Historian Lewis E. Lehrman reveals the speech that defined Lincoln’s convictions about slavery in his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act sponsored by Stephen Douglas.
Many legends, from the factual to the sublime, have been constructed about the rise of Abraham Lincoln from obscure, backwoodsman, through personal and political defeat to the Presidency of the United States at its most crucial time. Lewis Lehrman shares his life’s work and passion while illustrating that the true turning point in the political fortunes of Mr. Lincoln was a speech that he gave concerning “America’s peculiar institution” of slavery in Peoria, IL on October 16, 1854. In the telling, he shows how this became a remarkable turning point in American and, indeed, world history.
Lincoln vs. Douglas
Much has been made of the famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and “The Little Giant” Stephan Douglas in their barnstorming town hall tour during the 1858 Illinois Senate race. What most have not heard about are that the preliminary bouts which took place in 1854. These smaller scale confrontations were over the same Kansas-Nebraska Act that would be debated in 1858. More importantly, they framed the context of the underlying issue of the American Doctrine, first stated in the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal”.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act
This legislation, more than any other, was responsible for causing Americans to finally deal with the unfinished business of the American Revolution. Before this Act, America walked a tenuous tightrope of compromises that had no other purpose than to preserve the Union of the States. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 outlawed slavery in the original Louisiana Purchase north of the parallel 36°30′, except in the state of Missouri. The Compromise of 1850 allowed California to enter the Union as a free state, paid Texas for part of New Mexico, abolished slave trade in Washington D.C. and allowed the newly acquired Mexican territory to organize as either free or slave. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was designed to incorporate the remaining territory from the Louisiana Purchase that had not been organized. This controversial act allowed the same “Popular Sovereignty” existing in the 1850 Compromise concerning slavery.
Senator Stephen Douglas
Douglas, the driving force behind this legislation, claimed that it supported the nations democratic ideals. He claimed that the Missouri Compromise did not have the effect of irrevocable law. He supported the notion that the Compromise of 1850 negated the Missouri Compromise altogether. He also preached that there was no danger that slavery would become legal in this territory because the climate would not support it. Many claimed his support of this Act was meant to throw a bone to the Southern Senators who might oppose the transcontinental railway path through Illinois, for which Douglas was lobbying. Others, including Lincoln, saw his willingness to support the act as exhibiting a nonchalant attitude toward slavery.
Lincoln and Slavery
Lehrman shows that the thesis of Lincoln’s speech in Peoria, was that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was the foot in the door that slavery needed to be able to advance into territory that was heretofore untouchable. He saw the demise of the Missouri Compromise as the final nail in the coffin of the Union and the end of the Founders dream of the Declaration of Independence, that someday slavery would no longer be viable. He felt that the only way to preserve the Union without “shedding blood” was to reinstate the Missouri Compromise. His mission in 1854 was to have U.S. Representatives elected who would do just that.
The Speech at Peoria
In this stirring speech, Lincoln refuted Douglas’s claims that the Missouri Compromise was not established law. While not supporting the abolition of slavery, he railed against its evils and said that the Declaration of Independence demanded that Americans not allow its spread. He demonstrates that where slavery had been allowed it had spread and grown. He said that the selfishness of the human heart would prohibit climate from stopping its inexorable march. He supported the fact that the moral evil of slavery was much easier to keep out than it was to extract once it gained a foothold. He correctly predicted that allowing slavery where it had previously and sacredly been denied would stir up so much antislavery sentiment that the divided Union could not be spared without “the effusion of blood”.
The Turning Point
Lehrman goes into great detail to exhibit that this Peoria speech framed the future slavery debate in Illinois and the entire country. It was the first instance where Abraham Lincoln used the Declaration of Independence to prove the intentions of the Framers of the Constitution. He became the prime mover in resurrecting that precious document in the eyes of the American people, establishing the revered status it owns today. Lehman points out considerable opposition to this when Lincoln quotes and excoriates several pro slavery proponents who stated in the U.S. Congress and said that the Declaration’s statement, “We hold these truths to be self evident” was a self evident lie. In this speech, Lincoln calls the words of the Declaration “the sheet anchor of American Republicanism.”
Lehrman unequivocally states that this book is his “labor of love, in the works for two decades”. While he claims not to be a scholar, his scholarship is as self evident in his writing as is the equality of man that his hero saved along with the great Union. One cannot help but be inspired to the same greatness of character that the subject of this book is known for while turning its fascinating pages.
- Lincoln at Peoria The Turning Point by Lewis E. Lehrman, 2008, Stackpole Books