Lincoln: Slavery represents ‘eternal struggle between….right and wrong”

Alton, Illinois, Oct. 15

The final debate has a small crowd of perhaps 5,000 people, a small number considering that many trains lowered their fare by nearly half from Chicago and Springfield to come to this debate. As it was, many of the crowd arrived from St. Louis on a steamboat. The day was cloudy but otherwise the weather was fair for the riverfront debate.

Both candidates also arrive by the riverfront. 

Judge Douglas is the first to speak, his voice finally showing the strain of the campaign as it rasps and cracks. He is once more greeted by applause; the difference in volume from the large ground in Galesburg is apparent. The speech begins with a brief summary of the debates that they have had until that point. With a focus on Mr. Lincoln’s debate points.

The principal points in that speech of Mr. Lincoln’s were: First, that this Government could not endure permanently divided into free and slave States, as our fathers made it; that they must all become free or all become slave; all become one thing or all become the other, otherwise this Union could not continue to exist. I give you his opinions almost in the identical language he used. His second proposition was a crusade against the Supreme Court of the United States because of the Dred Scott decision; urging as an especial reason for his opposition to that decision that it deprived the negroes of the rights and benefits of that clause in the Constitution of the United States which guaranties to the citizens of each State all the rights, privileges, and immunities of the citizens of the several States…”

He then points out that he discussed what he saw to be the flaws in Mr. Lincoln’s arguments.

 I took up Mr. Lincoln’s three propositions in my several speeches, analyzed them, and pointed out what I believed to be the radical errors contained in them. First, in regard to his doctrine that this Government was in violation of the law of God, which says that a house divided against itself cannot stand, I repudiated it as a slander upon the immortal framers of our Constitution. I then said, I have often repeated, and now again assert, that in my opinion our Government can endure forever, (good) divided into free and slave States as our fathers made it,-each State having the right to prohibit, abolish or sustain slavery, just as it pleases…

If the original 13 states had applied the House Divided proposition, Judge Douglas says again, they would have voted for slavery throughout the country because there was only one completely free state. He puts it this way:

You see that if this abolition doctrine of Mr. Lincoln had prevailed when the Government was made, it would have established slavery as a permanent institution, in all the States, whether they wanted it or not, and the question for us to determine in Illinois now as one of the free States is, whether or not we are willing, having become the majority section, to enforce a doctrine on the minority, which we would have resisted with our heart’s blood had it been attempted on us when we were in a minority. (“We never will,” “good, good,” and cheers.)

 He also discusses that in regard to the amount of free states that have grown means that by numbers they have the opportunity to remove the ability for states to determine if they want to be a slave state. That the Northern states have the electoral college superiority.

He also makes clear that he represents Illinois within the Union, “you did not elect me, I represent Illinois and I am accountable to Illinois, as my constituency, and to God, but not to the president or to any other power on earth.”

Judge Douglas then moves on to rally against the Buchannan Democrats. It is President Buchanan who has abandoned the principle of popular sovereignty, not he. “They now tell me that I am not a Democrat, because I assert that the people of a Territory, as well as those of a State, have the right to decide for themselves whether slavery can or cannot exist in such Territory.” But that’s what Buchanan said to get elected president in 1856, he points out, reading Buchanan’s words.  

Douglas then speaks on how he believes the Founding Fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence to mean that only the white men are meant to be equal to each other.

But the Abolition party really think that under the Declaration of Independence the negro is equal to the white man, and that negro equality is an inalienable right conferred by the Almighty, and hence that all human laws in violation of it are null and void. With such men it is no use for me to argue. I hold that the signers of the Declaration of Independence had no reference to negroes at all when they declared all men to be created equal. They did not mean negro, nor the savage Indians, nor the Fejee Islanders, nor any other barbarous race. They were speaking of white men.  (“It’s so,” “it’s so,” and cheers.) They alluded to men of European birth and European descent-to white men, and to none others, when they declared that doctrine. (“That’s the truth.”) I hold that this Government was established on the white basis. It was established by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and should be administered by white men, and none others.

But it does not follow, by any means, that merely because the negro is not a citizen, and merely because he is not our equal, that, therefore, he should be a slave. On the contrary, it does follow that we ought to extend to the negro race, and to all other dependent races all the rights, all the privileges, and all the immunities which they can exercise consistently with the safety of society. Humanity requires that we should give them all these privileges; Christianity commands that we should extend those privileges to them. The question then arises what are those privileges, and what is the nature and extent of them. My answer is that that is a question which each State must answer for itself. 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. We adopted in its stead the policy that a negro in this State shall not be a slave and shall not be a citizen. We have a right to adopt that policy. For my part I think it is a wise and sound policy for us.

Mr. Lincoln then takes the stage greeted by great applause. He does commend Judge Douglas on his attack on Buchanan, a fellow Democrat. Then he is able to turn an accusation of inconsistency to Judge Douglas himself pointing out that Douglas once favored the Missouri Compromise but then passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act to negate it.

Lincoln denies that his opposition to the Dred Scott decision is based on the decision’s refusal to allow Negroes to be citizens. He says he himself does not support their citizenship.

Out of this, Judge Douglas builds up his beautiful fabrication-of my purpose to introduce a perfect, social, and political equality between the white and black races. His assertion that I made an “especial objection” (that is his exact language) to the decision on this account, is untrue in point of fact.

 He then returns to his disagreement with Douglas on whether the Declaration of Independence’ “all men are created equal”  includes Negroes. Lincoln had said in the Galesburg debate that no one claimed prior to three years earlier that Negroes were not included among men. Now a letter to the Chicago Times cites a speech by the late Sen. Henry Clay – the great compromiser and friend of Lincoln’s – as proof to the contrary.

This is the entire quotation brought forward to prove that somebody previous to three years ago had said the negro was not included in the term “all men” in the Declaration. How does it do so?… Mr. Clay says it is true as an abstract principle that all men are created equal, but that we cannot practically apply it in all cases. He illustrates this by bringing forward the cases of females, minors, and insane persons, with whom it cannot be enforced…”

But Mr. Lincoln points out Clay attacked slavery in the same speech. Lincoln quotes Clay: 

I desire no concealment of my opinions in regard to the institution of slavery. I look upon it as a great evil, and deeply lament that we have derived it from the parental Government, and from our ancestors. But here they are, and the question is, how can they be best dealt with? If a state of nature existed, and we were about to lay the foundations of society, no man would be more strongly opposed than I should be, to incorporating the institution of slavery among its elements.

Lincoln says that settling new territories is laying the foundations of society so slavery should be banned but that he never proposed freeing slaves in the older states, such as Missouri where many in the audience live:

The principle upon which I have insisted in this canvass, is in relation to laying the foundations of new societies. I have never sought to apply these principles to the old States for the purpose of abolishing slavery in those States. It is nothing but a miserable perversion of what I have said, to assume that I have declared Missouri, or any other slave State, shall emancipate her slaves. I have proposed no such thing.

Lincoln clarifies his “house divided” speech, which Douglas has attacked throughout the debate as a prelude to war. Lincoln says Douglas “has warred upon” the House Divided speech “as Satan wars upon the Bible.” The crowd laughs. 

Lincoln points out that Douglas had predicted he Kansas-Nebraska Act would put an end to the “agitation” over slavery by allowing each new state to decide the slavery question. But Lincoln says the opposite has occurred.  “When was there ever a greater agitation in Congress than last winter? When was it as great in the country as to-day?” he asks. 

Mr. Lincoln then continues to argue that the question of slavery has been a constant throughout all of the great issues of the United States.

Is that the truth? How many times have we had danger from this question? Go back to the day of the Missouri Compromise. Go back to the Nullification question, at the bottom of which lay this same slavery question. Go back to the time of the Annexation of Texas. Go back to the troubles that led to the Compromise of 1850. You will find that every time, with the single exception of the Nullification question, they sprung from an endeavor to spread this institution. There never was a party in the history of this country, and there probably never will be, of sufficient strength to disturb the general peace of the country…

Mr. Lincoln says that by ending slavery in the new states, slavery will eventually disappear.

 “We might, by arresting the further spread of it, and placing it where the fathers originally placed it, put it where the public mind should rest in the belief that it was in the course of ultimate extinction. [Great applause.] 

He returns to the topic of where he stands on equality and affirms that it is his party that finds the institution as wrong. 

The sentiment that contemplates the institution of slavery in this country as a wrong is the sentiment of the Republican party. It is the sentiment around which all their actions-all their arguments circle-from which all their propositions radiate. They look upon it as being a moral, social and political wrong; and while they contemplate it as such, they nevertheless have due regard for its actual existence among us…

He finishes out his time by discussing the Dred Scott decision and how it relates to the Fugitive Slave Law.

I do not believe it is a Constitutional right to hold slaves in a Territory of the United States. I believe the decision was improperly made and I go for reversing it. Judge Douglas is furious against those who go for reversing a decision. But he is for legislating it out of all force while the law itself stands. I repeat that there has never been so monstrous a doctrine uttered from the mouth of a respectable man….

Mr. Lincoln points out that the Constitution never uses the word slavery but instead uses “covert” language, such as “three-fifths of all other persons.” He says this is because the Founders wanted the Constitution to last for all time and expected slavery to disappear. He put it this way:

that covert language was used with a purpose, and that purpose was that in our Constitution, which it was hoped and is still hoped will endure forever-when it should be read by intelligent and patriotic men, after the institution of slavery had passed from among us-there should be nothing on the face of the great charter of liberty suggesting that such a thing as negro slavery had ever existed among us. [Enthusiastic applause.] This is part of the evidence that the fathers of the Government expected and intended the institution of slavery to come to an end. They expected and intended that it should be in the course of ultimate extinction. And when I say that I desire to see the further spread of it arrested, I only say I desire to see that done which the fathers have first done.

Mr. Lincoln says Judge Douglas is trying to misrepresent him.  

On the point of my wanting to make war between the free and the slave States, there has been no issue between us. So, too, when he assumes that I am in favor of introducing a perfect social and political equality between the white and black races. These are false issues, upon which Judge Douglas has tried to force the controversy. There is no foundation in truth for the charge that I maintain either of these propositions. The real issue in this controversy-the one pressing upon every mind-is the sentiment on the part of one class that looks upon the institution of slavery as a wrong, and of another class that does not look upon it as a wrong. 

The issues, Mr. Lincoln says, is between right and wrong:

It is the eternal struggle between these two principles-right and wrong-throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle. 

Lincoln then finishes and is met with applause that is quite loud for a crowd of this size.

Judge Douglas begins his last rebuttal. He begins by returning Lincoln’s statement about his feud with the current administration.

His first criticism upon me is the expression of his hope that the war of the Administration will be prosecuted against me and the Democratic party of this State with vigor. He wants that war prosecuted with vigor; I have no doubt of it. His hopes of success, and the hopes of his party depend solely upon it.

He says this war is the first one Lincoln wanted to prosecute vigorously, noting Lincoln opposed the war with Mexico. 

 When the Mexican war [was] being waged, and the American army was surrounded by the enemy in Mexico, he thought that war was unconstitutional, unnecessary, and unjust. (“That’s so,” “you’ve got him,” “he voted against it,” &c.) He thought it was not commenced on the right spot. (Laughter.)

The crowd does find that tremendously funny. Even one crowd member calls Mr. Lincoln a traitor because of his support of the Mexican side. 

Judge Douglas concludes on the argument about what is a state’s right issue and what should be controlled by the federal government. He believes that the issues of slavery should be determined by the populace of the state.

My friends, if, as I have said before, we will only live up to this great fundamental principle, there will be peace between the North and the South. Mr. Lincoln admits that under the Constitution on all domestic questions, except slavery, we ought not to interfere with the people of each State. What right have we to interfere with slavery any more than we have to interfere with any other question? He says that this slavery question is now the bone of contention. Why? Simply because agitators have combined in all the free States to make war upon it…

And to great applause the circuit of the Lincoln-Douglas debate closes and what they have said will determine who will continue on to the senate in the coming months. It may be destined to determine who becomes president two years hence.

Share our journalism