Until Abraham Lincoln addressed the people of Peoria, Illinois on October 16, 1854, slavery had not been the focus of his political career. In his speeches he had occasionally shown his anti-slavery sentiments, most notably in his 1852 Eulogy on Henry Clay. While in Congress Lincoln had supported the Wilmot Proviso outlawing slavery in the territories acquired from Mexico. It was at Peoria, however, that Lincoln first articulated the threat to liberty and the American regime contained in slavery generally, and in the appeal to popular sovereignty in particular.
Earlier that year, Congress had enacted the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Act was the brainchild of Stephen A. Douglas, then-chairman of the Senate’s Committee on the Territories. The Act organized these vast territories, a necessary prelude to settlement (and railroad development, which was Douglas’s original motivation), but did so in a way that placed the slavery issue in a state of permanent agitation that would persist until the Civil War. This land had been made forever free as part of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, but under Kansas-Nebraska the people of these territories would settle the slavery question for themselves. Douglas hoped that his principle of “popular sovereignty” would put slavery to rest as a national issue.
At Peoria Lincoln responded to several arguments in favor of the act, but devoted the most effort responding to the argument that “the repeal establishes a principle, which is intrinsically right.” The principle of popular sovereignty is, in Douglas’s words, that the people of any state or territory “should be left perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, and that no limitation should be placed upon that right in any form.” It is the principle of absolute majority rule, even if the majority wants to reduce a minority to chattel slavery. The majority can do as it pleases, and the function of the government is only to secure that right and effectuate the will of the majority.
Lincoln does not dispute the “sacred right of self-government,” but he insists, as historian Allen Guelzo says, that democratic politics has a “moral core,” and that it cannot be divorced from that “higher purpose, which was the realization of a morally right political order.” That moral core, which Lincoln calls “our ancient faith,” is most perfectly expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Its central premise is the principle of natural equality, the belief that “no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent.” Self-government is only possible when it is grounded in this transcendent moral principle. Such a principle must be universal in its application or it is untenable. Genuine self-government and slavery can never co-exist. As a violation of our ancient faith, slavery cannot but be considered a moral evil.
It is as a moral evil, Lincoln argues, that the Founding Fathers dealt with slavery. They hated it and yet understood that they could not purge it without destroying the country. They tolerated slavery out of necessity, but “the argument of ’Necessity’ was the only argument they ever admitted in favor of slavery.” Moreover, Lincoln continues, “they hedged and hemmed it in to the narrowest limits of necessity,” restricting and discouraging it at every opportunity. They refused even to employ the words “slave” or “slavery” in the Constitution. “The plain unmistakable spirit of that age,” Lincoln concludes, “was hostility to the PRINCIPLE, and toleration, ONLY BY NECESSITY.”
Lincoln saw, in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, an attempt to alter the fundamental moral principle of the American regime. It is perhaps more accurate to say that Lincoln saw in the Act an attempt to remove the idea of moral truth as the basis of American political life. The Nebraska law embodied the belief that slavery is simply an issue of local property regulation, rather than one of fundamental moral principle. Douglas himself asserted that “the great principle” of popular sovereignty “is the right of every community to judge and decide for itself, whether a thing is right or wrong.” Right and wrong are detached from transcendent moral truth and are instead defined by the will of the strongest, here the majority. When the majority finds that enslaving the minority is in its interest, then slavery is a moral right. Freedom and slavery are, under popular sovereignty, moral equivalents.
Such moral equivocation is hazardous for more than the enslaved. In supporting freedom for the slaves we preserve freedom for the free. Lincoln argued that even to admit that “there CAN be a MORAL RIGHT in the enslaving of one man by another” is “a dangerous dalliance for a free people.… In our greedy chase to make profit of the negro,” Lincoln warned, “let us beware, lest we ’cancel and tear to pieces’ even the white man’s charter of freedom.” Douglas presented popular sovereignty to northerners as an easy way to end slavery. Slavery, he argued, was unprofitable and unsuited to the remaining territories, so the majorities there would reject it. “This,” Lincoln countered, “is a palliation—a lullaby.” Slave labor could mine the silver of Colorado or harvest the wheat of Kansas as easily as it could tend the cotton fields of South Carolina. Instead of bringing about the end of slavery, popular sovereignty would allow slavery “to spread to every other part of the wide world, where men can be found inclined to take it,” thereby endangering the freedom of all.
The great danger of Douglas’s popular sovereignty is that it has the practical effect of “blowing out the moral lights around us.” Popular sovereignty would render us unable to distinguish right from wrong and just from unjust, for these terms would have no reality distinct from the arbitrary will of individuals and communities. The nation that believes that it can have liberty and self-government absent these principles will remain neither free nor self-governing for long. The Peoria speech was the beginning of Lincoln’s effort to restore the nation to the principles upon which it was founded, and return liberty to its only secure foundation: the eternal truth contained in the Declaration of Independence.
The challenge of 1854 is our challenge. The greatest threats to the American experiment come not from our avowed enemies, whose intentions are manifest. They arise from those who, appearing in the guise of friends, whisper lullabies of panaceas, if we would only abandon our outdated and unrealistic principles.
Kevin Portteus, a 2001 graduate of Ashland University, where
he was an Ashbrook Scholar, is Assistant Professor of political science
at Hillsdale College.