When Abraham Lincoln turned 45 years old in February of 1854, he was a successful and contented man with no great political aspirations. He had previously served for eight years as a State legislator and later for two more in the U.S. House of Representatives, but for the past five years he had focused almost exclusively on his legal career. In his own words, he “was losing interest in politics”, but then something happened which “aroused him as he had never been before”.
That ‘something’ was known in his day simply as ‘Nebraska’. This was not the State – which did not yet exist – nor even the Territory of Nebraska, but rather the shorthand form of referring to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This law, proposed by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas and finally passed by Congress in May 1854 following a contentious debate, overturned the provision in the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which had prohibited slavery in the northern half of the vast territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Congress was essentially renouncing its right to regulate slavery in the territories and future states. This meant that slavery, instead of being contained in the South with the hope that it would eventually die out, was now being given new life and would likely extend much further than it could have otherwise.
As already noted, the passage of ‘Nebraska’ aroused Lincoln – as well as many others in the north – from his slumber regarding the slavery question. The political world was swiftly divided into ‘Nebraska men’ and ‘anti-Nebraska men’, with the latter soon coalescing around the brand-new Republican Party, formed to oppose the further extension of slavery.
Lincoln’s return to the fray, as a decidedly anti-Nebraska man, was marked by a speech he delivered in at least three central Illinois cities in the fall of 1854, but which came to be known as his ‘Peoria speech’ (photo taken last weekend of me with the John McClarey statue entitled “Lincoln Draws the Line”, which commemorates this speech). It is one of my favorite Lincoln speeches, as it clearly demonstrates his political convictions, logical thought, eloquence, and persuasivness. In fact, when I participated in the ‘Lincoln Days’ Celebration Look-Alike Contest last month in Hodgenville, Kentucky, I pronounced the following brief selection from the speech:
“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, why in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as 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. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal’; and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.
“… 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 can not stand together. They are as opposite as God and mammon; and whoever holds to the one, must despise the other…
“Let no one be deceived. The spirit of seventy-six and the spirit of Nebraska, are utter antagonisms; and the former is being rapidly displaced by the latter.
“Fellow countrymen – Americans south, as well as north, shall we make no effort to arrest this? … Is there no danger to liberty itself, in discarding the earliest practice, and first precept of our ancient faith? …
“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 re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, 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.”
Did Lincoln’s three-hour-long speech “play in Peoria”? (i.e., was it well received?) Most definitely! It launched him on a path which would quickly make him the leading ‘anti-Nebraska’ voice in Illinois, and which would gradually increase his national prominence over the next six years, culminating in his stunning nomination by the Republican Party for the Presidential election of 1860.
We can be thankful that ‘Nebraska’ aroused Lincoln as never before, and enticed him back into politics and the fight against the extension of slavery. We can also be thankful that he would have many further opportunities to inspire the people of his day through his speeches and writings over the next eleven years. We cannot help but to be inspired still today by his words.
November 1, 2015