Landmark Decision - The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (enacted May 30)

The act divided territorial regions into the Kansas Territory and the Nebraska Territory, opening new lands for settlement. This nullified the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850, which had prohibited slavery in any newer states to be created north of latitude 36°.  Designed by Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas, the most controversial provision was that each territory would separately decide by popular vote whether to allow slavery within its borders. This ‘popular sovereignty’ led to the pro & anti-slavery causes to vie for control of these potential states and to anarchy in Kansas.

In a speech at Peoria, IL, Lincoln attacked the Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed popular sovereignty by accepting slavery into all US territories to become slave states. Prior to this national decision, Lincoln had relatively retired from national politics.

10/16/1854  We have before us, the chief material enabling us to correctly judge whether the repeal of the Missouri Compromise [1820] is right or wrong. I think, and I shall try to show, that it is wrong; wrong in the direct effect, letting slavery into Kansas and Nebraska—and wrong in the prospective principle, allowing it to spread to every other part of the wide world, where men can be found inclined to take it.

   This declared indifference, but I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself…it deprives our republican institutions to taunt us as hypocrites…the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity…it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of  Independence and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self interest.

   If all earthly power were given to me, I should not know how to do, as to the existing institution [of slavery]. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves and send them to Liberia—to their own native land. But a moment’s reflection would convince me…its sudden execution is impossible. If they all landed there in a day, they all perish in the next ten days…Free them and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit this; and if mine did, we know that those of a great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment is not the sole question, if indeed it is part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. We cannot then, make them equals. It does seem to me that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the South…

   The doctrine of self-government is right—absolutely and eternally right—but has no just application as here attempted. Or perhaps I should rather say that whether it has such just application depends on whether a negro is not or is a man. If he is not a man, why in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him. But if the negro is a man, is not to that extent, a destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal,’ and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another…What I do say is, that no man is good enough to govern another man, without the other’s consent.

   Our Declaration of Independence…says “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

   Allow all the governed an equal voice in the government, and that and that only is self-government…Near eighty years ago we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for some men to enslave others is a ‘sacred right of self-government.’…Let us return to the position our fathers gave it…Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence. We shall have so saved [the Union], that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations.  FT 29-34

  …Nebraska is urged as a great Union-saving measure. Well I too go for saving the Union. Much as I hate slavery, I would consent to the extension of it rather than see the Union dissolved, just as I would consent to any great evil, to avoid a greater one.

   Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man’s nature—opposition to it is in his love of justice…repeal all past history, you still cannot repeal human nature.  LL 173-4