An examination of past and present public debates and their impact on American Society.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Lincoln's early views on slavery and the law

In 1837, the Illinois State Legislature had passed a series of resolutions on slavery. As a free state, it may seem surprising that these resolutions support the Southern states' position on slavery, namely that slavery was strictly a state issue and the federal government had no place in the debate.

(ed. note: Actually, the Southern states wanted it both ways, they wanted to be free from Northern "insensibilities" whilst demanding that the federal government protect their interests. They steadfastly refused to concede that the rights guaranteed to individuals in the first Ten Amendments were superior, or even equal, to the rights of the states. Kind of like buying a bag of mixed nuts, but only willing to pay for the hazelnuts.)

What is interesting is that two legislators, Daniel Stone and our own Abraham Lincoln, protested these resolutions and entered into the record their own version of them.

The rub between the two sets of resolutions is that, while the Legislature's resolutions condoned slavery unconditionally, Lincoln and Stone modified those same resolutions as a qualified acknowledgement of respect for the law as it stood and the then-current lack of federal jurisdiction over slavery. The differences, while minor by today's standards, speak volumes.

The State Legislature Resolutions:

Resolved by the General Assembly of the State of Illinois, That we highly disapprove of the formation of abolition societies, and of the doctrines promulgated by them.

Resolved, That the right of property in slaves, is sacred to the slave-holding States by the Federal Constitution, and that they cannot be deprived of that right without their consent.

Resolved, That the General Government cannot abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, against the consent of the citizens of said District without a manifest breach of good faith.

As protested and modified by Lincoln and Stone (note: These were a dissenting viewpoint. The resolutions stood.):

The following protest was presented to the House, which was read and ordered to be spread on the journals, to wit:

Resolutions upon the subject of domestic slavery having passed both branches of the General Assembly at its present session, the undersigned hereby protest against the passage of the same.

They believe that the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy; but that the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than to abate its evils.

They believe that the Congress of the United States has no power, under the constitution, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the different States.

They believe that the Congress of the United States has the power, under the constitution, to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia; but that that power ought not to be exercised unless at the request of the people of said District.

The difference between these opinions and those contained in the said resolutions, is their reason for entering this protest.''



Representatives from the county of Sangamon.

In January of the following year, Lincoln address a Lyceum organization and obliquely referenced the issue again. In his speech, a diatribe against recent mob lynchings in Mississippi and Missouri, as well as an incident in Illinois, Lincoln fervently preached obedience to the current law and to defend and protect the union. It is clear Lincoln's stance on the issue of slavery in his early career was strictly a legalistic one. But reading Lincoln fully, it would be hard to argue that Lincoln had even an ounce of affection for that institution.

...increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgement of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.


When men take it in their heads to day, to hang gamblers, or burn murderers, they should recollect, that, in the confusion usually attending such transactions, they will be as likely to hang or burn some one, who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is; and that, acting upon the example they set, the mob of to-morrow, may, and probably will, hang or burn some of them, by the very same mistake.


Thus, then, by the operation of this mobocratic spirit, which all must admit, is now abroad in the land, the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed---I mean the attachment of the People.


The question recurs ``how shall we fortify against it?'' The answer is simple. Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor;---let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character [charter?] of his own, and his children's liberty. Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap---let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges;---let it be written in Primmers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;---let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.


When I so pressingly urge a strict observance of all the laws, let me not be understood as saying there are no bad laws, nor that grievances may not arise, for the redress of which, no legal provisions have been made. I mean to say no such thing. But I do mean to say, that, although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed.


There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law. In any case that arises, as for instance, the promulgation of abolitionism, one of two positions is necessarily true; that is, the thing is right within itself, and therefore deserves the protection of all law and all good citizens; or, it is wrong, and therefore proper to be prohibited by legal enactments; and in neither case, is the interposition of mob law, either necessary, justifiable, or excusable.

I think that answers any confusion about Lincoln's apparently equivocal attitude towards slavery.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Lincoln a Racist?

I recent participated in a debate on the blog Port McClellan ( responding to charges that Lincoln was a racist.

The specific charge is,

Lincolln's (sic) statement that "there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality” is about as racist as you can get.

Lincoln's quote is from his debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858. Here are a couple of my postings.

The effects of Slavery on the Civil War

The two dominant political parties of the 1850s were the Jefferson-Democratic party and the emerging National Republican party. The single divisive issue between them, and for the nation as a whole, was the long term status of the institution of slavery in America.

The Democrats were a mixed lot; Southern slave owners wanted to be left alone, Northern industrialists were irritated that the issue of slavery was distracting and thwarting the westward expansion and growth of the nation. Compromise and maintaining the status quo, and states rights, were paramount concerns.

The Republican Party grew out of the older Whig party, mostly those Northern Whigs like Abraham Lincoln who feared recent congressional action threatened to "have placed that institution (slavery - ed.) on a new basis, which looks to the perpetuity and nationalization of slavery" (First Douglas-Lincoln Debate).

Although, as Stephen Douglas, the Democratic Senator from Illinois whose priorities of expansion and growth of the nation were in danger of getting sidelined by the slavery issue, pointed out in his first Debate with Abraham Lincoln, "(A)t the time the Constitution was framed, there were thirteen States in the Union, twelve of which were slaveholding States and one free State", most of those states had actually implemented formal plans toward gradual emancipation long time ago and had reached fruition.

Seven Northern and Mid Atlantic states had passed legislation that prohibited further slavery by 1800 and had ended the existing practices before 1850. New Jersey passed legislation in 1804 and formally ended slavery within that state by 1865. The Northwest Ordinance of 1789, which organized the land between the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys in the Midwest, specifically forbade slavery in those Territories.

These various state and national legislative actions towards a gradual emancipation was sufficiently acceptable to most people who wanted slavery abolished. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, which forbid slavery in the territories of the Louisiana Purchase north of the southern border of Missouri (except for Missouri), was resolved peaceably as it allowed the admission of Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. This maintained a delicate representational balance in Congress between slave and free states and set a precedent for the next four decades.

However in the 1850s, the issue began to polarize on whether slavery was to be a permanent institution or phased out throughout the country. This time it was about the admission of California as a free state and the status of recently acquired territory in the Southwest from Mexico. The Compromise of 1850 split the difference on many issues, but it also dealt a severe blow to the alliance between Northern industrial Whigs and Southern slave owner Whigs.

Four years later, Congressmen, such as Douglas, again attempted to reach a compromise with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. But the balancing act finally failed. Those who believed in the eventual demise of slavery lost hope with each compromise and that slavery would never really be abolished.

As Lincoln argues in the First Debate,

“(The Democrats) have placed that institution on a new basis, which looks to the perpetuity and nationalization of slavery. [Loud cheers.] And while it is placed upon this new basis, I say, and I have said, that I believe we shall not have peace upon the question until the opponents of slavery 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” ... “I believe if we could arrest the spread, and place it where Washington, and Jefferson, and Madison placed it, it would be in the course of ultimate extinction, and the public mind would, as for eighty years past, believe that it was in the course of ultimate extinction.”

Between the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Douglas-Lincoln Debates, the Supreme Court had ruled in the Dred Scott case that a slave was property and could not be taken from their owner because of any travel through states where slavery was illegal.

To many Northern Whigs, that was just too much. The Whig party fell apart and the National Republican Party emerged with a platform to put slavery back on the gradual road to extinction. “Popular sovereignty” efforts by the Democratic Party to allow each new state to decide whether it would be a free or slave state heated up the debate as the Republicans and Abolitionists saw this as proof of conspiratorial alliances to thwart any resolution of the slavery issue.

Of course, states that were already slave states did not see any need to have the slavery issue resolved beyond what they saw as their constitutional right to own slaves. Maintaining a parity between slave and free states was more important, and these increasingly conflicting priorities ultimately set the free and slave states on its collision course toward civil war.

The Douglas-Lincoln Debates of 1858

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln challenged incumbent Stephen Douglas in the Illinois race for US Senator. The seven debates focused the larger national debate on the slavery issue.

Saturday, August 20, 2005


This is, and always will be, a work in progress.

All signed comments, feedback, criticisms and suggestions are welcome.

Please use this thread for general comments.

Apologies for the word verification. I am really getting tired of the blog advertising spams.