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Contents > Author > Abraham Lincoln > Speech at Springfield, June 17, 1858 1809- 1865
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Abraham Lincoln
Speech at Springfield, June 17, 1858
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If we could first know where we are, and whither we are
tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it. We
are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the
avowed object and confident promise of putting an end to slavery
agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not
only not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it
will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed.
?A house divided against itself cannot stand.? I believe this
government cannot endure permanently half slave and half
free. I do not expect the Union 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.
Have we no tendency to the latter condition?
Let any one who doubts, carefully contemplate that now
almost complete legal combination?piece of machinery, so to
speak?compounded of the Nebraska doctrine and the Dred
Scott decision. Let him consider, not only what work the
machinery is adapted to do, and how well adapted, but also
let him study the history of its construction, and trace, if he
can, or rather fail, if he can, to trace the evidences of design,
and concert of action, among its chief architects, from the
The new year of 1854 found slavery excluded from more
than half the States by State Constitutions, and from most of
the National territory by Congressional prohibition. Four days
later, commenced the struggle which ended in repealing that
Congressional prohibition. This opened all the National territory
to slavery, and was the first point gained.
But, so far, Congress only had acted; and an indorsement
by the people, real or apparent, was indispensable to save
the point already gained, and give chance for more.
This necessity had not been overlooked; but had been
provided for, as well as might be, in the notable argument
of ?squatter sovereignty,? otherwise called ?sacred right of
self-government,? which latter phrase, though expressive of
the only rightful basis of any government, was so perverted
in this attempted use of it as to amount to just this: That if
any one man choose to enslave another, no third man shall
be allowed to object. That argument was incorporated into
the Nebraska bill itself, in the language which follows:
?It being the true intent and meaning of this Act not to
legislate slavery into any Territory or State, nor to exclude it
therefrom; but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to
form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way,
subject only to the Constitution of the United States.? Then
opened the roar of loose declamation in favor of ?squatter
sovereignty,? and ?sacred right of self-government.? ?But,?
said opposition members, ?let us amend the bill so as to
expressly declare that the people of the Territory may
exclude slavery.? ?Not we,? said the friends of the measure;
and down they voted the amendment.
While the Nebraska bill was passing through Congress,
a law case involving the question of a negro?s freedom, by
reason of his owner having voluntarily taken him first into a
free State and then into a Territory covered by the
Congressional prohibition, and held him as a slave for a long
time in each, was passing through the United States Circuit
Court for the District of Missouri; and both Nebraska bill and
law suit were brought to a decision in the same month of
May, 1854. The negro?s name was ?Dred Scott,? which name
now designates the decision finally made in the case. Before
the then next Presidential election, the law case came to, and
was argued in, the Supreme Court of the United States; but
the decision of it was deferred until after the election. Still,
before the election, Senator Trumbull, on the floor of the
Senate, requested the leading advocate of the Nebraska bill
to state his opinion whether the people of a Territory can
constitutionally exclude slavery from their limits; and the latter
answers: ?That is a question for the Supreme Court.?
The election came. Mr. Buchanan was elected, and the
indorsement, such as it was, secured. That was the second
point gained. The indorsement, however, fell short of a clear
popular majority by nearly four hundred thousand votes, and
so, perhaps, was not overwhelmingly reliable and satisfactory.
The outgoing President, in his last annual message, as
impressively as possible echoed back upon the people the
weight and authority of the indorsement. The Supreme Court
met again, did not announce their decision, but ordered a
re-argument. The Presidential inauguration came, and still no
decision of the court; but the incoming President in his
inaugural address, fervently exhorted the people to abide by
the forthcoming decision, whatever it might be. Then, in a few
days, came the decision.
The reputed author of the Nebraska bill finds an early
occasion to make a speech at this capital indorsing the Dred
Scott decision, and vehemently denouncing all opposition to it.
The new President, too, seizes the early occasion of the
Silliman letter to indorse and strongly construe that decision,
and to express his astonishment that any different view had
ever been entertained!
At length a squabble springs up between the President
and the author of the Nebraska bill, on the mere question of
fact, whether the Lecompton Constitution was or was not, in
any just sense, made by the people of Kansas; and in that
quarrel the latter declares that all he wants is a fair vote for
the people, and that he cares not whether slavery be voted
down or voted up. I do not understand his declaration that he
cares not whether slavery be voted down or voted up, to be
intended by him other than as an apt definition of the policy
he would impress upon the public mind,?the principle for which
he declares he has suffered so much, and is ready to suffer to
the end. And well may he cling to that principle! If he has any
parental feeling, well may he cling to it. That principle is the only
shred left of his original Nebraska doctrine. Under the Dred Scott
decision ?squatter sovereignty? squatted out of existence,
tumbled down like temporary scaffolding; like the mould at the
foundry, served through one blast and fell back into loose sand;
helped to carry an election, and then was kicked to the winds.
His late joint struggle with the Republicans, against the
Lecompton Constitution, involves nothing of the original Nebraska
doctrine. That struggle was made on a point?the right of a
people to make their own constitution?upon which he and the
Republicans have never differed.
The several points of the Dred Scott decision, in connection
with Senator Douglas?s ?care not? policy, constitute the piece
of machinery, in its present state of advancement. This was the
third point gained. The working points of that machinery are:?
Firstly, That no negro slave, imported as such from Africa,
and no descendant of such slave, can ever be a citizen of any
State, in the sense of that term as used in the Constitution of
the United States. This point is made in order to deprive the
negro, in every possible event, of the benefit of that provision
of the United States Constitution which declares that ?The
citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and
immunities of citizens in the several States.?
Secondly, That ?subject to the Constitution of the United
States,? neither Congress nor a Territorial Legislature can exclude
slavery from any United States territory. This point is made in
order that individual men may fill up the Territories with slaves,
without danger of losing them as property, and thus to enhance
the chances of permanency to the institution through all the future.
Thirdly, That whether the holding a negro in actual slavery in a
free State, makes him free, as against the holder, the United
States courts will not decide, but will leave to be decided by the
courts of any slave State the negro may be forced into by the
master. This point is made, not to be pressed immediately; but, is
acquiesced in for awhile, and apparently indorsed by the people
at an election, then to sustain the logical conclusion that what
Dred Scott?s master might lawfully do with Dred Scott, in the
free State of Illinois, every other master may lawfully do with
any other one, or one thousand slaves, in Illinois, or in any
other free State.
Auxiliary to all this, and working hand in hand with it, the
Nebraska doctrine, or what is left of it, is to educate and
mould public opinion, at least Northern public opinion, not to
care whether slavery is voted down or voted up. This shows
exactly where we now are; and partially, also, whither we
are tending.
It will throw additional light on the latter, to go back and
run the mind over the string of historical facts already stated.
Several things will now appear less dark and mysterious than
they did when they were transpiring. The people were to be
left ?perfectly free,? ?subject only to the Constitution.? What
the Constitution had to do with it, outsiders could not then
see. Plainly enough now, it was an exactly fitted niche, for the
Dred Scott decision to afterward come in, and declare the
perfect freedom of the people to be just no freedom at all.
Why was the amendment, expressly declaring the right of
the people, voted down? Plainly enough now: the adoption
of it would have spoiled the niche for the Dred Scott decision.
Why was the court decision held up? Why even a Senator?s
individual opinion withheld, till after the Presidential election?
Plainly enough now: the speaking out then would have
damaged the perfectly free argument upon which the election
was to be carried. Why the outgoing President?s felicitation
on the indorsement? Why the delay of a re-argument? Why
the incoming President?s advance exhortation in favor of the
decision? These things look like the cautious patting and
petting of a spirited horse preparatory to mounting him, when
it is dreaded that he may give the rider a fall. And why the
hasty after-indorsement of the decision by the President and
We cannot absolutely know that all these exact adaptations
are the result of preconcert. But when we see a lot of framed
timbers, different portions of which we know have been gotten
out at different times and places and by different workmen,?
Stephen, Franklin, Roger and James, for instance,?and when
we see these timbers joined together, and see they exactly
make the frame of a house or a mill, all the tenons and mortises
exactly fitting, and all the lengths and proportions of the
different pieces exactly adapted to their respective places, and
not a piece too many or too few?not omitting even scaffolding
?or, if a single piece be lacking, we see the place in the frame
exactly fitted and prepared yet to bring such piece in?in such
a case, we find it impossible not to believe that Stephen and
Franklin and Roger and James all understood one another from
the beginning, and all worked upon a common plan or draft
drawn up before the first blow was struck.
It should not be overlooked that, by the Nebraska bill, the
people of a State as well as Territory, were to be left ?perfectly
free,? ?subject only to the Constitution.? Why mention a State?
They were legislating for Territories, and not for or about States.
Certainly the people of a State are and ought to be subject to
the Constitution of the United States; but why is mention of
this lugged into this merely Territorial law? Why are the people
of a Territory and the people of a State therein lumped
together, and their relation to the Constitution therein treated
as being precisely the same? While the opinion of the court, by
Chief Justice Taney, in the Dred Scott case, and the separate
opinions of all the concurring Judges, expressly declare that the
Constitution of the United States neither permits Congress nor
a Territorial Legislature to exclude slavery from any United
States Territory, they all omit to declare whether or not the
same Constitution permits a State, or the people of a State, to
exclude it. Possibly, this is a mere omission; but who can be quite
sure, if McLean or Curtis had sought to get into the opinion a
declaration of unlimited power in the people of a State to
exclude slavery from their limits, just as Chase and Mace sought
to get such declaration, in behalf of the people of a Territory,
into the Nebraska bill,?I ask, who can be quite sure that it would
not have been voted down in the one case as it had been in the
other? The nearest approach to the point of declaring the power
of a State over slavery, is made by Judge Nelson. He approaches
it more than once, using the precise idea, and almost the language,
too, of the Nebraska act. On one occasion, his exact language is,
?Except in cases where the power is restrained by the
Constitution of the United States, the law of the State is supreme
over the subject of slavery within its jurisdiction.? In what cases
the power of the States is so restrained by the United States
Constitution, is left an open question, precisely as the same
question, as to the restraint on the power of the Territories, was
left open in the Nebraska act. Put this and that together, and we
have another nice little niche, which we may, ere long, see filled
with another Supreme Court decision, declaring that the
Constitution of the United States does not permit a State to
exclude slavery from its limits. And this may especially be expected
if the doctrine of ?care not whether slavery be voted down or
voted up? shall gain upon the public mind sufficiently to give
promise that such a decision can be maintained when made.
Such a decision is all that slavery now lacks of being alike lawful
in all the States. Welcome, or unwelcome, such a decision is
probably coming, and will soon be upon us, unless the power of
the present political dynasty shall be met and overthrown. We shall
lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the
verge of making their State free, and we shall awake to the reality
instead that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a Slave State.
To meet and overthrow the power of that dynasty, is the work now
before all those who would prevent that consummation. That is
what we have to do. How can we best do it?
There are those who denounce us openly to their own
friends, and yet whisper us softly, that Senator Douglas is the
aptest instrument there is with which to effect that object.
They wish us to infer all, from the fact that he now has a little
quarrel with the present head of the dynasty, and that he has
regularly voted with us on a single point, upon which he and
we have never differed. They remind us that he is a great man,
and that the largest of us are very small ones. Let this be granted.
But ?a living dog is better than a dead lion.? Judge Douglas, if not
a dead lion, for this work is at least a caged and toothless one.
How can he oppose the advances of slavery? He don?t care
anything about it. His avowed mission is impressing the ?public
heart? to care nothing about it. A leading Douglas Democratic
newspaper thinks Douglas?s superior talent will be needed to
resist the revival of the African slave trade. Does Douglas
believe an effort to revive that trade is approaching? He has
not said so. Does he really think so? But if it is, how can he
resist it? For years he has labored to prove it a sacred right of
white men to take negro slaves into the new Territories. Can he
possibly show that it is less a sacred right to buy them where
they can be bought cheapest? And unquestionably they can be
bought cheaper in Africa than in Virginia. He has done all in his
power to reduce the whole question of slavery to one of a mere
right of property; and as such, how can he oppose the foreign
slave trade?how can he refuse that trade in that ?property?
shall be ?perfectly free??unless he does it as a protection to
the home production? And as the home producers will probably
not ask the protection, he will be wholly without a ground of
Senator Douglas holds, we know, that a man may rightfully
be wiser to-day than he was yesterday; that he may rightfully
change when he finds himself wrong. But can we, for that
reason, run ahead, and infer that he will make any particular
change, of which he himself has given no intimation? Can we
safely base our action upon any such vague inference? Now,
as ever, I wish not to misrepresent Judge Douglas?s position,
question his motives, or do aught that can be personally
offensive to him. Whenever, if ever, he and we can come
together on principle so that our cause may have assistance
from his great ability, I hope to have interposed no adventitious
obstacle. But clearly, he is not now with us?he does not
pretend to be?he does not promise ever to be.
Our cause, then, must be intrusted to, and conducted by,
its own undoubted friends?those whose hands are free,
whose hearts are in the work, who do care for the result.
Two years ago the Republicans of the nation mustered over
thirteen hundred thousand strong. We did this under the
single impulse of resistance to a common danger, with every
external circumstance against us. Of strange, discordant, and
even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and
formed and fought the battle through, under the constant hot
fire of a disciplined, proud and pampered enemy. Did we brave
all then, to falter now,?now, when that same enemy is
wavering, dissevered and belligerent? The result is not doubtful.
We shall not fail; if we stand firm, we shall not fail. Wise counsels
may accelerate, or mistakes delay it, but sooner or later, the
victory is sure to come.

(The above speech was delivered at Springfield, Illinois on June
17, 1858, at the close of the Republican State Convention by which
Mr. Lincoln was named as their candidate for United States Senator.)

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