wants is a fair vote for the people,
and that he cares not whether slavery be voted down or voted up.
I do not understand his declaration, that he cares not whether
slavery be voted down or voted up, to be intended by him other
than as an apt definition of the policy he would impress upon the
public mind,–the principle for which he declares he has suffered
so much, and is ready to suffer to the end. And well may he
cling to that principle! If he has any parental feeling, well
may he cling to it. That principle is the only shred left of his
original Nebraska doctrine. Under the Dred Scott decision
“squatter sovereignty” squatted out of existence, tumbled down
like temporary scaffolding; like the mould at the foundry, served
through one blast, and fell back into loose sand; helped to carry
an election, and then was kicked to the winds. His late joint
struggle with the Republicans, against the Lecompton
Constitution, involves nothing of the original Nebraska doctrine.
That struggle was made on a point–the right of a people to make
their own constitution–upon which he and the Republicans have
never differed.

The several points of the Dred Scott decision, in connection with
Senator Douglas’s “care not” policy, constitute the piece of
machinery, in its present state of advancement. This was the
third point gained. The working points of that machinery are:

Firstly, That no negro slave, imported as such from Africa, and
no descendant of such slave, can ever be a citizen of any State,
in the sense of that term as used in the Constitution of the
United States. This point is made in order to deprive the negro,
in every possible event, of the benefit of that provision of the
United States Constitution which declares that “The citizens of
each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of
citizens in the several States.”

Secondly, That, “subject to the Constitution of the United
States,” neither Congress nor a Territorial Legislature can
exclude slavery from any United States Territory. This point is
made in order that individual men may fill up the Territories
with slaves, without danger of losing them as property, and thus
to enhance the chances of permanency to the institution through
all the future.

Thirdly, That whether the holding a negro in actual slavery in a
free State makes him free, as against the holder, the United
States courts will not decide, but will leave to be decided by
the courts of any slave State the negro may be forced into by the
master. This point is made, not to be pressed immediately; but,
if acquiesced in for a while, and apparently indorsed by the
people at an election, then to sustain the logical conclusion
that what Dred Scott’s master might lawfully do with Dred Scott,
in the free State of Illinois, every other master may lawfully do
with any other one, or one thousand slaves, in Illinois, or in
any other free State.

Auxiliary to all this, and working hand in hand with it, the
Nebraska doctrine, or what is left of it, is to educate and mould
public opinion, at least Northern public opinion, not to care
whether slavery is voted down or voted up. This shows exactly
where we now are; and partially, also, wither we are tending.

It will throw additional light on the latter, to go back and run
the mind over the string of historical facts already stated.
Several things will now appear less dark and mysterious than they
did when they were transpiring. The people were to be left
“perfectly free,” ” subject only to the Constitution.” What the
Constitution had to do with it, outsiders could not then see.
Plainly enough now,–it was an exactly fitted niche, for the Dred
Scott decision to afterward come in, and declare the perfect
freedom of the people to be just no freedom at all. Why was the
amendment, expressly declaring the right of the people, voted
down? Plainly enough now,–the adoption of it would have spoiled
the niche for the Dred Scott decision. Why was the court
decision held up? Why even a Senator’s individual opinion
withheld, till after the Presidential election? Plainly enough
now,–the speaking out then would have damaged the “perfectly
free” argument upon which the election was to be carried. Why
the outgoing President’s felicitation on the indorsement? Why the
delay of a reargument? Why the incoming President’s advance
exhortation in favor of the decision? These things look like the
cautious patting and petting of a spirited horse preparatory to
mounting him, when it is dreaded that he may give the rider a
fall. And why the hasty after-indorsement of the decision by the
President and others?

We cannot absolutely know that all these exact adaptations are
the result of preconcert. But when we see a lot of framed
timbers, different portions of which we know have been gotten out
at different times and places and by different workmen, Stephen,
Franklin, Roger, and James, for instance, and when we see these
timbers joined together, and see they exactly make the frame of a
house or a mill, all the tenons and mortises exactly fitting, and
all the lengths and proportions of the different pieces exactly
adapted to their respective places, and not a piece too many or
too few,–not omitting even scaffolding,–or, if a single piece
be lacking, we see the place in the frame exactly fitted and
prepared yet to bring such piece in,–in such a case, we find it
impossible not to believe that Stephen and Franklin and Roger and
James all understood one another from the beginning, and all
worked upon a common plan or draft drawn up before the first blow
was struck.

It should not be overlooked that by the Nebraska Bill the people
of a State as well as Territory were to be left “perfectly free,”
“subject only to the Constitution.” Why mention a State? They
were legislating for Territories, and not for or about States.
Certainly the people of a State are and ought to be subject to
the Constitution of the United States; but why is mention of this
lugged into this merely Territorial law? Why are the people of a
Territory and the people of a State therein lumped together, and
their relation to the Constitution therefore treated as being
precisely the same? While the opinion of the court, by Chief
Justice Taney, in the Dred Scott case, and the separate opinions
of all the concurring Judges, expressly declare that the
Constitution of the United States neither permits Congress nor a
Territorial Legislature to exclude slavery from any United States
Territory, they all omit to declare whether or not the same
Constitution permits a State, or the people of a State, to
exclude it. Possibly, this is a mere omission; but who can be
quite sure, if McLean or Curtis had sought to get into the
opinion a declaration of unlimited power in the people of a State
to exclude slavery from their limits, just as Chase and Mace
sought to get such declaration, in behalf of the people of a
Territory, into the Nebraska Bill,–I ask, who can be quite sure
that it would not have been voted down in the one case as it had
been in the other? The nearest approach to the point of declaring
the power of a State over slavery is made by Judge Nelson. He
approaches it more than once, Using the precise idea, and almost
the language, too, of the Nebraska Act. On one occasion, his
exact language is, “Except in cases where the power is restrained
by the Constitution of the United States, the law of the State is
supreme over the subject of slavery within its jurisdiction.” In
what cases the power of the States is so restrained by the United
States Constitution, is left an open question, precisely as the
same question, as to the restraint on the power of the
Territories, was left open in the Nebraska Act. Put this and
that together, and we have another nice little niche, which we
may, ere long, see filled with another Supreme Court decision,
declaring that the Constitution of the United States does not
permit a State to exclude slavery from its limits. And this may
especially be expected if the doctrine of “care not whether
slavery be voted down or voted up” shall gain upon the public
mind sufficiently to give promise that such a decision can be
maintained when made.

Such a decision is all that slavery now lacks of being alike
lawful in all the States. Welcome or unwelcome, such decision is
probably coming, and will soon be upon us, unless the power of
the present political dynasty shall be met and overthrown We
shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri
are on the verge of making their State free, and we shall awake
to the reality instead that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a
slave State. To meet and overthrow the power of that dynasty is
the work now before all those who would prevent that
consummation. That is what we have to do. How can we best do

There are those who denounce us openly to their friends, and yet
whisper to us softly that Senator Douglas is the aptest
instrument there is with which to effect that object. They wish
us to infer all, from the fact that he now has a little quarrel
with the present head of the dynasty, and that he has regularly
voted with us on a single point, upon which he and we have never
differed. They remind us that he is a great man, and that the
largest of us are very small ones. Let this be granted. But “a
living dog is better than a dead lion.” Judge Douglas, if not a
dead lion, for this work is at least a caged and toothless one.
How can he oppose the advances of slavery? He don’t care
anything about it. His avowed mission is impressing the “public
heart” to care nothing about it. A leading Douglas Democratic
newspaper thinks Douglas’s superior talent will be needed to
resist the revival of the African slave trade. Does Douglas
believe an effort to revive that trade is approaching? He has
not said so. Does he really think so? But if it is, how can he
resist it? For years he has labored to prove it a sacred right
of white men to take negro slaves into the new Territories. Can
he possibly show that it is less a sacred right to buy them where
they can be bought cheapest? And unquestionably they can be
bought cheaper in Africa than in Virginia. He has done all in
his power to reduce the whole question of slavery to one of a
mere right of property; and, as such, how can he oppose the
foreign slave trade, how can he refuse that trade in that
“property” shall be “perfectly free,”–unless he does it as a
protection to the home production? And as the home producers
will probably not ask the protection, he will be wholly without a
ground of opposition.

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