American Abolitionists and Antislavery Activists:
Conscience of the Nation

Updated April 4, 2021

l to r: Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips

Updated May 3, 2015

Lincoln Speech at Bloomington, Illinois, September 26, 1854

September 26, 1854

Mr. LINCOLN said:

He would begin by noticing that part of the Judge's speech with which he closed---(the homily upon the Know-Nothings). And he would say on the start, that, like many others he Knew Nothing in regard to the Know-Nothings, and he had serious doubts whether such an organization existed---if such was the case, he had been slighted, for no intimation thereof had been vouchsafed to him. But he would say in all seriousness, that if such an organization, secret or public, as Judge Douglas had described, really existed, and had for its object interference with the rights of foreigners, the Judge could not deprecate it more severely than himself. If there was an order styled the Know-Nothings, and there was any thing bad in it, he was unqualifiedly against it; and if there was anything good in it, why, he said God speed it! [Laughter and applause.] [2] But he would like to be informed on one point: if such a society existed, and the members were bound by such horrid oaths as Judge Douglas told about, he would really like to know how the Judge found out his secrets? [Renewed laughter.]

He would, before proceeding to the main argument, touch upon another subject. The Judge had called the new party Black Republicans. He might call names, and thereby pander to prejudice, as much as he chose: he [Mr. L.] would not bandy such language with him; but inasmuch as the Judge said there had been a swallowing up of the whigs by the Black Republicans or Abolitionists, he would like to have him look at his own case. Where now were the Democratic majorities that were received by Mr. Pierce in 1852? Where are the 15,000 in New Hampshire and the 5,000 in Maine? Where are the former majorities of the democracy in Connecticut [and] [3] in Iowa? Are they not swallowed up? and by what element? What right had Judge Douglas to intimate that none but abolitionists and tender-footed whigs were embraced in the ``fusion,'' and that whigs were the only ones ``swallowed up''? The abolitionists had swallowed up a great many of the Judge's friends, and more of them, if any thing, than of whigs. But he didn't think there was a very serious or alarming swallowing-up on either side---nothing in the least dangerous save to the Judge and his allies.

Mr. LINCOLN then proceeded to meet the main position of Mr. Douglas:

What was the Missouri Compromise? shortly after the organization of the Government we acquired the Northwest Territory. Under the auspices of Jefferson an Ordinance was enacted in 1787 prohibiting slavery forever in that territory. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin came into the Union as free States, under what is now called an infraction of the sarced right of self-government. By that infraction a section of country whose career in prosperity has no parallel, has been thus secured to freedom. In 1803 Mr. Jefferson purchased for $15,000,000 the territory of Louisiana, which was afterwards divided and two territories formed therefrom---New Orleans and St. Louis. New Orleans came into the Union as a State, under the title of Louisiana, in 1812, and met with no opposition on account of her slavery, because it already existed there. In 1818 Missouri manifested a desire to come into the Union. A portion of the States set up against authorizing her to form a State constitution. A bill might have been passed through the House admitting Missouri without the slavery restriction, but it could not have passed the Senate. Finally the matter was settled by the Northern members consenting to the admission of Missouri, with the understanding that in consideration thereof the South consented that slavery should forever be prohibited from entering any territory north of 36 degrees 30 minutes. A new contest then sprung up in regard to the clause which the bill contained excluding free negroes from the State, and another compromise was tacked on to the old one---altogether forming the Missouri Compromise. The question which caused the whole controversy was in reference to slavery in the territory that we purchased of France---including the present States of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri and

Iowa, and the territories of Minnesota, Kansas and Nebraska---and over that only.

After this Compromise had stood a good long time, a gentleman, in language much finer and more eloquent than he [Mr. L.] was capable of constructing, expressed himself in reference to it as follows:

All the evidences of public opinion at that day seemed to indicate that this Compromise had become canonized in the hearts of the American people as a sacred thing, which no ruthless hand should attempt to disturb.

This was certainly very strong, and it was spoken after the Missouri Compromise had been in existence twenty-nine years? Who was it that uttered this sentiment? What ``Black Republican''?---[Immense laughter. A voice ``Douglas.''] No other than Judge Douglas himself. A more beautiful or more forcible expression was not to be found in the English language.

Who, then, was or had been opposed to the Missouri Compromise? [Sensation and applause.]

The manner in which Judge Douglas proved that the Democracy were formerly opposed to the Missouri Compromise was by asserting that they united upon Gen. Cass's Nicholson letter, which embodied a doctrine contrary to the principle of the Restrictive Line. One year previous to the writing of that letter the Wilmot Proviso was introduced, and Gen. Cass had on several occasions expressed himself in favor of it. Those expressions had cut him off from Southern votes, and he found he must do something to regain the good opinion of the South: so, on sober-second thought, he concluded to write that famous letter, which secured his nomination for the Presidency in 1848---and also secured his defeat. [Laughter.] But Judge Douglas said that the Democracy united on the Nicholson letter, and consequently repudiated the Missouri Compromise, as all the other parties had previously done. He tells us, however, that he introduced a proposition to extend the Missouri Compromise to the Pacific. This was several months AFTER the Nicholson letter was written, and thus the Judge was in favor of the Compromise after his whole party had united upon a doctrine which he now says is inconsistent with it! We must all have our mouths stopped by Judge Douglas, and receive his assertion that we have all been opposed to the Missouri Compromise, but he himself could have voted to extend it clear through to the Pacific. He was the only person ever in favor of the Compromise---who, then, passed it in the Senate in 1848? These (said Mr. Lincoln, in his earnest style) are all afterthoughts---ALL, ALL.

The Whigs voted against the extension of the Missouri Compromise to the Pacific. Now could that pass as a reasonable argument in favor of the Judge's proposition that they were against the Compromise itself? If, said Mr. Lincoln, I and my partner erect a house together, and he proposes to build an addition to it, do I, by my opposition to his plan, intimate a desire to have the whole house burned or torn down? It might just as well be asserted that a horse was not a horse, or that black was white, as that the refusal to enlarge or extend anything was the same as an expression of opinion against it. Yet this was the same kind of sophistry used by Judge Douglas; and if you take away this foundation, all his arguments on this point fall to the ground. It is hard, said Mr. LINCOLN, to argue against such nonsense. The Judge puts words in the mouths of his audience with which to call them fools. Because no one interrupts him with a denial of his assertions, he takes them as admitted by the people, and builds upon them his monstrous and ridiculous propositions. He knows very well that the people have NOT always been opposed to the Missouri Compromise, [Many cries of No! No! Never!] although no one answered his question to-day in the affirmative. [Mr. Louglas had said in his speech ``Is there a man here, except myself, who ever was in favor of the Missouri Compromise?'' and a blank silence followed.---Ed. rep.]

Mr. LINCOLN then reviewed the New Mexican question, in its bearings upon the present issue. President Polk concluded that he could acquire more territory if he had more money, and asked Congress for $2,000,000 with which to purchase New Mexico. To the bill granting this sum Mr. Wilmot moved an amendment, providing that slavery should be prohibited from entering the territory under consideration. This defeated the bill at that time. The Wilmot Proviso had nothing to do with the Northwest Territory or the Louisiana purchase, and the Missouri Compromise had nothing to do with New Mexico or Oregon, or with any other territory save that to which it was originally applied. By the treaty of Peace with Mexico in 1848 we acquired California, and in two years she applied for admission as a State. She came with a constitution prohibiting slavery, but there was a sufficient majority in the Senate to prevent her entering free. Then the question of boundary between Texas and New Mexico arose, and added to the agitation. The old fugitive slave law was then found to be inefficient. And finally the famous Georgia Pen, in Washington, where negroes were bought and sold within sight of the National Capitol, began to grow offensive in the nostrils of all good men,

Southerners as well as Northerners. All these subjects got into the Omnibus Bill, which was intended as a compromise between the North and the South, and the measures in which, although defeated in the aggregate, were all passed separately. The measures which the North gained by the passage of the Adjustment of 1850 were, the admission of California with a free Constitution and the discontinuance of the Georgia Pen; and those which the South gained were, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law and the territorial bills of Utah and New Mexico, and the settlement of the Texas boundary. The North gained two measures and the South three. Such was the Compromise of 1850---a measure for the benefit of the South as well as of the North, and acquiesced in by the Whig and Democratic parties of the country.

Now what was there in the Compromise Measures of '50 that repudiated the Missouri Compromise? The North secured that portion of the Louisiana purchase north of 36.30 to freedom, by giving the South what they demanded as an equivalent therefor, namely, Missouri. We got it fairly and honestly, by paying for it: then what reason was there in endeavoring to make the stipulation upon which we purchased it apply as a principle to other and all future territories? The Missouri Compromise was a contract made between the North and the South, by which the former got all the Louisiana purchase north, and the latter all south, of the line of 36.30 within that territory. There was no show of sense in endeavoring to make this bargain apply to any future territory acquired by the United States.

Mr. L. reviewed with much keenness the sophistry, upon which great dependence is placed by the advocates of the Nebraska scheme, that the principle of allowing States to settle their own domestic institutions was applicable to the territories. He traced the relation that existed between them and the Government, showed them to be dependencies of it, and held up in a proper light the absurd proposition that Government could lay no restriction upon soil which it had bought and paid for, and over which it exercised a parental care.

He contended that the only way slavery could get a foothold anywhere was by going in by slow degrees, little by little, before there were people enough to form a territorial government. Then, when the government is to be organized, slavery is already on the ground---a ``local institution''---and has an equal chance with freedom. Said Mr. L, if you will keep slavery out of any territory until there are 50,000 inhabitants, I will risk the chances of its ever being established there. He would venture on the good sense of fifty thousand people---that number could keep slavery out of South Carolina, were it not for the fact that [it] [4] is already there. The strong argument that Kansas will be a slave State is that slavery now exists there, by recognition of Congress. It has already obtained a foothold, and is an institution of the territory---one of their ``domestic institutions.''

The sacred right of self-government, rightly understood, no one appreciated more than himself. But the Nebraska measure, so far from carrying out that right, was the grossest violation of it. The principle that men or States have the right of regulating their own affairs, is morally right and politically wise. Individuals held the sacred right to regulate their own family affairs; communities might arrange their own internal matter to suit themselves; States might make their own statutes, subject only to the Constitution of the whole country;---no one disagreed with this doctrine. It had, however, no application to the question at present at issue namely, whether slavery, a moral, social and political evil, should or should not exist in territory owned by the Government, over which the Government had control, and which looked to the Government for protection---unless it be true that a negro is not a man; if not, then it is no business of ours whether or not he is enslaved upon soil which belongs to us, any more than it is our business to trouble ourselves about the oyster-trade, cranberry-trade, or any other legitimate traffic carried on by the people in territory owned by the Government. If we admit that a negro is not a man, then it is right for the Government to own him and trade in the race, and it is right to allow the South to take their peculiar institution with them and plant it upon the virgin soil of Kansas and Nebraska. If the negro is not a man, it is consistent to apply the sacred right of popular sovereignty to the question as to whether the people of the territories shall or shall not have slavery; but if the negro, upon soil where slavery is not legalized by law and sanctioned by custom, is a man, then there is not even the shadow of popular sovereignty in allowing the first settlers upon such soil to decide whether it shall be right in all future time to hold men in bondage there.

Judge Douglas had said that the Illinois Legislation passed resolutions instructing him to repeal the Missouri Compromise. But said Mr. L., the Judge, when he refers to resolutions of instruction, always gets those which never passed both houses of the Legislature. The Legislature [passed] [5] a resolution, upon this subject which the Judge either forgot or didn't choose to read. No man who voted to pull down the Missouri Compromise represented the people, and [the Legislature] [6] of this State never instructed Douglas or any one else to commit that act. And yet the Judge had told the people that they were in favor of repealing the Missouri Compromise, and all must acquiesce in his assumption or be denounced as abolitionists. What sophistry is this, said Mr. L., to contend and insist that you did instruct him to effect the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, when you know you never thought of such a thought of it [Cries of ``No! No!!'']---that all the people of Illinois have always been opposed to that Compromise, when no man will say that he ever thought of its repeal previous to the introduction of the Nebraska bill.



[1]   Peoria Weekly Republican, October 6, 1854.

[2]   Brackets are in the source unless otherwise indicated.

[3]   Editors' insertion.

[4]   Editors' insertion.

[5]   Editors' insertion.

[6]   Editors' insertion.


Source:  Basler, Collected Works, Vol. II, pp. 234-240.  [Downloaded 5/3/15 from]