Page images

have cost him much labor in the preparation. The historical study which it involved-study that led into unexplored fields, and fields very difficult of exploration-must have been very great; .but it was intimate and complete. Gentlemen who afterward engaged in preparing the speech for circulation as a campaign document were much surprised by the amount of research that it required to be able to make the speech, and were very much wearied with the work of verifying its historical statements in detail. They were weeks in finding the works consulted by him.

As a text for the subject of his discourse, he took the words of Senator Douglas, uttered in a speech at Columbus, Ohio, the previous autumn, viz: "Our fathers when they framed the government under which we live, understood this question (the question of slavery) just as well, and even better, than we do now." To this statement the speaker agreed, so that he and the senator had a common starting point for discussion. The inquiry was, simply: what was the understanding those fathers had of the question mentioned? As questions preliminary to this inquiry he gave these: "what is the frame of government under which we live?" and "who were our fathers who framed the Constitution?" The frame of government is the Constitution itself, consisting of the original, framed in 1787, and twelve subsequent amendments, ten of which were framed in 1789. The thirty-nine men who framed the original Constitution are legitimately to be called the fathers, and these he took as "our fathers who framed the government under which we live." The question fully written out, which Senator Douglas thought these men understood better than we do, was: "Does the proper division of local from federal authority, or anything in the Constitution, forbid the federal government control as to slavery in our federal territories?"

From this point Mr. Lincoln went on to draw from the history of Congress every recorded act of these thirty-nine men on the question of slavery. Question after question upon which these men acted was stated in brief, and it was found

that, of the thirty-nine fathers, twenty-one, a clear majority, so acted that they would be guilty of perjury if they did not believe that the federal government had power to control slavery in the territories. Two voted against special measures, but in such a way as not to show whether they believed the government possessed this power or not. Of the remaining sixteen, there is no record, but it is fair to conclude they had the same understanding with the majority, particularly as they included some of the most noted anti-slavery men of the time, among whom were Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris.

The historical argument was entirely unanswerable. It was a solid and logical statement of facts and conclusions that no sane man would undertake to controvert. The first third of the speech was devoted to this historical argument, and the remainder in about equal proportions to addresses to the southern people, and to the republicans. His remarks addressed particularly to the South were in the kindest spirit, but they were charged with a force of argument and statement that is wonderful. It is well that Mr. Lincoln be permitted to state his own attitude toward those to whom he was destined to come intc such strange and momentous relations. He said:

"You say we are sectional. We deny it. That makes an issue and the burden of proof is upon you. You produce your proof; and what is it? Why, that our party has no existence in your section-gets no votes in your section. The fact is substantially true; but does it prove the issue? If it does, then, in case we should, without change of principle, begin to get votes in your section, we should thereby cease to be sectional. You cannot escape this conclusion; and yet, are you willing to abide by it? If you are, you will probably soon find that we have ceased to be sectional, for we shall get votes in your section this very year. You will then begin to discover, as the truth plainly is, that your proof does not touch the issue. The fact that we get no votes in your section is a fact of your making, and not of ours. And if there be fault in that fact, that fault is primarily yours, and remains so until you show that we repel you by some wrong principle or practice. If we do repel you by any wrong principle or practice, the fault is ours; but this brings us to where you ought to have started-to a discussion

of the right or wrong of our principle. If our principle, put in practice, would wrong your section for the benefit of ours, or for any other object, then our principle, and we with it, are sectional, and are justly opposed and denounced as such. Meet us, then, on the question of whether our principle, put in practice, would wrong your section; and so meet it as if it were possible that something may be said on our side. Do you accept the challenge? No? Then you really believe that the principle which our fathers, who framed the government under which we live, thought so clearly right as to adopt it, and indorse it again and again upon their official oaths, is, in fact, so clearly wrong as to demand your condemnation without a moment's consideration.

"Some of you delight to flaunt in our faces the warning against sectional parties given by Washington in his Farewell Address. Less than eight years before Washington gave that warning, he had, as President of the United States, approved and signed an act of Congress enforcing the prohibition of slavery in the Northwestern Territory, which act embodied the policy of the government upon that subject, up to and at the very moment he penned that warning; and about one year after he penned it he wrote Lafayette that he considered that prohibition a wise measure, expressing, in the same connection, his hope that we should some time have a confederacy of free states.

[ocr errors]

Bearing this in mind, and seeing that sectionalism has since arisen upon this same subject, is that warning a weapon in your hands against us, or in our hands against you? Could Washington himself speak, would he cast the blame of that sectionalism upon us, who sustain his policy, or upon you, who repudiate it? We respect that warning of Washington, and we commend it to you, together with his example pointing to the right application of it.

"But you say you are conservative-eminently conservative-while we are revolutionary, destructive, or something of the sort. What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried? We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy on the point in controversy which was adopted by our fathers who framed the government under which we live; while you, with one accord, reject, and scout, and spit upon that old policy, and insist upon substituting something new. True, you disagree among yourselves as to what that substitute shall be. You have considerable variety of new propositions and plans, but you are unanimous in rejecting and denouncing the old policy of the fathers. Some of you are for reviving the foreign slave-trade; some for a congressional slave-code for the territories; some for Congress forbidding the territories to prohibit slavery within their limits; some for maintaining slavery in the territories through the Judiciary; some for the 'gur-reat pur-rinciple' that, ‘if one man would enslave another, no third man should object,' fantastically called 'popu

lar sovereignty;' but never a man among you in favor of federal prohibition of slavery in federal territories, according to the practice of our fathers who framed the government under which we live. Not one of all your various plans can show a precedent or an advocate in the century within which our government originated. Consider, then, whether your claim of conservatism for yourselves, and your charge of destructiveness against us, are based on the most clear and stable foundations.

“Again, you say we have made the slavery question more prominent than it formerly was. We deny it. We admit that it is more prominent, but we deny that we made it so. It was not we, but you, who discarded the old policy of the fathers. We resisted, and still resist, your innovation; and thence comes the greater prominence of the question. Would you have that question reduced to its former proportions? Go back to that old policy. What has been will be again, under the same conditions. If you would have the peace of the old times, re-adopt the precepts and policy of the old times.”

Alluding to their threats to break up the Union if slavery should be shut out of the territories, he said:

"In that supposed event, you say you will destroy the Union; and then you say the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth: 'Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!' To be sure, what the robber demanded of memy money--was my own; and I had a clear right to keep it; but it was no more my own than my vote is my own; and threat of death to me to extort my money, and threat of destruction to the Union to extort my vote, can scarcely be distinguished in principle.”

Certainly this illustration disposed of the whole question as to who would be responsible for the destruction of the Union, under the circumstances stated.

His words to the republicans were words of profoundest wisdom. He told them that nothing would satisfy the South but to cease calling slavery wrong, and to join with them in calling it right, and to do it thoroughly by acts as well as words. "We must arrest and return their slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our free state constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all

He continued: "I am quite

their troubles proceed from us." aware they do not state their case precisely in this way. Most of them would probably say to us, 'let us alone, do nothing to us, and say what you please about slavery.' But we do let them alone-have never disturbed them—so that, after all, it is what we say that dissatisfies them. They will continue to accuse us of doing until we cease saying." After saying that we could not consistently deny the South in its most extreme demands, on any ground except the wrong of slavery, he put the case forcibly, as follows: "If slavery is right, all words, acts, laws and constitutions against it are themselves wrong, and should be silenced and swept away. If it is right, we cannot justly object to its nationality-its universality; if it is wrong, they cannot justly insist upon its extension, its enlargement. All they ask, we could readily grant if we thought slavery right; all we ask they could as readily grant if they thought slavery wrong. Their thinking it right and our thinking it wrong is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy." The closing paragraph is equally remarkable for its wit and wisdom-its pith and patriotism:

"Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the national territories, and to overrun us here in these free states? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored-contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man-such as a policy of 'don't care' on a question about which all true men do care—such as Union appeals beseeching true Union men to yield to disunionists, reversing the divine rule, and calling not the sinners, but the righteous to repentance—such as invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did. Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government, nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty, as we understand it.”

« PreviousContinue »