When Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas introduced congressional legislation in January 1854 that became the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he inadvertently sowed the seeds of his own political demise. His downfall was slow — culminating in defeat in 1860 and death in 1861, but the deterioration of his Illinois base and his national aspirations clearly began in 1854. By seeking to promote his own personal and political interests, Douglas also inadvertently promoted the personal and political interests of three politicians whose interests were diametrically opposed to his own: Ohio's Salmon P. Chase, Massachusetts' Charles Sumner and Illinois' Abraham Lincoln. To a large degree, Douglas rescued the careers of each of the three men when he rewrote legislation for admitting the Nebraska territory and included a repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which had outlawed slavery above the 36-30' parallel. In so doing, he sought to accommodate southerner supporters of slavery without fully appreciating that he was alienating a large segment of northern opinion that opposed any expansion of slavery.
Senator Douglas's aim was to open the West to settlers and business and to open up the way to his own presidential nomination on the Democratic ticket in 1856. Some sort of congressional action was necessary to organize the territories, but Southern Democrats had an effective veto over the type the legal rules that were adopted. And, the price for their votes was a high one: open up the new territory to slavery. It was a price Douglas was willing to pay. However, a political opening for Douglas and an opening to slavery for Southerners was also an opening for the forces that opposed slavery.
"Stephen A. Douglas was not a systematic thinker in an abstract sense," observed Robert W. Johannsen, "He was a pragmatic, professional politician, frequently bumptious and full of bluster, subject to outbursts of oratory that were not always designed to clarify the issues under discussion. His politics, nevertheless, were founded on certain deeply and sincerely held principles, and one of these was his profound faith in America's future. His concern for western development bordered at times on obsession; but, for Douglas, the West embodied all the hopes and aspirations that focused upon the young republic, and it was in the West that the nation's destiny was being revealed. Douglas was a representative of his times — captivated by technological advances, seized by naive enthusiasms, swayed by ill-defined and even indefinable concepts of national greatness, but he was always persuaded of the superiority of American institutions and passionately devoted to their advancement."1
Salmon P. Chase was in Washington at the beginning of 1854 as the lame-duck Senator from Ohio, having been elected by a one-vote majority of Democrats and anti-slavery allies in the Ohio Legislature in 1849. He had failed to make a real mark as an independent, anti-Slavery advocate of "Free Democracy" and his successor in the Senate had already been chosen. The introduction of Douglas' bill presented an opportunity for the opportunistic Chase. By the time of its third revision on January 23, the Nebraska Legislation had been transformed from a relatively benign piece of territorial legislation to the malign destruction of barriers to slavery's extension. The progressive revisions allowed Chase to organize like-minded members of Congress and serve as their primary spokesman in opposition to the potential spread of slavery into the North. The revisions also allowed Chase to ask for a week-long delay in consideration — supposedly to review them but actually so he could publish a rejoinder which pointedly and personally associated Douglas with southern slave interests.
Chase rushed into print an "Appeal of the independent Democrats in Congress to the People of the United States." The appeal, written by Chase and Ohio Congressman Joshua Giddings, called the Douglas proposal "as a gross violation of a sacred pledge; as a criminal betrayal of precious rights; as part and parcel of an atrocious plot to exclude from a vast unoccupied region immigrants from the Old World and free laborers from our own States, and convert it into a dreary region of despotism inhabited by masters and slaves."2
Chase and Charles Sumner were both difficult men who found personal friendship in their political isolation within the Senate. Like Chase, Sumner had been elected by a fragile coalition of Democrats, Free Soilers and rogue Whigs which provided him with a single vote majority in the Massachusetts Legislature after 26 unproductive ballots in 1851. The Harvard-educated lawyer needed this fragile coalition to maintain his political base but his prickly personality tended to attract critics rather than supporters. He had been allied in Massachusetts politics with the Conscience Whigs who were appalled by the pro-South sympathies of the "Cotton Whigs." Like Chase, he used opposition to Douglas and Nebraska as the vehicle to restore his influence and prestige in state and national politics. In a February 21 "Landmark of Freedom" speech, he proclaimed the anti-slavery basis of the country's founding and attacked Douglas as "that human anomaly — a Northern man with Southern principles."3
The speech was such a success that it was reprinted by many newspapers inside and outside the state. Sumner's stock even rose with Massachusetts Whigs who were disappointed by the weakness of their Senate representative, Edward Everett, who was better known to future generations as the man who gave the long-winded speech that preceded President Lincoln's 1863 Gettysburg Address. And it rose even further during the spring as Sumner found fresh excuses to declaim against slavery and his opponents found fresh excuses to pillory him. The aggressive debates in the Senate displayed a combative and heroic side to Sumner that rallied his constituents behind him. Eventually, it led the crusading Sumner to deliver his "Crime Against Kansas" speech in 1856. That led to his near-fatal caning on the Senate floor by a South Carolina congressman. The political resurrection that was begun by Douglas was cemented by his near-death experience.
Douglas meanwhile played into the hands of his opponents with an extensive and personal attack on Chase in which he called Chase a liar who had slandered him. His vituperation made Chase seem moderate by contrast, especially in the Ohio Senator's extensive critique of the bill on March 2-3. By raising the temperature of the debate, Douglas set the stage for scorching attacks on himself by opponents of slavery. On March 4, the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed the Senate by a 37-14 vote and later passed the House by a much narrower, 113-100 margin. After revisions, the legislation was signed into law on May 30 by President Franklin Pierce. By then, the law of unintended consequences tended to operate. As Chase said to Sumner after the Senate vote, "They celebrate a present victory, but the echoes they awake will never rest till slavery itself shall die."4
Douglas himself saw the victory in personal terms, claiming: "I passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act myself. I had the authority and power of a dictator throughout the whole controversy in both houses. The speeches were nothing. It was the marshalling and directing of men and guarding from attacks and with a ceaseless vigilance preventing surprise."5
But the implications of the Act were far from just personal. It meant the end of the Missouri Compromise that had kept pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces in equilibrium for more than three decades. Historian Harry V. Jaffa wrote that "Douglas never desired and never intended to repeal the Missouri Compromise. But we have also maintained that in 1854 Douglas came to the conviction that only the full and consistent application of the doctrine of popular sovereignty — the true principle of republican institutions as he understood them — could resolve the territorial question and provide a firm basis for future national development. These assertions are paradoxical in two respect: First, because Douglas, after the repeal, always insisted that he had always intended it. Second, because there is a manifest incongruity between the proposition that Douglas did not intend the repeal and that he did intend full recognition of popular sovereignty."6
Douglas's actions and arguments also resurrected Mr. Lincoln's political fortunes. Mr. Lincoln himself was essentially retired from politics until revulsion against Kansas-Nebraska legislation pulled him back to the stump during the election campaign later that year. "I was losing interest in politics when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused me again," he admitted later in a short campaign biography written for Jesse Fell.7 After the making the spring court circuit through Jacksonsville Lincoln, Bloomington, Metamora, Pekin, Urbana and Danville, during March, April, and May, Lincoln returned to Springfield during the summer where he had ready access to the State Library and the time to collect his political thoughts before the fall legal circuit began.
Blaine Brooks Gernon wrote in Lincoln in the Political Circus: "In 1854 Lincoln was watching, and saying but little. Yet events were rapidly swinging him into line. On July 10, Cassius M. Clay, bold anti-slavery editor of Lexington, Kentucky, gave in Springfield, Illinois, an address that Lincoln must have heard, for the speaker was an old friend of the Todds. Out on the circuit, Lincoln pondered deeply on the turn of events."8 Lincoln chronicler Paul Findley wrote that Mr. Lincoln prepared his arguments and launched his campaign on August 26, 1854 in Winchester. An observer wrote the Illinois Journal: "The Hon. A. Lincoln...who was present, was loudly called for to address the meeting. He responded to the call ably and eloquently, doing complete justice to his reputation as a clear, forcible and convincing public speaker. His subject was the one which is uppermost in the minds of the people — the Nebraska-Kansas bill; and the ingenious, logical, and at the same time fair and candid manner, in which he exhibited the great wrong and injustice of the real of the Missouri Compromise, and the extension of slavery into free territory, deserves and has received the warmest commendation of every friend of freedom who listened to him. His was a masterly effort — said to be equal to any upon the same subject in Congress, — was replete with unanswerable arguments, which must and will effectually tell at the coming election."9
Mr. Lincoln entered the fray only the return to Springfield of Congressman Richard Yates on August 9. "In the autumn of that year [Lincoln] took the stump with no broader practical aim or object [than] to secure, if possible, the reelection of Hon[.] Richard Yates to congress. His speeches at once attracted a more marked attention than they had ever before done. As the canvass proceeded, he was drawn to different parts of the state, outside of Mr. Yates' district. He did not abandon the law, but gave his attention, by turns, to that and politics," Lincoln wrote for another biographical summary.10
Mr. Lincoln's concern with Yates' reelection led him reluctantly to consent to his own nomination for the Illinois' House of Representatives in the fall — even though his wife was fiercely opposed his return to legislative politics. But, Mr. Lincoln's brain had already been shifting into political gear in early July when he penned these private thoughts about the injustice of slavery: "The ant, who has toiled and dragged a crumb to his nest, will furiously defend the fruit of his labor, against whatever robber assails him. So plain, that the most dumb and stupid slave that ever toiled for a master, does constantly know that he is wronged. So plain that no one, high or low, ever does mistake it, except in a plainly selfish way; for although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of the man who wishes to take the good of it, by being a slave himself."11 Mr. Lincoln makes clear that he thinks the United States was founded on principles inimical to slavery:
"Most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of equal rights of men, as I have, in part, stated them ours began, by affirming those rights. They said, some men are too ignorant, and vicious, to share in government. Possibly so, said we; and, by your system, you would always keep them ignorant, and vicious. We proposed to give all a chance; and we expected the weak to grow stronger, the ignorant, wiser; and all better, and happier together.
Stephen Douglas had spent an active summer, defending his actions and attacking the Know-Nothing Party. His train back to Illinois in late August had been less than triumphant; burning effigies marked the way. Although Chicago had become Douglas' home, it was unfriendly territory in 1854. The city's media and the ministers have both attacked his role in the Kansas-Nebraska Act with considerable warmth. And as usual, Douglas had responded with even more heat. Douglas was prepared to take on the Chicago mob. On September 1, Douglas appeared as advertised to defend the Nebraska bill to about 8000 persons gathered outside North Market Hall in Chicago. The Little Giant had decided to face his rowdy opponents and shout them down. The crowd's opposition to him was so vociferous, however, that heckling prohibited his speech's completion. Douglas was confident of ultimate Democratic victory, however, writing in September to Congressman John C. Breckinridge, "We shall carry the State with a majority in the Legislature of the Congressmen for Nebraska. The Chicago mob has done us much good & we know what use to make of it."13
Meanwhile, the forces of opposition to Douglas had been growing. When Cassius Clay delivered an abolitionist speech in Springfield on July 10, Lincoln laid on the grass and whittled his way through the speech. He was a spectator and a rather disengaged one at that. Lincoln's introduction to the public debates raging over the Nebraska bill came a month later through the reelection campaign of Congressman Yates. He appeared several times in August and early September either with Yates or in his stead. His first real debate on the Nebraska Act itself came on September 9, when he squared off against his old boss, surveyor John Calhoun, an ardent Douglas supporter and skilled debater. Mr. Lincoln said that "Calhoun gave him more trouble in his debates than Douglas ever did, because he was more captivating in his manner a more learned man than Douglas."14
Herndon also recalled that passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act had immediately stirred Lincoln's powers of political analogy. Lincoln told his law partner: "The day of compromise has passed. These two great ideas have been kept apart only by the most artful means. They are like two wild beasts in sight of each other, but chained and held apart. Some day these deadly antagonists will open or the other break their bonds, and then the question will be settled."15 Lincoln had already laid out his analysis of the logical problems of slavery in notes written in July:
If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B.— why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?—
Mr. Lincoln clearly blamed Douglas for reintroducing the issue of slavery into the national debate. The day after the editorial appeared, Mr. Lincoln said in a speech in Bloomington that after the Compromise of 1850, the "matter with regard to slavery was now settled, and no disturbance could be raised except by tearing up some of the Compromises with regard to the territory where it was already settled. The South had got all they claimed, and all the territory south of the compromise line had been appropriated to slavery; they had gotten and eaten their half of the loaf of bread; but all the other half had not been eaten yet; there was the extensive territory of Nebraska secured to freedom, that had not been settled yet. And the slaveholding power attempted to snatch that away. So on Jan. 4, 1854, Douglas introduced the famous Nebraska Bill, which was so constructed before it passage as to repeal the Missouri Compromise, and open all of the territory to the introduction of slavery. It was done without the consent of the people, and against their wishes, for if the matter had been put to vote before the people directly, whether that should be made in a slave territory, they would have indignantly voted it down. But it was got up unexpectedly by the people, hurried through, and now they were called upon to sanction it." Continued Lincoln:
"They ought to make a strong expression against the imposition; that would prevent the consummation of the scheme. The people were the sovereigns, and the representatives their servants, and it was time to make them sensible of this truly democratic principle. They could get the Compromise restored. They were told that they could not because the Senate was Nebraska, and would be for years. Then fill the lower House with true Anti-Nebraska members, and that would be an expression of the sentiment of the people. And furthermore that expression would be heeded by the Senate. If this State should instruct Douglas to vote for the repeal of the Nebraska Bill, he must do it, for the 'the doctrine of instructions' was a part of his political creed. And he was not certain he would not be glad to vote its repeal anyhow, if it would help him fairly out of the scrape. It was so with other Senators; they will be sure to improve the first opportunity to vote its repeal. The people could get it repealed, if they resolved to do it."21
On September 26, Mr. Lincoln returned to Bloomington for another speech. After reviewing the history of slavery and territorial expansion, Lincoln addressed the fundamental flaw in popular sovereignty, according to a report of the speech in the Bloomington Weekly Pantagraph in which Mr. Lincoln satirized both members of the Know-Nothing movement and Senator Douglas's criticisms of it:
He would begin by noticing that part of the Judge's speech with which he closed — the (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.] 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.]
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 the 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 proposed 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. Douglas has 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 Measure 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 the 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 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] 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 the 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 has said that the Illinois Legislature 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] 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] 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.22
Both Lincoln and Douglas had been warming up — Lincoln in the middle of the state and Douglas in the north. At the end of September and first half of October, Lincoln and Douglas engaged in three "debates" which set the tone for the supporters and opponents of the Nebraska Act. The first occurred in Metamora on September 26 when Douglas spoke in the afternoon to Democrats and Lincoln in the evening to Whigs. A week later on October 3, Douglas spoke at State House in Springfield. Rain had forced Douglas' speech indoors though it had been scheduled for larger crowds that were expected at the State Fair. Sitting in the front row in the House chamber was Abraham Lincoln. After Douglas spoke, Lincoln advised the crowd that the next day they would be addressed by either he or Lyman Trumbull, a prominent anti-Nebraska Democrat who was a candidate for Congress. It was Mr. Lincoln who spoke next.
Legal colleague Samuel C. Parks recalled: "In politics Mr[.] Lincoln told the truth when he said he had 'always hated slavery as much as any Abolitionist' but I do not know that he deserved a great deal of credit for that for his hatred of oppression & wrong in all its forms was constitutional — he could not help it[.] 'The occasion of his becoming a great antislavery leader was the agitation of the Repeal of the Missouri Compromise[.] His first great speech in opposition to that measure & in reply to Mr[.] Douglas in Spring field [sic] was one of the ablest & most effective of his life[.] Pending the Repeal I was in Springfield & urged upon Mr[. Simeon] Francis the necessity of the leaders of the Whit Party coming out at once against it[.] I remember well his reply 'I will see Lincoln & get him to make a speech' against it[.] And Lincoln did make a speech & rallied the Whig Party of Central Illinois almost to a man against 'Nebraska Bill'[.]"23
Springfield businessman John W. Bunn recalled that Mr. Lincoln said on October 4: "I will answer that speech without any trouble, because Judge Douglas made two misstatements of face, and upon these two misstatements he built his whole argument. I can show that his facts are not facts, and that will refute his speech."24 It was Mr. Lincoln the next afternoon who spoke for over three hours — in the presence of Senator Douglas, who interrupted repeatedly and then replied briefly in turn. The debate continued with other speakers that night and the next day with Trumbull himself concluding at night. Journalist Horace White recalled:
At the appointed time Douglas and Lincoln entered the hall, the former taking a seat on the front row of benches and the latter advancing to the platform. The two men presented a wide contrast in personal appearance, Lincoln being 6 feet 3 inches high, lean, angular, raw boned, with a complexion of leather, unkempt, and with clothes that seemed to have dropped on him and might drop off; Douglas, almost a dwarf, only 5 feet 4 inches high, but rotund, portly, smooth faced, with ruddy complexion and a lion-like mane, and dressed in clothes of faultless fit. When speaking he seldom moved from his first position, but notwithstanding his diminutive size he always seemed to fill the platform.
Biographers John G. Nicolay and John Hay wrote: "The occasion greatly equalized the relative standing of the champions. The familiar surroundings, the presence and hearty encouragement of his friends, put Lincoln in his best vein. His bubbling humor, his perfect temper, and above all the overwhelming current of his historical arraignment extorted the admiration of even his political enemies." The two men who served as assistants to President Lincoln wrote: "All reports plainly indicate that Douglas was astonished and disconcerted at this unexpected strength of argument, and that he struggled vainly through a two hours' rejoinder to break the force of Lincoln's victory in the debate. Lincoln had hitherto been the foremost man in his district. That single effort made him the leader on the new question in his State."26
The Springfield focus, was on the Little Giant and his big challenger. The Springfield Journal reported that "Mr. Lincoln was frequently and warmly applauded. It was judged a proud day for all who love free principles and the unstained republicanism of our revolutionary days." Less there be any misinterpretation of victory, Herndon wrote the Journal's editorial that stated Mr. Lincoln "exhibited the bill in all its aspects to show its humbuggery and falsehood, and when thus torn to rags, cut into slips, held up to the gaze of the vast crowd, a kind of scorn and mockery was visible upon the face of the crowd and upon the lips of their most eloquent speaker."27
The Journal's Democratic competitor, the Illinois State Register, was less laudatory: "Mr. Lincoln had been selected as the Goliath of the anti-Nebraska black republican fusionists. He had been nosing for weeks in the state library, and pumping his brains and his imagination for points and arguments with which to demolish the champion of popular sovereignty. It is our duty to record the result of his wonderful labors and exertions. He commenced by a number of jokes and witticisms, the character of which will be understood by all who know him, by simply saying they were Lincolnisms. He declared he was a national man — that he was for letting the institution of slavery alone when it existed in the states — that he was for sustaining the fugitive slave law — that there was a clear grant of power in the constitution to enable the south to recover their fugitive slaves, and he was for an efficient law to effect the object intended. He then branched off upon the ordinance of 1787, and worked his way down to the Kansas and Nebraska act. Leaving out the declarations we have spoken of, his speech was one that would have come from [Congressman Joshua] Giddings or [Senator Charles] Sumner, and that class of abolitionists, with more grace than from any men we know of. He quoted the speech of Judge Douglas in 1849, and endeavored to show that he stood now where Judge D. stood then. He attempted to show that the Kansas-Nebraska bill was inconsistent with the legislation of 1850, and maintained that it was a much the duty of congress to prohibit slavery in the territories as to prohibit the slave trade — made what some of his hearers seemed to consider good hits, and called forth the cheers of his friends."28
After this rather benign review of Lincoln's speech, the State Register went on to report Douglas' speech which was met by "deep, heartfelt and heart-reaching concurrence." Douglas "went over every one of Mr. Lincoln's points, and when he concluded, there was nothing left of his arguments — as we heard it remarked, he seemed not content to butcher his antagonist with tomahawk and scalping knife, but he pounded him to pumice with his terrible war club of retort and argument." The Register concluded: "We hope that the effect of this discussion will be to make Mr. Lincoln a wiser man, and will teach him that no talent he may possess, no industry he may see, no art he can invent can stay the power of truth that supports the friends of the Nebraska measure."29 The pro-Lincoln Journal, by contrast said that Douglas' speech was "adroit and plausible, but had not the marble of logic in it."30
The Register was right about one thing. Mr. Lincoln had clearly done his homework. He knew the history and the legislation. He had carefully researched the issues of slavery and territorial compromise, although the while continuing to earn his living as a lawyer. Lincoln biographer Albert Beveridge wrote that "on October 4, 1854, did Lincoln, for the first time in his life, publicly and in forthright words denounce slavery, and assert that it was incompatible with American institutions. Yet he did not propose to abolish it out of hand, but only to restrict it. Indeed, Horace White says that Lincoln never was considered an anti-slavery man before the Emancipation Proclamation..."31
The third Lincoln-Douglas semi-debate of 1854 came on October 16 in Peoria. After a three-hour exposition by Douglass, Lincoln suggested a two-hour break before his own three-hour speech in the evening. Of the three speeches, Peoria is the only one to have been transcribed — after the fact by Lincoln himself. Thus, it has received more attention than the earlier speeches — even though it probably duplicated much of their earlier content. At Peoria, Lincoln once again reviewed the history of slavery in the United States before saying:
Judge Douglas frequently, with bitter irony and sarcasm, paraphrase our argument by saying "The white people of Nebraska are good enough to govern themselves, but they are not good enough to govern a few miserable negroes!!"
Peoria was the last Lincoln-Douglas 'debate" of 1854 although an additional "debate" had been scheduled for Lacon that never held. One or both men had tired of the marathon debate format; Lincoln's law partner argued it was Douglas who was tired of the very large shadow that Lincoln cast on his arguments. A non-locution pact was supposedly agreed upon which relieved Douglas of a considerable burden of answering Lincoln's arguments. They were, after all, a study in contrasts. Douglas — earnest, angry, vengeful forceful. Lincoln — witty, easy, relentless, logical. Douglas probably understood that he did better as the martyr confronting the mob than as the debater who has met his equal.
Douglas's stamina did not meet Mr. Lincoln's. Cincinnati attorney William M. Dickson said that in the fall of 1855 he had a conversation with Mr. Lincoln in Ohio where Mr. Lincoln told him a story from the 1854 campaign: "After having spoken at a number of places, I was surprised one evening, before the speaking began, at Mr. Douglas entering my room at the hotel. He threw himself on the bed and seemed in distress. 'Abe, the tide is against me,' said he. 'It is all up with me. I can do nothing. Don't reply to me this evening. I cannot speak, but I must, and it is my last. Let me alone tonight.' I saw he was in great distress — he could not bear adversity — and I acquiesced in his request and went home."33 Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher wrote that "This recollection may be a garbled explanation of what happened at Lacon on October 17, when, it appears, both men, although scheduled to speak, refrained from doing so."34
Lincoln delivered several more campaign speeches against the Nebraska Act, including one in Chicago on October 27 and one in Quincy on November 1. Lincoln's friend, Abraham Jonas, had invited him to Quincy saying that all Whigs "would be much gratified if you could make it convenient and pay us a visit while the little giant is here. It is believed by all who know you, that a reply from you, would be more effective, than from any other — I trust you may be able to pay us the visit and thereby create a debt of gratitude on the part of Whigs here, which they may at some time, have it in their power, to repay with pleasure and interest."35 Jonas' comments were echoed in an invitation to Chicago by journalist Richard Wilson: "Our folks want you to come & I think it would have a most excellent effect not only upon the present canvas, but for future action consequent on the result." Wilson's colleague, Horace White, wrote Lincoln a few days later that the "idea is to have you go to Chicago and make a speech. You will have a crowd of from eight to ten or fifteen thousand and the result will be that the people will demand of their Representatives to elect a Whig Senator."36
Mr. Lincoln's speechmaking had placed him on the road to emancipation. Historian Harry V. Jaffa wrote that "Lincoln understood the task of statesmanship as we have described it; to know what is good or right, to know how much of that good is attainable, and to act to secure that much good but not to abandon the attainable good by rasping for more. Now Lincoln's task from 1854 on, as he saw it, was to place slavery where it would be in course of ultimate extinction. This, he was convinced, could be done by arresting the spread of slavery, by confining slavery within its existing limits."37
It was obvious that a coalition of Whigs and anti-Nebraska Democrats would be needed to prevent election of a supporter of Senator Douglas's policies regarding territories. Lincoln biographer Albert J. Beveridge wrote: that Mr. Lincoln began to reach out to anti-Nebraska Democrats in September, 1854 — including John Palmer who was running for the State Senate as a Democrat. "Lincoln and Palmer were personal friends, and Lincoln now wrote to him a letter in which moral appeal, personal regard, and political astuteness are well-nigh perfectly blended," wrote biographer Albert Beveridge.38 On September. 7, 1854, Lincoln wrote Palmer:
You know how anxious I am that this Nebraska measure shall be rebuked and condemned every where. Of course I hope something from your position; yet I do not expect you to do any thing which may be wrong in your own judgment; nor would I have you do anything personally injurious to yourself. You are, and always have been, honestly, and sincerely a democrat; and I know how painful it must be to an honest sincere man, to be urged by his party to the support of a measure, which on his conscience he believes to be wrong. You have had a severe struggle with yourself, and you have determined not to swallow the wrong. Is it not just to yourself that you should, in a few public speeches, state your reasons, and thus justify yourself? I wish you would; and yet I say 'don't do it, if you think it will injure you.' You may have given your word to vote for Major Harris, and if so, of course you will stick to it. But allow me to suggest that you should avoid speaking of this; for it probably would induce some of your friends, in like manner, to cast their votes. You understand. And now let me beg your pardon for obtruding this letter upon you, to whom I have ever been opposed in politics. Had your party omitted to make Nebraska a test of party fidelity; you probably would have been the Democratic candidate for congress in the district. You deserved it, and I believe it would have been given you. In that case I should have been quit, happy that Nebraska was to be rebuked at all events. I still should have voted for the whig candidate; but I should have made no speeches, written no letters; and you would have been elected by at least a thousand majority.39
On November 7, Lincoln was elected to Illinois House of Representatives along with his former law partner, Stephen Logan. Lincoln had failed, however, to help return his friend Richard Yates to Congress. The statewide results of the legislative elections were unclear since both the results and Nebraska dispositions of those elected needed to be evaluated. It was soon clear that the reelection of Douglas's ally, Senator James Shields, was in trouble. Lincoln began to test out his chances to replace Democratic Senators James Shields in the Senate. One Peoria friend immediately advised him that the Constitution forbade his election to the Senate, warning "if you decline accepting the seat in the legislature and so notify the Governor and have a new Election this will save your bacon." Lincoln took the advice, declining election on November 27. But his bacon was not saved; pro-Nebraska Democrats elected his replacement. One potential vote was lost for the Senate.
Meanwhile, Mr. Lincoln used the mails to drum up support and pump for information about his prospects for the Senate — with a mixture of anxiety and energy that was reminiscent of his campaign for Congress in late 1845. In the words of William Herndon, "His ambition was a little engine that new no rest."40 Mr. Lincoln wrote supporter Elihu Washburne in December: "Wentworth has a knack of knowing things better than most men. I wish you would pump him, and write me what you get from him. Please do this as soon as you can, as the time is growing short. Don't let any one know I have written you this; for there may be those opposed to me, nearer about you than you think."
From around the state and from Washburne himself came reports on each legislator's past and present sympathies. Washburne reported from Washington: "You would feel flattered at the great interest that is felt for you here by all who know you, either by reputation, or personally." Legal colleague Ward Hill Lamon wrote Lincoln about legal cases but began his letter by advising "I have seen Dr. Courtney (our Representative-elect) upon the subject to which your favor elated; and he authorised me to say to you that is 'unqualifiedly for you for the U.S. Senate — before any other man in the State" — Our citizens here appear to look forward with a great deal of interest to the time that you will be a member of that Body...."41
Lincoln wrote Joseph Gillespie, with whom he had once jumped out of the legislature's windows in Vandalia: "I have really got it into my head to try to be United States Senator; and if I could have your support my chances would be reasonably good. But I know, and acknowledge, that you have as just claims to the place as I have; and therefore I do not ask you to yield to me, if you are thinking of becoming a candidate yourself. If, however, you are not, then I should like to be remembered affectionately by you; and also, to have you make a mark for me with the Anti-Nebraska members, down your way. If you know, and have no objection to tell, let me know whether [Lyman] Trumbull intends to make a push. If he does, I suppose the two men in St. Clair, and one or both in Madison will be for him." But, added Mr. Lincoln, realistically, "Even if we get into joint vote, we shall have difficulty to unite our forces."42
Meanwhile, Lincoln took care not to be associated with the nascent Republican party in Illinois, which had held its first "convention" in the State House on the evening of October 5 just after Lincoln had replied to Douglas in the afternoon. Lincoln had repeatedly stated during the fall campaign that he was not an "abolitionist." The 26 organizers of the new Republican Party clearly were abolitionists who wanted to capitalize on his fame and position to speak to their group. Mr. Lincoln was well acquainted with their plans because partner Billy Herndon had been in consultation with them. Rather than be associated with radicals like Owen Lovejoy in the party's founding, Lincoln quickly abandoned the city of Springfield and drove to Tazewell County to do legal work. Although jilted, the Republicans were still after him, and invited him to an organizational meeting in Chicago on November 17.
Though Whig label was losing its appeal and organization, Lincoln was not yet ready to adopt a new one. He wrote Chicago attorney Ichabod Codding, the Republicans committee secretary, shortly after he declined his election to the legislature: "While I have pen in hand allow me to say I have been perplexed some to understand why my name was placed on [the Republican State] committee. I was not consulted on the subject; nor was I apprized of the appointment, until I discovered it by accident two or three weeks afterwards. I suppose my opposition to the principle of slavery is as strong as that of any member of the Republican party; but I had also supposed that the extent to which I feel authorized to carry that opposition, practically; was not at all satisfactory to that party. The leading men who organized that party, were present on the 4th. of Oct. at the discussion between Douglas and myself at Springfield, and had full oppertunity to not misunderstand my position. Do I misunderstand theirs?"43
Both anti-Nebraska and pro-Nebraska politicians perceived political plots throughout 1854. As early as February, Douglas had written the editor of the Illinois State Register that "a plot has been formed between the Whigs, Abolitionists, & some disappointed office-seekers, professing to be Democrats to endeavor to get our Legislature to instruct me on the Nebraska Bill..."44 In a confidential letter to the same friend ten months later, Douglas reaffirmed his support of Shields and said he should be nominated "nominated by acclimation. But warned Douglas, "The election of any other man would be deemed not only a defeat, but an ungrateful dissertion of him, when all the others who voted with him had been sustained. We are of the opinion also that the Whigs will stick to Lincoln to the bitter end, even if it resulted in no choice this session & the consequent postponement of the election, under the belief that they can carry the State next time for a Whig-Know-Nothing candate [sic] for the Presidency and with him the Legislature."45 Even the election of an anti-Nebraska Democrat like Congressman William H. Bissell, wrote Douglas, would be "better than the election of Lincoln or any other man spoken of. At all events should stand by Shields and throw the responsibility on the Whigs of beating him because he was born in Ireland."46 Douglas went on to make it even clearer that he wanted to shift the focus from the Nebraska bill to ethnic politics.
Even the weather entered the political calculations — leaving Springfield smothered in snow in early January, delaying the legislature's meeting until the end of the month. Both sides tried to use the time to their advantage — with Douglas secretly putting into motion his support of a move to replace Shields. If Lincoln received the support of 37 Whigs and 19 anti-Nebraska Democrats, he could easily have beaten the 41 pro-Nebraska Democrats. And in his own, quiet way, he lobbied members of the General Assembly to vote for him. His chief whip was former legal partner Stephen Logan, who placed his name in nomination along with six other men. Unfortunately for Mr. Lincoln, a block of five anti-Nebraska Democrats refused to budge from their support of Lyman Trumbull, a attorney from St. Clair County who had served on the Supreme Court of Illinois as well as Secretary of State
It was a bitter irony for the Lincolns since Trumbull's wife, Julia Jayne, had once been Mary Todd's best friend and fellow conspirator in mocking James Shields a decade earlier. When Trumbull did not back out of the contest in favor of her husband, Mary dropped her friend — but not before her husband had dropped his candidacy. In the first ballot of the combined houses of the State Legislature, Lincoln took a narrow 45-41 lead over James Shields with five votes for Trumbull and five votes for other candidates. Eight ballots later, Lincoln was even farther away from the majority he needed, having lost votes to Trumbull and others. Lincoln warned loyalist Stephen Logan, who wanted to continue to support him: "If you do, you will lose both Trumbull and myself, and I think the cause in this case is to be preferred to men."48
Lincoln friend Samuel C. Parks recalled that "Four (4) of the Anti Nebraska Democrats had been elected in part by Democrats and they not only personally preferred Mr. Trumbull, but considered his election necessary to consolidate the union between all those who were opposed to repeal of the Missouri Compromise and to the new policy upon the subject of slavery which Mr. Douglas and his friend were laboring so hard to inaugerate; they insisted that the election of Mr. Trumbull to the Senate would secure thousands of democratic votes to the Anti Nebraska Party who would be driven off by the election of Mr. Lincoln — that the Whig Party were nearly a unit in opposition to Mr. Douglas, so that the election of the favorite candidate of the majority would give no particular strength in that quarter; and they manifested a fixed purpose to vote steadily for Mr. Trumbull and not at all for Mr. Lincoln and thus compel the friends of Mr. Lincoln to vote for their man, to prevent the election of Gov. [Joel] Matteson who it was ascertained could after the first few ballots carry enough Anti Nebraska men to elect him."49
Fearing the election of Matteson, on February 8, Mr. Lincoln threw his support to Trumbull, who emerged victorious on the tenth ballot with 51 votes, four more than Matteson. Mr. Lincoln saw the dark hand of conspiracy in his defeat, but it was not that of Douglas. Lincoln wrote Elihu Washburne after the vote:
"It was Govr. Matteson's work,". "He has been secretly a candidate every since (before even) the fall election. All the members round about the canal were Anti-Nebraska; but were, nevertheless nearly all the democrats, and old personal friends of his. His plan was to privately impress them with the belief that he was as good Anti-Nebraska as any one else — at least could be secured to be so by instructions, which could be easily passed. In this way he got from four to six of that sort of men to really prefer his election to that of any other man — all 'sub rosa' of course. One notable instance of this sort was with Mr. Strunk of Kankakee. At the beginning of the session he came a volunteer to tell me he was for me & would walk a hundred miles to elect me; but lo, it was not long before he leaked it out that he was going for me the first few ballots & then for Govr. Matteson."
After the election, Lincoln attended a party given by his in-laws, Ninian and Elizabeth Edwards, in honor of the new-elected Senator. The party had been planned for the wrong Senator-elect but it went off as planned. Graciously, Mr. Lincoln congratulated Lyman Trumbull. The two were to maintain a cordial if cool relationship for the next decade. A few days later after the Edwards affair, Lincoln himself paid for a dinner of anti-Nebraska legislators. His lack of rancor bore political dividends over time. By 1860, Lincoln managed to convert two of the Trumbull Democrats, Norman Judd and John Palmer, to effective Republican allies.
As Lincoln wrote Washburne, "On the whole, it is perhaps as well for our general cause that Trumbull is elected. The Neb. men confess that they hate it worse than any thing that could have happened. It is a great consolation to see them worse whipped than I am. I tell them it is their own fault — that they had abundant opertunity [sic] to choose between him & me, which they declined, and instead forced on me to decide between him & Matteson."51 Ironically, the situation in which Lincoln lost the Illinois Senate seat was similar to the one in which both anti-Nebraska leaders Chase and Sumner had won their Senate positions — a legislature split among new political groupings where one or two votes could be the margin of victory.
Over the next decade, each of the Illinois Senate contenders went on to bigger or better things — Bissell to the Illinois governorship, Shields to a general's commission in the Civil War and Senate seats from two other states, Trumbull to a leading position among Senate radicals during the Civil War, and Lincoln to the Presidency. But although he was to win a bitter and divided presidential nomination in 1860, Douglas has reached the zenith of his political power.