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Henry SowerbyDr. JurrisonAT US HistoryDecember 18, 2017An Examination of Lincoln’s Emphasis on the Morality of Slavery in the Lincoln-Douglas DebatesThe Lincoln Douglas debates of 1858 formed a microcosm of political issues dividing the nation at the time. The issue of slavery, exacerbated by westward expansion, was the main topic argued in all seven debates. Two candidates seeking the senatorial seat– Stephen Douglas, incumbent, seeking a third term, and Abraham Lincoln, who had served a term in the House, both “did not favor Negro equality… deplored sectionalism, wanted to quiet the slavery agitation, and desired feverently to preserve the Union of the states.” How, then would Lincoln distinguish himself from the more trusted candidate, Douglas? Throughout the Lincoln Douglas Debates, Lincoln used the issue of the morality of slavery to gain an upper hand over Douglas, winning the approval of Central Illinois Whigs and portraying Douglas as radically pro-slavery, whose rhetoric eventually served as a catalyst for American liberalism.In 1858, the nation, and especially Illinois, was in a state of utter sociopolitical turmoil. Beginning with Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803, slavery, an issue hard-fought over in the Constitution, was once again reignited; westward expansion, and more importantly the question of whether the new territories would consist of free or slave states, questioned the American identity and dominated the political landscape of the nineteenth century. Those who sought the banning of slavery in new territories allied under the Wilmot Proviso, an amendment that prohibited slavery in territories acquired from Mexico in the Mexican-American war. In diametric opposition, there were those who believed that slavery should be legal in all territories, led primarily by John C. Calhoun. Between these polar opposites stood those who believed that the Missouri Compromise, which had preserved the balance between slave and free states in 1820 by admitting Missouri and Maine, should be extended to delineate free and slave states based on their geographical location. The fourth camp, including Stephen Douglas, consisted of those who believed in popular sovereignty– the belief that those living in new territories had the power to choose whether they be slave or free states. It was unclear, however, whether this power would be written in the state’s Constitution or if it could be decided at any time. Despite these wildly differing viewpoints, an agreement titled the Compromise of 1850 was narrowly reached. California was admitted as a free state, the Wilmot Proviso was rejected, and a more rigid Fugitive Slave Act was implemented, requiring escaped slaves captured in free territories to be brought back to their owners. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, coordinated by Stephen Douglas, organized the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, precipitating another conflict over whether these territories would be admitted as slave or free states. Ultimately, the Missouri Compromise, which had also prohibited slavery in the territory under the Louisiana Purchase, was repealed, and popular sovereignty was implemented. This caused a rapid influx of people to move into Kansas, both pro and anti-slavery, in order to sway the state into becoming either a free or slave state, inciting violent encounters between the factions. In 1857, the Supreme Court issued an opinion in Dredd Scott v. Sanford, ruling that African-Americans had no right to American citizenship; furthermore, it ruled that the banning of slavery in any US territory was unconstitutional. Subsequently, an economic panic followed, and pro-slavery Kansas legislators proposed the Lecompton Constitution, which declared slavery legal. Although it was endorsed by President Buchanan, the Lecompton Constitution was ultimately defeated with the help of Stephen Douglas, much to his party’s chagrin.As opposed to Lincoln, who believed slavery was a moral wrong, Douglas took a more pragmatic, yet devious approach– he valued slavery as purely economic institution. In the final debate at Alton, Douglas declared “We in Illinois have decided it for ourselves. We tried slavery, kept it up for twelve years, and finding that it was not profitable, we abolished it for that reason, and became a free State.” Emphasizing his disregard for the moral significance of the issue, Douglas maintained it was appropriate to abolish slavery only when it was “not profitable,” not due to its intrinsic immorality. This opportunistic view of slavery, although shared by many at the time, highlighted the lack of moral consciousness that Douglas possessed- such an absence that would be denounced by Lincoln later in the debates. In his passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed for popular sovereignty, Douglas underscored his belief in the importance of popular self-determination as a core democratic value. In 1854, writing in defense of the Kansas-Nebraska Act to several clergymen, Douglas insisted “The sovereign right of the people to manage their own affairs in conformity with the Constitution of their own making, recedes and disappears, when placed in subordination to the authority of a body of men, claiming, by virtue of their officers as ministers, to be a divinely-appointed institution for the declaration and enforcement of God’s will on earth.” Douglas’ belief that those affiliated with the church had no ability to supercede the will of the people, especially regarding moral conflicts, reflects his belief that the people themselves had the right to determine their own rules as a fundamental right. Later in the letter, Douglas wrote that slavery did not affect the legitimacy of popular sovereignty, despite the fact “that human slavery is, in your opinion, a great moral wrong.” Douglas’ apathetic position overlooked the moral aspect of slavery by focusing on who had the right to determine its validity. Such an erosion of morality is what gave way to a political climate where Dredd Scott was issued. Moreover, Douglas’ attempt to push aside the moral objection to slavery and emphasize self-determination as the more important moral issue, may have been an attempt to heal the rift formed between himself and the rest of the Democratic party, which formed in response to Douglas’ rejection of the Lecompton Constitution.Lincoln’s argument concerning morality, however, would burn the image of slavery, not self-determination, in the public’s mind as the true moral issue. In 1854, during a speech at Peoria, four years before his senatorial campaign, Lincoln first voiced his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, stating that it “assumes that there CAN be MORAL RIGHT in the enslaving of one man by another… — a sad evidence that, feeling prosperity we forget right– that liberty, as a principle, we have ceased to revere.” As opposed to Douglas, Lincoln’s belief in natural rights trounced the importance of self-determination. In his view, natural rights were the foundation of American democracy, and to deny them would be to reject the very principles that had formed the American political system. Because slavery’s inherent immorality, according to Lincoln, “tainted the entire nation;” it was therefore a national issue as opposed to a regional one. However, Lincoln could not come off as a radical abolitionist to the voters in Central Illinois, who formed an important Whig swing bloc between the Republican north and Democratic south. Still, Lincoln took the opportunity when he could to highlight to point out the moral flaws of Douglas’ stance in the debates, asserting “The reasoning and sentiments advanced by Douglas in support of his policy as to slavery all spring from the view that slavery is not wrong.” Criticizing Douglas for his moral callousness, Lincoln drew attention to Douglas’ stance as between those who saw slavery and sought emancipation, and those who sought the expansion of slavery. In cornering Douglas as neither aligned with the Southern establishment of his party, nor with Republican party, Lincoln emphasized Douglas’ political isolation and alienation, further using the issue of the morality to gain an upper hand in the debates. In the second debate at Freeport, Lincoln observed that “Any man can say that who does not see anything wrong in slavery, but no man can logically say it who does see a wrong in it; because no man can logically say he don’t care whether a wrong is voted up or down, but he must logically have a choice between a right thing and a wrong thing.” As Douglas’ position on the morality slavery was indifference (in an 1857 speech to the Senate, Douglas had also said “I don’t care whether the Lecompton Constitution is voted down or voted up.”), Lincoln argued that there is no middle ground concerning the morality of slavery, invaliding Douglas’ “don’t care” position in an attempt to push him toward the position that slavery was morally justified. A firm pro-slavery stance would alienate Douglas from many of the Central Illinois Whigs, who regarded the fundamental nature of slavery as immoral and believed that it would die out eventually. Despite Douglas’ counter that it was the Founding Fathers’ intent that the country be divided on slavery, Lincoln used the morality of slavery to harden his support among conservative swing Whig voters. In response to Lincoln’s argument that a middle ground on the issue of slavery was morally impossible, Douglas argued in the fifth debate at Galesburg that “this republic can exist forever divided into free and slave states, as our fathers made it and the people of each state have decided.” To this, Lincoln said “my profound thanks for his public annunciation here to-day, to be put on record, that his system of policy in regard to the institution of slavery contemplates that it shall last forever.” Conservative Whigs in the important swing bloc of Illinois believed that slavery could not exist in perpetuity, and Douglas’ claim that slavery would theoretically last forever was only logical if slavery was moral. Once again, Lincoln used the issue of the morality of slavery to gain an upper-hand. Lincoln used the issue of the morality of slavery to portray Douglas as a radical and himself as a moderate. In reference to the Missouri Compromise, Lincoln demanded of Douglas “why he could not have left that Compromise alone.” In portraying Douglas as a radical who could not agree to the Missouri Compromise, Lincoln maneuvered himself into being seen as more of a moderate, in an attempt to grow a rift between Douglas and Republicans and make himself more attractive to the decisive Whig voters. Additionally, in Douglas’ treatment legislation concerning slavery as pure procedure, Douglas did not give any reason as to why slavery could not remain indefinitely. Still, Lincoln attracted criticism for his moderate views. The Chicago Times wrote in October “In case Lincoln was elected Senator, Illinois would at once, and by irresistible unanimity, become known all the world over, as a State in favor of placing Negroes upon an equality with her white people.” However, Lincoln was still successful in portraying himself as divine and Douglas as something infernal– as one admirer wrote on Lincoln’s performance, “As I view the contest (tho we say it is between Douglas and Lincoln) it is no less than a contest for the advancement of the kingdom of Heaven or the kingdom of Satan.” Throughout the Lincoln Douglas Debates, Lincoln used the issue of the morality of slavery to gain an upper hand over Douglas, winning the approval of Central Illinois Whigs and portraying Douglas as radically pro-slavery. Despite that fact that Lincoln subsequently lost the election, it was by a very narrow margin, and Lincoln’s appeal to morality may be seen as what won him so many votes in the first place in a state that heavily favored Douglas to begin with. Furthermore, Lincoln’s appeal to morality may be seen as a catalyst to American liberalism. In categorizing slavery as a moral issue, and not one of economics or politics, he cemented the issue as one of ethics in the public consciousness, bolstering the growing abolitionist movement in the country.  Lincoln’s arguments, particularly his moral appeal, resonated beyond the debates and the election. He published them in a book that rapidly became popular and led to his nomination for President by his party. One could then conclude, perhaps, that without Lincoln’s morality argument that he implemented in the debates, Lincoln would have never been President, American liberalism would not have begun to precipitate, and slavery might have persisted for decades longer, if not eternally.


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