John George Nicolay.

Abraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 online

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surroundings, the presence and hearty encouragement of his friends,
put Lincoln in his best vein. His bubbling humor, his perfect temper,
and above all the overwhelming current of his historical arraignment
extorted the admiration of even his political enemies. "His speech was
four hours in length" wrote one of these, "and was conceived and
expressed in a most happy and pleasant style, and was received with
abundant applause. At times he made statements which brought Senator
Douglas to his feet, and then good-humored passages of wit created
much interest and enthusiasm." All reports plainly indicate that
Douglas was astonished and disconcerted at this unexpected strength of
argument, and that he struggled vainly through a two hours' rejoinder
to break the force of Lincoln's victory in the debate. Lincoln had
hitherto been the foremost man in his district. That single effort
made him the leader on the new question in his State.

The fame of this success brought Lincoln urgent calls from all the
places where Douglas was expected to speak. Accordingly, twelve days
afterwards, October 16, they once more met in debate, at Peoria.
Lincoln, as before, gave Douglas the opening and closing speeches,
explaining that he was willing to yield this advantage in order to
secure a hearing from the Democratic portion of his listeners. The
audience was a large one, but not so representative in its character
as that at Springfield. The occasion was made memorable, however, by
the fact that when Lincoln returned home he wrote out and published
his speech. We have therefore the revised text of his argument, and
are able to estimate its character and value. Marking as it does with
unmistakable precision a step in the second period of his intellectual
development, it deserves the careful attention of the student of his

After the lapse of more than a quarter of a century the critical
reader still finds it a model of brevity, directness, terse diction,
exact and lucid historical statement, and full of logical propositions
so short and so strong as to resemble mathematical axioms. Above all
it is pervaded by an elevation of thought and aim that lifts it out of
the commonplace of mere party controversy. Comparing it with his later
speeches, we find it to contain not only the argument of the hour, but
the premonition of the broader issues into which the new struggle was
destined soon to expand.

The main, broad current of his reasoning was to vindicate and restore
the policy of the fathers of the country in the restriction of
slavery; but running through this like a thread of gold was the
demonstration of the essential injustice and immorality of the system.
He said:

This declared indifference but, as I must think, covert zeal for the
spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the
monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives
our republican example of its just influence in the world; enables the
enemies of free institutions with plausibility to taunt us as
hypocrites; causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity;
and especially because it forces so many really good men among
ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of
civil liberty, criticizing the Declaration of Independence and
insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-

* * * * *

The doctrine of self-government is right, - absolutely and eternally
right, - but it has no just application as here attempted. Or perhaps I
should rather say that whether it has such just application, depends
upon whether a negro is not, or is, a man. If he is not a man, in that
case he who is a man may as a matter of self-government do just what
he pleases with him. But if the negro is a man, is it not to that
extent a total destruction of self-government to say that he too shall
not govern himself? When the white man governs himself, that is self-
government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man,
that is more than self-government - that is despotism.

* * * * *

What I do say is, that no man is good enough to govern another man
without that other's consent.

* * * * *

The master not only governs the slave without his consent, but he
governs him by a set of rules altogether different from those which he
prescribes for himself. Allow all the governed an equal voice in the
government; that, and that only, is self-government.

* * * * *

Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man's nature - opposition to
it, in his love of justice. These principles are an eternal
antagonism; and when brought into collision so fiercely as slavery
extension brings them, shocks and throes and convulsions must
ceaselessly follow. Repeal the Missouri Compromise - repeal all
compromise - repeal the Declaration of Independence - repeal all past
history - still you cannot repeal human nature.

* * * * *

I particularly object to the new position which the avowed principle
of this Nebraska law gives to slavery in the body politic. I object to
it because it assumes that there can be moral right in the enslaving
of one man by another. I object to it as a dangerous dalliance for a
free people, - a sad evidence that feeling prosperity, we forget
right, - that liberty as a principle we have ceased to revere.

* * * * *

Little by little, but steadily as man's march to the grave, we have
been giving up the old for the new faith. Near eighty years ago we
began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now from that
beginning we have run down to the other declaration that for some men
to enslave others is a "sacred right of self-government." These
principles cannot stand together. They are as opposite as God and

* * * * *

Our Republican robe is soiled and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify
it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit if not the blood of
the Revolution. Let us turn slavery from its claims of "moral right"
back upon its existing legal rights, and its arguments of "necessity."
Let us return it to the position our fathers gave it, and there let it
rest in peace. Let us readopt the Declaration of Independence, and the
practices and policy which harmonize with it. Let North and South - let
all Americans - let all lovers of liberty everywhere - join in the great
and good work. If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union,
but we shall have so saved it, as to make and to keep it forever
worthy of the saving. We shall have so saved it that the succeeding
millions of free, happy people, the world over, shall rise up and call
us blessed to the latest generations.

[Sidenote: 1864.]

The election which, occurred on November 7 resulted disastrously for
Douglas. It was soon found that the Legislature on joint ballot would
probably give a majority for Senator against Shields, the incumbent,
or any other Democrat who had supported the Nebraska bill. Who might
become his successor was more problematical. The opposition majority
was made up of anti-Nebraska Democrats, of what were then called
"abolitionists" (Lovejoy had been elected among these), and finally of
Whigs, who numbered by far the largest portion. But these elements,
except on one single issue, were somewhat irreconcilable. In this
condition of uncertainty a host of candidates sprung up. There was
scarcely a member of Congress from Illinois - indeed, scarcely a
prominent man in the State of any party - who did not conceive the
flattering dream that he himself might become the lucky medium of
compromise and harmony.

Among the Whigs, though there were other aspirants, Lincoln, whose
speeches had contributed so much to win the election, was the natural
and most prominent candidate. According to Western custom, he
addressed a short note to most of the Whig members elect and to other
influential members of the party asking their support. Generally the
replies were not only affirmative but cordial and even enthusiastic.
But a dilemma now arose. Lincoln had been chosen one of the members
from Sangamon County by some 650 majority. The Constitution of
Illinois contained a clause disqualifying members of the Legislature
and certain other designated officials from being elected to the
Senate. Good lawyers generally believed this provision repugnant to
the Constitution of the United States, and that the qualifications of
Senators and Representatives therein prescribed could be neither
increased nor diminished by a State. But the opposition had only a
majority of one or two. If Lincoln resigned his membership in the
Legislature this might destroy the majority. If he refused to resign,
such refusal might carry some member to the Democrats.

[Illustration: OWEN LOVEJOY.]

At last, upon full deliberation, Lincoln resigned his seat, relying
upon the six or seven hundred majority in Sangamon County to elect
another Whig. It was a delusive trust. A reaction in the Whig ranks
against "abolitionism" suddenly set in. A listless apathy succeeded
the intense excitement and strain of the summer's canvass. Local
rivalries forced the selection of an unpopular candidate. Shrewdly
noting all these signs the Democrats of Sangamon organized what is
known in Western politics as a "still-hunt." They made a feint of
allowing the special election to go by default. They made no
nomination. They permitted an independent Democrat, known under the
sobriquet of "Steamboat Smith," to parade his own name. Up to the very
day of election they gave no public sign, although they had in the
utmost secrecy instructed and drilled their precinct squads. On the
morning of election the working Democrats appeared at every poll,
distributing tickets bearing the name of a single candidate not before
mentioned by any one. They were busy all day long spurring up the
lagging and indifferent, and bringing the aged, the infirm, and the
distant voters in vehicles. Their ruse succeeded. The Whigs were taken
completely by surprise, and in a remarkably small total vote,
McDaniels, Democrat, was chosen by about sixty majority. The Whigs in
other parts of the State were furious at the unlooked-for result, and
the incident served greatly to complicate the senatorial canvass.

Nevertheless it turned out that even after this loss the opposition to
Douglas would have a majority on joint ballot. But how unite this
opposition made up of Whigs, of Democrats, and of so-called
abolitionists? It was just at that moment in the impending revolution
of parties when everything was doubt, distrust, uncertainty. Only the
abolitionists, ever aggressive on all slavery issues, were ready to
lead off in new combinations, but nobody was willing to encounter the
odium of acting with them. They, too, were present at the State Fair,
and heard Lincoln reply to Douglas. At the close of that reply, and
just before Douglas's rejoinder, Lovejoy had announced to the audience
that a Republican State Convention would be immediately held in the
Senate Chamber, extending an invitation to delegates to join in it.
But the appeal fell upon unwilling ears. Scarcely a corporal's guard
left the discussion. The Senate Chamber presented a discouraging array
of empty benches. Only some twenty-six delegates were there to
represent the whole State of Illinois. Nothing daunted, they made
their speeches and read their platform to each other. [Transcriber's
Note: Lengthy footnote (1) relocated to chapter end.] Particularly in
their addresses they praised Lincoln's great speech which they had
just heard, notwithstanding his declarations differed so essentially
from their new-made creed. "Ichabod raved," said the Democratic organ
in derision, "and Lovejoy swelled, and all indorsed the sentiments of
that speech." Not content with this, without consent or consultation,
they placed Lincoln's name in the list of their State Central

[Sidenote: Lincoln to Codding, Nov. 27, 1854. MS.]

Matters remained in this attitude until their chairman called a
meeting and notified Lincoln to attend. In reply he sent the following
letter of inquiry: "While I have pen in hand allow me to say that I
have been perplexed to understand why my name was placed on that
committee. I was not consulted on the subject, nor was I apprised of
the appointment until I discovered it by accident two or three weeks
afterwards. I suppose my opposition to the principle of slavery is as
strong as that of any member of the Republican party; but I had also
supposed that the extent to which I feel authorized to carry that
opposition practically was not at all satisfactory to that party. The
leading men who organized, that party were present on the 4th of
October at the discussion between Douglas and myself at Springfield
and had full opportunity to not misunderstand my position. Do I
misunderstand them?"

Whether this letter was ever replied to is uncertain, though
improbable. No doubt it led to conferences during the meeting of the
Legislature, early in the year 1855, when the senatorial question came
on for decision. It has been suggested that Lincoln made dishonorable
concessions of principle to get the votes of Lovejoy and his friends.
The statement is too absurd to merit serious contradiction. The real
fact is that Mr. Giddings, then in Congress, wrote to Lovejoy and
others to support Lincoln. Various causes delayed the event, but
finally, on February 8, 1855, the Legislature went into joint ballot.
A number of candidates were put in nomination, but the contest
narrowed itself down to three. Abraham Lincoln was supported by the
Whigs and Free-soilers; James Shields by the Douglas-Democrats. As
between these two, Lincoln would easily have succeeded, had not five
anti-Nebraska Democrats refused under any circumstances to vote for
him or any other Whig, [Footnote: "All that remained of the anti-
Nebraska force, excepting Judd, Cook, Palmer, Baker, and Allen, of
Madison, and two or three of the secret Matteson men, would go into
caucus, and I could get the nomination of that caucus. But the three
Senators and one of the two Representatives above named 'could never
vote for a Whig,' and this incensed some twenty Whigs to 'think' they
would never vote for the man of the five." - Lincoln to the Hon. E. B.
Washburne, February 9, 1855. MS.] and steadily voted during six
ballots for Lyman Trumbull. The first vote stood: Lincoln, 45;
Shields, 41; Trumbull, 5; scattering, 8. Two or three Whigs had thrown
away their votes on this first ballot, and though they now returned
and adhered to him, the demoralizing example was imitated by various
members of the coalition. On the sixth ballot the vote stood: Lincoln,
36; Shields, 41; Trumbull, 8; scattering, 13.

At this stage of the proceedings the Douglas-Democrats executed a
change of front, and, dropping Shields, threw nearly their full
strength, 44 votes, for Governor Joel A. Matteson. The maneuver was
not unexpected, for though the Governor and the party newspapers had
hitherto vehemently asserted he was not a candidate, the political
signs plainly contradicted such statement. Matteson had assumed a
quasi-independent position; kept himself non-commital on Nebraska, and
opposed Douglas's scheme of tonnage duties to improve Western rivers
and harbors. Like the majority of Western men he had risen from humble
beginnings, and from being an emigrant, farmer, merchant, and
manufacturer, had become Governor. In office he had devoted himself
specially to the economical and material questions affecting Illinois,
and in this role had a wide popularity with all classes and parties.

The substitution of his name was a promising device. The ninth ballot
gave him 47 votes. The opposition under the excitement of non-partisan
appeals began to break up. Of the remaining votes Lincoln received 15,
Trumbull 35, scattering, 1. In this critical moment Lincoln exhibited
a generosity and a sagacity above the range of the mere politician's
vision. He urged upon his Whig friends and supporters to drop his own
name and join without hesitation or conditions in the election of
Trumbull. [Transcriber's Note: Lengthy footnote (2) relocated to
chapter end.] This was putting their fidelity to a bitter trial. Upon
every issue but the Nebraska bill Trumbull still avowed himself an
uncompromising Democrat. The faction of five had been stubborn to
defiance and disaster. They would compel the mountain to go to
Mahomet. It seemed an unconditional surrender of the Whig party. But
such was Lincoln's influence upon his adherents that at his request
they made the sweeping sacrifice, though with lingering sorrow. The
proceedings had wasted away a long afternoon of most tedious suspense.
Evening had come; the gas was lighted in the hall, the galleries were
filled with eager women, the lobbies were packed with restless and
anxious men. All had forgotten the lapse of hours, their fatigue and
their hunger, in the absorption of the fluctuating contest. The
roll-call of the tenth ballot still showed 15 votes for Lincoln, 36
for Trumbull, 47 for Matteson. Amid an excitement which was becoming
painful, and in a silence where spectators scarcely breathed, Judge
Stephen T. Logan, Lincoln's nearest and warmest friend, arose and
announced the purpose of the remaining Whigs to decide the contest,
whereupon the entire fifteen changed their votes to Trumbull. This
gave him the necessary number of fifty-one, and elected him a Senator
of the United States.

At that early day an election to the United States Senate must have
seemed to Lincoln a most brilliant political prize, the highest,
perhaps, to which he then had any hopes of ever attaining. To school
himself to its loss with becoming resignation, to wait hopefully
during four years for another opportunity, to engage in the dangerous
and difficult task of persuading his friends to leave their old and
join a new political party only yet dimly foreshadowed, to watch the
chances of maintaining his party leadership, furnished sufficient
occupation for the leisure afforded by the necessities of his law
practice. It is interesting to know that he did more; that amid the
consideration of mere personal interests he was vigilantly pursuing
the study of the higher phases of the great moral and political
struggle on which the nation was just entering, little dreaming,
however, of the part he was destined to act in it. A letter of his
written to a friend in Kentucky in the following year shows us that he
had nearly reached a maturity of conviction on the nature of the
slavery conflict - his belief that the nation could not permanently
endure half slave and half free - which he did not publicly express
until the beginning of his famous senatorial campaign of 1858:

[Sidenote: MS.]

SPRINGFIELD, ILLS., August 15, 1855
Hon. GEO. ROBERTSON, Lexington, Ky.

MY DEAR SIR: The volume you left for me has been received. I am really
grateful for the honor of your kind remembrance, as well as for the
book. The partial reading I have already given it has afforded me much
of both pleasure and instruction. It was new to me that the exact
question which led to the Missouri Compromise had arisen before it
arose in regard to Missouri, and that you had taken so prominent a
part in it. Your short but able and patriotic speech on that occasion
has not been improved upon since by those holding the same views; and,
with all the lights you then had, the views you took appear to me as
very reasonable.

You are not a friend of slavery in the abstract. In that speech you
spoke of "the peaceful extinction of slavery" and used other
expressions indicating your belief that the thing was, at some time,
to have an end. Since then we have had thirty-six years of experience;
and this experience has demonstrated, I think, that there is no
peaceful extinction of slavery in prospect for us. The signal failure
of Henry Clay and other good and great men, in 1849, to effect
anything in favor of gradual emancipation in Kentucky, together with a
thousand other signs, extinguishes that hope utterly. On the question
of liberty, as a principle, we are not what we have been. When we were
the political slaves of King George, and wanted to be free, we called
the maxim that "all men are created equal" a self-evident truth; but
now when we have grown fat, and have lost all dread of being slaves
ourselves, we have become so greedy to be _masters_ that we call
the same maxim "a self-evident lie." The Fourth of July has not quite
dwindled away; it is still a great day for burning fire-crackers!

That spirit which desired the peaceful extinction of slavery has
itself become extinct with the occasion and the _men_ of the
Revolution. Under the impulse of that occasion, nearly half the States
adopted systems of emancipation at once; and it is a significant fact
that not a single State has done the like since. So far as peaceful,
voluntary emancipation is concerned, the condition of the negro slave
in America, scarcely less terrible to the contemplation of a free
mind, is now as fixed and hopeless of change for the better as that of
the lost souls of the finally impenitent. The Autocrat of all the
Russias will resign his crown and proclaim his subjects free
republicans, sooner than will our American masters voluntarily give up
their slaves.

Our political problem now is, "Can we as a nation continue together
_permanently_ - _forever_ - half slave, and half free?" The
problem is too mighty for me. May God in his mercy superintend the
solution. Your much obliged friend, and humble servant,


The reader has doubtless already noted in his mind the curious
historical coincidence which so soon followed the foregoing
speculative affirmation. On the day before Lincoln's first
inauguration as President of the United States, the "Autocrat of all
the Russias," Alexander II., by imperial decree emancipated his serfs;
while six weeks after the inauguration, the "American masters," headed
by Jefferson Davis, began the greatest war of modern times, to
perpetuate and spread the institution of slavery.

[Relocated Footnote (1): Their resolutions were radical for that day,
but not so extreme as was generally feared. On the slavery question
they declared their purpose:

To restore Kansas and Nebraska to the position of free territories;
that as the Constitution of the United States vests in the States and
not in Congress the power to legislate for the rendition of fugitives
from labor, to repeal and entirely abrogate the fugitive slave law; to
restrict slavery to those States in which it exists; to prohibit the
admission of any more slave States; to abolish slavery in the District
of Columbia; to exclude slavery from all territories over which the
general Government has exclusive jurisdiction, and finally to resist
the acquirement of any more territories unless slavery shall have been
therein forever prohibited.]

[Relocated Footnote (2): "In the meantime our friends, with a view of
detaining our expected bolters, had been turning from me to Trumbull
till he had risen to 35 and I had been reduced to 15. These would
never desert me except by my direction; but I became satisfied that if
we could prevent Matteson's election one or two ballots more, we could
not possibly do so a single ballot after my friends should begin to
return to me from Trumbull. So I determined to strike at once; and
accordingly advised my remaining friends to go for him, which they
did, and elected him on that, the tenth ballot. Such is the way the
thing was done. I think you would have done the same under the
circumstances, though Judge Davis, who came down this morning,
declares he never would have consented to the 47 [opposition] men
being controlled by the five. I regret my defeat moderately, but am
not nervous about it." - Lincoln to Washburne, February 9, 1855. MS.]



[Sidenote: May 30, 1854.]

The passage of the Nebraska bill and the hurried extinction of the
Indian title opened nearly fifteen million acres of public lands to
settlement and purchase. The whole of this vast area was yet
practically tenantless. In all of Kansas there were only three
military posts, eight or ten missions or schools attached to Indian
reservations, and some scores of roving hunters and traders or
squatters in the vicinity of a few well-known camping stations on the
two principal emigrant and trading routes, one leading southward to

Online LibraryJohn George NicolayAbraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 → online text (page 26 of 31)