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[Detail] Lincoln Centennial Association

Moving to the National Stage

Lincoln, a Whig who held party leader Henry Clay in high esteem, campaigned for Whig candidates across the state of Illinois in the 1840s and early 1850s. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846. Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate in 1849, but that bid was unsuccessful, and he returned to his law practice. In the next several years, political developments and increasing sectionalism resulted in serious weakening of the Whig Party.

Spurred by passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed slavery north of latitude 36 degrees, 30 minutes, a new party was formed, the Republican Party. Lincoln was an early member of the party, helping a Republican senator to win election in Illinois in 1854. That same year, Lincoln was invited to give a speech at Peoria in response to Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, the sponsor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Understanding that Judge Douglas is expected to address our citizens on the 16th of next month on the principles of the Nebraska-Kansas Bill. And feeling that what he may then advance should not be suffered to pass without suitable notice – the undersigned, on behalf of themselves and the Whigs of Peoria, are exceedingly desirous that (if not too great a tax upon your time & strength) you will consent to be present and take a convenient opportunity, after the speech of Judge D., to reply to it, and give us your own views upon the subject.

From “Lincoln's invitation to Peoria.”

The three-hour speech Lincoln gave in response to this invitation gained national attention. In 1858, the Illinois Republicans nominated Lincoln as their candidate for the U.S. Senate, opposing Stephen A. Douglas, a Democrat. Lincoln gave another notable speech to close the Illinois Republican convention in Springfield:

. . . “A house divided against itself can not stand.” I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the unit 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 the 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.

From “Conclusion of the Republican State Convention: Speech of Hon. Abraham Lincoln,” from “Illinois political campaign of 1858” image 10

Read the entire speech and answer the following questions:

  • What did Lincoln mean when he referred to the Nebraska doctrine (the Kansas-Nebraska Act) and Dred Scott decision as a “piece of machinery”? For what work did he say the machinery was designed?
  • To whom is Lincoln referring when he talks about “Stephen and Franklin and Roger and James”? What does he mean when he says they “all worked upon a common plan or draft drawn up before the first blow was struck?” How does he make the case for what he calls “preconcert”?
  • What arguments does Lincoln make against the candidacy of Stephen A. Douglas? How does he try to rally Republicans to his own candidacy? How effective do you find his arguments?

Lincoln and Douglas took part in a series of seven debates in cities around Illinois. A series of letters between them illustrates some sniping between the two candidates as the arrangements were made. The primary focus of these debates was slavery. At the second debate, in Freeport, Lincoln tried to force Douglas to choose between popular sovereignty, as represented in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case (that slavery could not constitutionally be excluded from U.S. territories). In response, Douglas espoused a compromise position, articulating what came to be known as the Freeport Doctrine:

The next question propounded to me by Mr. Lincoln is, can the people of a territory in any lawful way against the wishes of any citizen of the United States; exclude slavery from their limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution? I answer emphatically, as Mr. Lincoln has heard me answer a hundred times from every stump in Illinois, that in my opinion the people of a Territory can, by lawful means, exclude slavery from their limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution. Mr. Lincoln knew that I had answered that question over and over again. He heard me argue the Nebraska bill on that principle all over the State in 1854, in 1855, and in 1856, and he has no excuse for pretending to be in doubt as to my position on that question. It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter decide as to the abstract question whether slavery may or may not go into a territory under the constitution, the people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it as they please, for the reason that slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere, unless it is supported by local police regulations. Those police regulations can only be established by the local legislature; and if the people are opposed to slavery they will elect representatives to that body who will by unfriendly legislation effectually prevent the introduction of it into their midst. If, on the contrary, they are for it, their legislation will favor its extension. Hence, no matter what the decision of the Supreme Court may be on that abstract question, still the right of the people to make a slave territory or a free territory is perfect and complete under the Nebraska bill. I hope Mr. Lincoln deems my answer satisfactory on that point.

“Douglas’ Speech,” from “Illinois political campaign of 1858”

In his response to Douglas, who highlighted ways in which Lincoln’s positions disagreed with those taken by county and congressional district conventions of the Republican Party, Lincoln emphasized the opposition of Illinoisans to the Kansas-Nebraska Act sponsored by Douglas:

At the introduction of the Nebraska policy, we believed there was a new era being introduced in the history of the Republic, which tended to the spread and perpetuation of slavery. But in our opposition to that measure we did not agree with one another in everything. The people in the north end of the State were for stronger measures of opposition than we of the central and southern portions of the State, but we were all opposed to the Nebraska doctrine. We had that one feeling and that one sentiment in common. You at the north end met in your Conventions and passed your resolutions. We in the middle of the State and further south did not hold such Conventions and pass the same resolutions, although we had in general a common view and a common sentiment. . . We at last met together in 1856 from all parts of the State, and we agreed upon a common platform. You, who held more extreme notions either yielded those notions, or if not wholly yielding them, agreed to yield them practically, for the sake of embodying the opposition to the measures which the opposite party were pushing forward at that time. . . . For my part, I do hope that all of us, entertaining a common sentiment in opposition to what appears to us a design to nationalize and perpetuate slavery, will waive minor differences on questions which either belong to the dead past or the distant future, and all pull together in this struggle.

“Mr. Lincoln’s Rejoinder” from “Illinois political campaign of 1858”

  • Why do you think Douglas felt compelled to put forth a compromise position on slavery in the territories? Do you think this position helped him in Illinois? When he sought national office in 1860, do you think the Freeport Doctrine helped or hindered his efforts?
  • What is the strongest part of Douglas’s argument for a compromise position? What is the weakest part of his argument?
  • Lincoln also described a process of compromise. In what way was the compromise he described different from the compromise put forth by Douglas?
  • How does the exchange between the two candidates resemble or differ from exchanges among candidates today? Give examples to support your answer.

Although Republicans won more popular votes than the Democrats did, the Democrats won more legislative seats and thus were able to re-elect Senator Douglas. (This was prior to passage of the Seventeenth Amendment, which allowed for direct election of Senators.)

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