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THE DOUGLAS DEBATES
LINCOLN's return to political activity was caused by the same changes that created the Republican party and the Civil War. During his comparative quiescence he had not lost the leadership of the Illinois Whigs, and he took what steps the political situation demanded. In the campaign of 1852 he made a few speeches in favor of Scott, but at that time both parties avoided the real issue, pretending to think the “compromise" of 1850 final
– that compromise which gave the South everything, provided for a stricter fugitive slave law, removed the barriers to slavery, repealed the Missouri Compromise by taking the whole subject out of the control of Congress, and yet received the support of Daniel Webster, marked by his great and notorious speech of the 7th of March. Lincoln was interested, especially after the Missouri Compromise was in 1854 openly declared repealed, and even when he was not actively speaking he was thinking. He read all the best speeches of Giddings, Phillips, Sumner, Seward, and Parker, as well as controversial and historical books upon the subject, and he contributed editorial writings
to the Springfield Journal at intervals until 1860. That he was also alive to the game of politics is indicated by Herndon's story of his trick, endorsed by Lincoln, by which a pro-slavery paper was induced to publish an article so extreme as to be damaging to its own cause, after which the anti-slavery people who had got it printed turned in and denounced it. To find his genuine feelings on slavery wholly disconnected from any political considerations it is safest to turn to a letter to his only intimate friend, Speed, August 25, 1855. Speed had written to Lincoln protesting against his opinions, and Lincoln explains at length that, while he would not interfere, against the law, with the property of Speed or any other slaveholder, he thinks the vital difference between them is that his friend looks upon this property as on any other, while he himself sees it as a deep wrong that must be endured but not allowed to spread. “In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip on a steamboat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember as well as I do that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio there were on board ten or a dozen slaves shackled together with irons. That sight was a constant torture to me.” On the great issue of the day he remarks, “ You say that if Kansas fairly votes herself a free state, as a Christian you will rejoice at it. All decent slaveholders talk that way, and I don't doubt their candor, but they never vote that way." He indignantly denies any sympathy with the KnowNothing or American party, which consisted of crusaders against Catholics and foreigners, and exclaims that if such ideas should ever get control he would rather emigrate to some country, like Russia, where despotism could be taken pure, with no hypocritical talk about freedom and equality. As late as the Douglas campaign, May 15, 1858, he wrote to E. B. Washburne that the principal danger of defeat came from the American party.
It was fortunate for Lincoln that one of the sharpest blows to the excesses of the slavery party was given by the Democratic leader from his own state. Senator Douglas in 1854 took part in the conflict on the status of slavery in the region which is now Kansas and Nebraska, then seeking admission as territories. He introduced his “ Kansas-Nebraska Bill,” which, establishing those territories, expressly declared the Missouri Compromise inoperative in them, and an amendment soon declared that compromise inconsistent with the legislation of 1850, which denied any right of intervention by Congress with slavery in territories. This amendment now added the word states to territories in restricting the powers of Congress to interfere. A clause intended to
soften this blow at the North stated that the intention was to leave the people of any territory or state free to regulate slavery in its own way, and this was the doctrine of "popular sovereignty," so soon to be fought out between Douglas and Lincoln.
When Douglas began to defend himself in Illinois, where his concessions to the South had aroused much Democratic hostility, Lincoln was at once chosen by the opponents of slavery as the proper champion to meet the Little Giant. He made such an effective answer to Douglas at the great state fair in October that the abolitionists, under the lead of Owen Lovejoy, announced a meeting for that evening with the purpose of getting Lincoln to speak and commit himself to extreme views. On the advice of his partner, however, who was as cautious as he was abolitionist, Lincoln found he had business which compelled him to drive hastily out of town that afternoon. Two principles evidently contended within him from: this time forward. He was always a conservative and practical politician, but he was always a man of conviction and courage, and he was now keenly wrought up over slavery. In his days in Congress he had sometimes been invited to the Saturday breakfasts of the great Daniel Webster, to meet the “solid men of Boston,” but none of the spirit of concession to property interests that ruined
Webster had ever poisoned Lincoln. The moral reality of the problem was always alive and burning in him, and when he refused to go faster than a certain pace it was with a view to final victory and not to surrender. He knew that if no mistakes were made the natural course of events would stamp out the evil through the increasing power of the North. To the efforts of the South to offset this inevitable outcome by forcing slavery into those states and territories in which the majority wished to exclude it, he was deeply opposed, and that was to be the vital issue of the immediate future. “He grew because we watered him,” said Wendell Phillips, the famous abolitionist orator, speaking one of the numberless calumnies of his sect against Lincoln. From the outbreak of the controversy to its end he was for final extinction of the evil, and he waited only for means. He knew what could be done in a land governed by popular opinion and what could not, and Phillips and his friends watered him only indirectly as they prepared the public.
In the winter of 1854-55 he was elected against his will to the Illinois legislature, but resigned, that there might be no doubt about his eligibility for the United States Senate. A little wave of reaction elected a Democrat in his place. When the legislature came to vote for Senator in February, Lincoln had 45 on the first ballot, Shields