A note on the text
Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Convention:
If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we
could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.
We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with
the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to
Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not
ceased, but has constantly augmented.
In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been
reached, and passed.
"A house divided against itself cannot stand."
I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half
I do not expect the Union to be dissolved-- I do not expect the house to
fall-- but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
It will become all one thing, or all the other.
Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it,
and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in
course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward,
till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as
new-- North as well as South.
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 bosses, from the beginning.
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.
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
Four days later, commenced the struggle, which ended in repealing that
This opened all the national territory to slavery; and was the first
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
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 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 be more specific-- 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 a territory
covered by the congressional prohibition, and held him as a slave, for a
long time in each, was passing through the U.S. Circuit Court for the
District of Missouri; and both Nebraska Bill and law suit 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, requests 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 Court."
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, and so, perhaps, was not overwhelmingly reliable and
The outgoing President, in his last annual message, as impressively as
possible echoed back upon the people the weight and authority of the
The Supreme Court met again; did not announce their decision, but
ordered a re-argument.
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 forthcoming 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 capitol 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 entertained.
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 squabble 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--he principle for which he declares he has suffered 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
Nebsaska 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' "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:
First, 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 this provision of the United States
Constitution, which declares that-
"The citizens of each state shall be entitled to all privileges
andimmunities 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
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, to not care whether slavery is voted
down or voted up.
This shows exactly where we now are; and partially also, whither we are
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 afterwards 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 to
exclude slavery, 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 a horse,
preparatory to mounting him, when it is dreaded that he may give
the rider a fall.
And why the hasty after-indorsements of the decision by the President
We can not 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,
(1) 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 mortices 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 can see the place
in the frame exactly fitted and prepared to yet bring such piece in-- in
such a case, we find it impossible to not 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 lick 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."
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 therein 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
Possibly, this was a mere omission; but who can be quite sure, if McLean
or Curtis(2) 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 Macy(3)
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
The nearest approach to the point of declaring the power of a state over
slavery, is made by Judge Nelson(4). 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 U.S.
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 that 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
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
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.
But how can we best do it?
There are those who denounce us openly to their own friends, and yet
whisper us softly, that Senator Douglas is the aptest instrument there
is, with which to effect that object. They do not tell us, nor has he
told us, that he wishes any such object to be effected. They wish us to
infer all, from the facts, 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 very 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' 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
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.
Senator Douglas holds, we know, that a man may rightfully be wiser
to-day than he was yesterday-- that he may rightfully change when he finds
But, can we for that reason, run ahead, and infer that he will make any
particular change, of which he, himself, has given no intimation? Can we
safely base our action upon any such vague inference?
Now, as ever, I wish to not misrepresent Judge Douglas' position,
question his motives, or do ought that can be personally offensive to
Whenever, if ever, he and we can come together on principle so that our
great cause may have assistance from his great ability, I hope to have
interposed no adventitious obstacle.
But clearly, he is not now with us-- he does not pretend to be-- he does
not promise to ever be.
Our cause, then, must be intrusted to, and conducted by its own
undoubted friends-- those whose hands are free, whose hearts are in the?
work-- who do care for the result.
Two years ago the Republicans of the nation mustered over thirteen
hundred thousand strong.
We did this under the single impulse of resistance to a common danger,
with every external circumstance against us.
Of strange, discordant, and even, hostile elements, we gathered from
the four winds, and formed and fought the battle through, under the
constant hot fire of a disciplined, proud, and pampered enemy.
Did we brave all then, to falter now?-- now-- when that same enemy is
wavering, dissevered and belligerent?
The result is not doubtful. We shall not fail-- if we stand firm, we
shall not fail.
Wise councils may accelerate or mistakes delay it, but, sooner or
later the victory is sure to come.
From the Illinois State Journal; June 18, 1858, with
obvious typographical errors corrected.
The short paragraphs of this speech are a result of the way it was
written: on stray slips of paper and old envelopes over a period of
weeks, Before delivering it Lincoln made a fair copy, underlining many
words and phrases for emphasis. Horace White present as a reporter for
the Chicago Press and Tribune, stated that Lincoln asked him to take the
speech to the Illinois State Journal immediately after its delivery,
Later in the evening Lincoln visited the composing room and read the
proofs, "He said to me," White wrote, "that he had taken a great deal of
pains with this speech, and that he wanted it to go before the people
just as he had prepared it." --William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Abraham
Lincoln, The True Story of a Great Life (New York, 1892), II, 66, 92.
(back to the top)
1) Stephen A. Douglas, Franklin Pierce, Roger B. Taney, James
(back to note 1)
2) Justices John McLean and Benjamin R. Curtis, who filed dissenting
(back to note 2)
3) Senator Salmon P. Chase of Ohio and Representative Daniel Macy of
(back to note 3)
4) Justice Samuel Nelson.
(back to note 4)