The Writings of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 1-7

What is the Dred Scott decision? Judge Douglas labors to show that
it is one thing, while I think it is altogether different. It is a
long opinion, but it is all embodied in this short statement: “The
Constitution of the United States forbids Congress to deprive a man
of his property, without due process of law; the right of property in
slaves is distinctly and expressly affirmed in that Constitution:
therefore, if Congress shall undertake to say that a man’s slave is
no longer his slave when he crosses a certain line into a Territory,
that is depriving him of his property without due process of law, and
is unconstitutional.” There is the whole Dred Scott decision. They
add that if Congress cannot do so itself, Congress cannot confer any
power to do so; and hence any effort by the Territorial Legislature
to do either of these things is absolutely decided against. It is a
foregone conclusion by that court.

Now, as to this indirect mode by “unfriendly legislation,” all
lawyers here will readily understand that such a proposition cannot
be tolerated for a moment, because a legislature cannot indirectly do
that which it cannot accomplish directly. Then I say any legislation
to control this property, as property, for its benefit as property,
would be hailed by this Dred Scott Supreme Court, and fully
sustained; but any legislation driving slave property out, or
destroying it as property, directly or indirectly, will most
assuredly, by that court, be held unconstitutional.

Judge Douglas says if the Constitution carries slavery into the
Territories, beyond the power of the people of the Territories to
control it as other property; then it follows logically that every
one who swears to support the Constitution of the United States must
give that support to that property which it needs. And, if the
Constitution carries slavery into the Territories, beyond the power
of the people, to control it as other property, then it also carries
it into the States, because the Constitution is the supreme law of
the land. Now, gentlemen, if it were not for my excessive modesty, I
would say that I told that very thing to Judge Douglas quite a year
ago. This argument is here in print, and if it were not for my
modesty, as I said, I might call your attention to it. If you read
it, you will find that I not only made that argument, but made it
better than he has made it since.

There is, however, this difference: I say now, and said then, there
is no sort of question that the Supreme Court has decided that it is
the right of the slave holder to take his slave and hold him in the
Territory; and saying this, judge Douglas himself admits the
conclusion. He says if that is so, this consequence will follow; and
because this consequence would follow, his argument is, the decision
cannot, therefore, be that way,–” that would spoil my popular
sovereignty; and it cannot be possible that this great principle has
been squelched out in this extraordinary way. It might be, if it
were not for the extraordinary consequences of spoiling my humbug.”

Another feature of the judge’s argument about the Dred Scott case is,
an effort to show that that decision deals altogether in declarations
of negatives; that the Constitution does not affirm anything as
expounded by the Dred Scott decision, but it only declares a want of
power a total absence of power, in reference to the Territories. It
seems to be his purpose to make the whole of that decision to result
in a mere negative declaration of a want of power in Congress to do
anything in relation to this matter in the Territories. I know the
opinion of the Judges states that there is a total absence of power;
but that is, unfortunately; not all it states: for the judges add
that the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly
affirmed in the Constitution. It does not stop at saying that the
right of property in a slave is recognized in the Constitution, is
declared to exist somewhere in the Constitution, but says it is
affirmed in the Constitution. Its language is equivalent to saying
that it is embodied and so woven in that instrument that it cannot be
detached without breaking the Constitution itself. In a word, it is
part of the Constitution.

Douglas is singularly unfortunate in his effort to make out that
decision to be altogether negative, when the express language at the
vital part is that this is distinctly affirmed in the Constitution.
I think myself, and I repeat it here, that this decision does not
merely carry slavery into the Territories, but by its logical
conclusion it carries it into the States in which we live. One
provision of that Constitution is, that it shall be the supreme law
of the land,–I do not quote the language,–any constitution or law
of any State to the contrary notwithstanding. This Dred Scott
decision says that the right of property in a slave is affirmed in
that Constitution which is the supreme law of the land, any State
constitution or law notwithstanding. Then I say that to destroy a
thing which is distinctly affirmed and supported by the supreme law
of the land, even by a State constitution or law, is a violation of
that supreme law, and there is no escape from it. In my judgment
there is no avoiding that result, save that the American people shall
see that constitutions are better construed than our Constitution is
construed in that decision. They must take care that it is more
faithfully and truly carried out than it is there expounded.

I must hasten to a conclusion. Near the beginning of my remarks I
said that this insidious Douglas popular sovereignty is the measure
that now threatens the purpose of the Republican party to prevent
slavery from being nationalized in the United States. I propose to
ask your attention for a little while to some propositions in
affirmance of that statement. Take it just as it stands, and apply
it as a principle; extend and apply that principle elsewhere; and
consider where it will lead you. I now put this proposition, that
Judge Douglas’s popular sovereignty applied will reopen the African
slave trade; and I will demonstrate it by any variety of ways in
which you can turn the subject or look at it.

The Judge says that the people of the Territories have the right, by
his principle, to have slaves, if they want them. Then I say that
the people in Georgia have the right to buy slaves in Africa, if they
want them; and I defy any man on earth to show any distinction
between the two things,–to show that the one is either more wicked
or more unlawful; to show, on original principles, that one is better
or worse than the other; or to show, by the Constitution, that one
differs a whit from the other. He will tell me, doubtless, that
there is no constitutional provision against people taking slaves
into the new Territories, and I tell him that there is equally no
constitutional provision against buying slaves in Africa. He will
tell you that a people, in the exercise of popular sovereignty, ought
to do as they please about that thing, and have slaves if they want
them; and I tell you that the people of Georgia are as much entitled
to popular sovereignty and to buy slaves in Africa, if they want
them, as the people of the Territory are to have slaves if they want
them. I ask any man, dealing honestly with himself, to point out a

I have recently seen a letter of Judge Douglas’s in which, without
stating that to be the object, he doubtless endeavors to make a
distinction between the two. He says he is unalterably opposed to
the repeal of the laws against the African slave trade. And why? He
then seeks to give a reason that would not apply to his popular
sovereignty in the Territories. What is that reason? “The abolition
of the African slave trade is a compromise of the Constitution!” I
deny it. There is no truth in the proposition that the abolition of
the African slave trade is a compromise of the Constitution. No man
can put his finger on anything in the Constitution, or on the line of
history, which shows it. It is a mere barren assertion, made simply
for the purpose of getting up a distinction between the revival of
the African slave trade and his “great principle.”

At the time the Constitution of the United States was adopted, it was
expected that the slave trade would be abolished. I should assert and
insist upon that, if judge Douglas denied it. But I know that it was
equally expected that slavery would be excluded from the Territories,
and I can show by history that in regard to these two things public
opinion was exactly alike, while in regard to positive action, there
was more done in the Ordinance of ’87 to resist the spread of slavery
than was ever done to abolish the foreign slave trade. Lest I be
misunderstood, I say again that at the time of the formation of the
Constitution, public expectation was that the slave trade would be
abolished, but no more so than the spread of slavery in the
Territories should be restrained. They stand alike, except that in
the Ordinance of ’87 there was a mark left by public opinion, showing
that it was more committed against the spread of slavery in the
Territories than against the foreign slave trade.

Compromise! What word of compromise was there about it? Why, the
public sense was then in favor of the abolition of the slave trade;
but there was at the time a very great commercial interest involved
in it, and extensive capital in that branch of trade. There were
doubtless the incipient stages of improvement in the South in the way
of farming, dependent on the slave trade, and they made a proposition
to Congress to abolish the trade after allowing it twenty years,–a
sufficient time for the capital and commerce engaged in it to be
transferred to other channel. They made no provision that it should
be abolished in twenty years; I do not doubt that they expected it
would be, but they made no bargain about it. The public sentiment
left no doubt in the minds of any that it would be done away. I
repeat, there is nothing in the history of those times in favor of
that matter being a compromise of the constitution. It was the
public expectation at the time, manifested in a thousand ways, that
the spread of slavery should also be restricted.

Then I say, if this principle is established, that there is no wrong
in slavery, and whoever wants it has a right to have it, is a matter
of dollars and cents, a sort of question as to how they shall deal
with brutes, that between us and the negro here there is no sort of
question, but that at the South the question is between the negro and
the crocodile, that is all, it is a mere matter of policy, there is a
perfect right, according to interest, to do just as you please,–when
this is done, where this doctrine prevails, the miners and sappers
will have formed public opinion for the slave trade. They will be
ready for Jeff. Davis and Stephens and other leaders of that company
to sound the bugle for the revival of the slave trade, for the second
Dred Scott decision, for the flood of slavery to be poured over the
free States, while we shall be here tied down and helpless and run
over like sheep.

It is to be a part and parcel of this same idea to say to men who
want to adhere to the Democratic party, who have always belonged to
that party, and are only looking about for some excuse to stick to
it, but nevertheless hate slavery, that Douglas’s popular sovereignty
is as good a way as any to oppose slavery. They allow themselves to
be persuaded easily, in accordance with their previous dispositions,
into this belief, that it is about as good a way of opposing slavery
as any, and we can do that without straining our old party ties or
breaking up old political associations. We can do so without being
called negro-worshipers. We can do that without being subjected to
the jibes and sneers that are so readily thrown out in place of
argument where no arguement can be found. So let us stick to this
popular sovereignty,–this insidious popular sovereignty.

Now let me call your attention to one thing that has really happened,
which shows this gradual and steady debauching of public opinion,
this course of preparation for the revival of the slave trade, for
the Territorial slave code, and the new Dred Scott decision that is
to carry slavery into the Free States. Did you ever, five years ago,
hear of anybody in the world saying that the negro had no share in
the Declaration of National Independence; that it does not mean
negroes at all; and when “all men” were spoken of, negroes were not

I am satisfied that five years ago that proposition was not put upon
paper by any living being anywhere. I have been unable at any time
to find a man in an audience who would declare that he had ever known
of anybody saying so five years ago. But last year there was not a
Douglas popular sovereign in Illinois who did not say it. Is there
one in Ohio but declares his firm belief that the Declaration of
Independence did not mean negroes at all? I do not know how this is;
I have not been here much; but I presume you are very much alike
everywhere. Then I suppose that all now express the belief that the
Declaration of Independence never did mean negroes. I call upon one
of them to say that he said it five years ago.

If you think that now, and did not think it then, the next thing that
strikes me is to remark that there has been a change wrought in you,-
-and a very significant change it is, being no less than changing the
negro, in your estimation, from the rank of a man to that of a brute.
They are taking him down and placing him, when spoken of, among
reptiles and crocodiles, as Judge Douglas himself expresses it.

Is not this change wrought in your minds a very important change?
Public opinion in this country is everything. In a nation like ours,
this popular sovereignty and squatter sovereignty have already
wrought a change in the public mind to the extent I have stated.
There is no man in this crowd who can contradict it.

Now, if you are opposed to slavery honestly, as much as anybody, I
ask you to note that fact, and the like of which is to follow, to be
plastered on, layer after layer, until very soon you are prepared to
deal with the negro every where as with the brute. If public
sentiment has not been debauched already to this point, a new turn of
the screw in that direction is all that is wanting; and this is
constantly being done by the teachers of this insidious popular
sovereignty. You need but one or two turns further, until your
minds, now ripening under these teachings, will be ready for all
these things, and you will receive and support, or submit to, the
slave trade, revived with all its horrors, a slave code enforced in
our Territories, and a new Dred Scott decision to bring slavery up
into the very heart of the free North. This, I must say, is but
carrying out those words prophetically spoken by Mr. Clay,–many,
many years ago,–I believe more than thirty years, when he told an
audience that if they would repress all tendencies to liberty and
ultimate emancipation they must go back to the era of our
independence, and muzzle the cannon which thundered its annual joyous
return on the Fourth of July; they must blow out the moral lights
around us; they must penetrate the human soul, and eradicate the love
of liberty: but until they did these things, and others eloquently
enumerated by him, they could not repress all tendencies to ultimate

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