Speech on the Dred Scott Decision at Springfield, Illinois

1857.  This is a fascinating speech that touches upon some of the major issues of the years preceding the war.  I think it’s a brilliant speech.  There is certainly a flavor of some outmoded racial ideas, and yet Lincoln is clear, cogent, and logical in his arguments.  He decimates the idea of ‘popular sovereignty’, the idea that persons residing in a federal territory have the right to decide whether or not slavery should be allowed in that territory.  Also the idea that blacks were not meant to be included in the phrase “… all men are created equal.”  Despite his evident belief that blacks are not his personal equal, his belief that they none-the-less deserve the same basic rights as other Americans shines through his rhetoric.  And this is American rhetoric at its best.  (Note that his opinion about the abilities of black Americans would evolve with time and a major war.)

At this point in his life, Lincoln had re-entered politics after a long absence — though I don’t believe he actually held any office at this time — largely due to his outrage over the events he touches on in this speech.  Speeches like this one will make him the Illinois Republican senatorial candidate in 1858, when he will run against Democrat incumbent Stephen Douglas.

June 26, 1857

FELLOW CITIZENS:—I am here to-night, partly by the invitation of some of you, and partly by my own inclination. Two weeks ago Judge Douglas spoke here on the several subjects of Kansas, the Dred Scott decision, and Utah. I listened to the speech at the time, and have read the report of it since. It was intended to controvert opinions which I think just, and to assail (politically, not personally,) those men who, in common with me, entertain those opinions. For this reason I wished then, and still wish, to make some answer to it, which I now take the opportunity of doing.

I begin with Utah. If it prove to be true, as is probable, that the people of Utah are in open rebellion to the United States, then Judge Douglas is in favor of repealing their territorial organization, and attaching them to the adjoining States for judicial purposes. I say, too, if they are in rebellion, they ought to be somehow coerced to obedience; and I am not now prepared to admit or deny that the Judge’s mode of coercing them is not as good as any. The Republicans can fall in with it without taking back anything they have ever said. To be sure, it would be a considerable backing down by Judge Douglas from his much vaunted doctrine of self-government for the territories; but this is only additional proof of what was very plain from the beginning, that that doctrine was a mere deceitful pretense for the benefit of slavery. Those who could not see that much in the Nebraska act itself, which forced Governors, and Secretaries, and Judges on the people of the territories, without their choice or consent, could not be made to see, though one should rise from the dead to testify.

But in all this, it is very plain the Judge evades the only question the Republicans have ever pressed upon the Democracy in regard to Utah. That question the Judge well knows to be this: “If the people of Utah shall peacefully form a State Constitution tolerating polygamy, will the Democracy admit them into the Union?” There is nothing in the United States Constitution or law against polygamy; and why is it not a part of the Judge’s “sacred right of self-government” for that people to have it, or rather to keep it, if they choose? These questions, so far as I know, the Judge never answers. It might involve the Democracy to answer them either way, and they go unanswered.

As to Kansas. The substance of the Judge’s speech on Kansas is an effort to put the free State men in the wrong for not voting at the election of delegates to the Constitutional Convention. He says: “There is every reason to hope and believe that the law will be fairly interpreted and impartially executed, so as to insure to every bona fide inhabitant the free and quiet exercise of the elective franchise.

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