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Seeking to defend his Senate seat against Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans (“House Divided” Speech), Stephen Douglas (1813–1861) left Washington, D.C., for Chicago in July 1858. He opened his re-election campaign at the Tremont Hotel, defending the doctrine of popular sovereignty and the right of the people to choose for themselves whether slavery should be voted up or down. “The great principle,” Douglas said, referring to popular sovereignty, “is the right of every community to judge and decide for itself, whether a thing is right or wrong.” The principal community he had in mind was the people of each state, since Douglas declared the United States “a confederation of sovereign states.” Douglas also stated his view that the government of the United States “was made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men, in such manner as they should determine.” Douglas also went on the offense, attacking Republicans for trying to instigate civil war between North and South over the slavery issue. Douglas singled out Lincoln and the “House Divided” Speech in particular for limiting the right of the people to choose what laws they wanted and for advocating “a war of sections, a war of the North against the South, of the free states against the slave states—a war of extermination—to be continued relentlessly until the one or the other shall be subdued, and all the states shall either become free or become slave.” By trying to paint Lincoln and the Republicans as extremists, Douglas hoped to come across as the candidate of peace, prosperity, and compromise.
In defending popular sovereignty by claiming that it was necessary to “allow the people to decide for themselves whether [slavery] is a good or an evil,” Douglas demonstrated that the Civil War was not most fundamentally a war between sections of the country, but a war between those North as well as South who believed slavery was right or could be made right by the will of the people, and those who believed that it was always wrong.
Source: Political debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in the celebrated campaign of 1858 in Illinois; including the preceding speeches of each at Chicago, Springfield, etc. Also the two great speeches of Abraham Lincoln in Ohio in 1859, and a complete index to the whole (Cleveland: O.S. Hubbell & company, 1895), 8–20, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=loc.ark:/13960/t86h4pg9f;view=1up;seq=18.
. . . When I found an effort being made during the recent session of Congress to force a constitution upon the people of Kansas against their will, and to force that state into the Union with a constitution which her people had rejected by more than 10,000, I felt bound as a man of honor and a representative of Illinois, bound by every consideration of duty, of fidelity, and of patriotism, to resist to the utmost of my power the consummation of that fraud. With others I did resist it, and resisted it successfully until the attempt was abandoned. We forced them to refer that Constitution back to the people of Kansas, to be accepted or rejected as they shall decide at an election, which is fixed for the first Monday in August next.
I regard the great principle of popular sovereignty, as having been vindicated and made triumphant in this land, as a permanent rule of public policy in the organization of territories and the admission of new states. Illinois took her position upon this principle many years ago. You all recollect that in 1850, after the passage of the compromise measures of that year, when I returned to my home, there was great dissatisfaction expressed at my course in supporting those measures. I appeared before the people of Chicago at a mass meeting, and vindicated each and every one of those measures; and by reference to my speech on that occasion, which was printed and circulated throughout the state at that time, you will find that I then and there said that those measures were all founded upon the great principle that every people ought to possess the right to form and regulate their own domestic institutions in their own way, and that that right being possessed by the people of the states, I saw no reason why the same principle should not be extended to all of the territories of the United States. A general election was held in this state a few months afterward, for members of the legislature, pending which all these questions were thoroughly canvassed and discussed, and the nominees of the different parties instructed in regard to the wishes of their constituents upon them. When that election was over, and the legislature assembled, they proceeded to consider the merits of those compromise measures and the principles upon which they were predicated. And what was the result of their action? They passed resolutions, first repealing the Wilmot proviso instructions, and in lieu thereof adopted another resolution, in which they declared the great principle which asserts the right of the people to make their own form of government and establish their own institutions.
That resolution is as follows:
Resolved, that our liberty and independence are based upon the right of the people to form for themselves such a government as they may choose; that this great principle, the birthright of freemen, the gift of heaven, secured to us by the blood of our ancestors ought to be secured to future generations, and no limitation ought to be applied to this power in the organization of any territory of the United States, of either territorial government or state constitution, provided the government so established shall be Republican, and in conformity with the Constitution of the United States.
That resolution, declaring the great principle of self-government as applicable to the territories and new states, passed the House of Representatives of this state by a vote of sixty-one in the affirmative, to only four in the negative. Thus you find that an expression of public opinion, enlightened, educated, intelligent public opinion on this question by the representatives of Illinois, in 1851, approaches nearer to unanimity than has ever been obtained on any controverted question.
Hence what was my duty, in 1854, when it became necessary to bring forward a bill for the organization of the territories of Kansas and Nebraska? Was it not my duty, in obedience to the Illinois platform, to your standing instructions to your senators, adopted with almost entire unanimity, to incorporate in that bill the great principle of self-government, declaring that it was “the true intent and meaning of the act not to legislate slavery into any state or territory, or to exclude it therefrom, but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the Constitution of the United States?” I did incorporate that principle in the Kansas-Nebraska bill, and perhaps I did as much as any living man in the enactment of that bill, thus establishing the doctrine in the public policy of the country. . . .
. . . My object was to secure the right of the people of each state and of each territory, North or South, to decide the question for themselves, to have slavery or not, just as they chose. . . . It is no answer to this argument to say that slavery is an evil, and hence should not be tolerated. You must allow the people to decide for themselves whether it is a good or an evil. You allow them to decide for themselves whether they desire a Maine liquor law or not; you allow them to decide for themselves what kind of common schools they will have; what system of banking they will adopt, or whether they will adopt any at all; you allow them to decide for themselves the relations between husband and wife, parent and child, guardian and ward; in fact, you allow them to decide for themselves all other questions, and why not upon this question? Whenever you put a limitation upon the right of any people to decide what laws they want, you have destroyed the fundamental principle of self-government.
In connection with this subject, perhaps, it will not be improper for me on this occasion to allude to the position of those who have chosen to arraign my conduct on this same subject. I have observed from the public prints, that but a few days ago the Republican Party of the state of Illinois assembled in convention at Springfield, and not only laid down their platform, but nominated a candidate for the United States Senate, as my successor. I take great pleasure in saying that I have known, personally and intimately, for about a quarter of a century, the worthy gentleman who has been nominated for my place, and I will say that I regard him as a kind, amiable, and intelligent gentleman, a good citizen and an honorable opponent; and whatever issue I may have with him will be of principle, and not involving personalities. Mr. Lincoln made a speech before that Republican Convention which unanimously nominated him for the Senate—a speech evidently well prepared and carefully written—in which he states the basis upon which he proposes to carry on the campaign during this summer. In it he lays down two distinct propositions which I shall notice, and upon which I shall take a direct and bold issue with him.
His first and main proposition I will give in his own language, scripture quotations and all [laughter]; I give his exact language: “‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved. I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it to cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”
In other words, Mr. Lincoln asserts, as a fundamental principle of this government, that there must be uniformity in the local laws and domestic institutions of each and all the states of the Union; and he therefore invites all the non-slaveholding states to band together, organize as one body, and make war upon slavery in Kentucky, upon slavery in Virginia, upon the Carolinas, upon slavery in all of the slaveholding states in this Union, and to persevere in that war until it shall be exterminated. He then notifies the slaveholding states to stand together as a unit and make an aggressive war upon the free states of this Union with a view of establishing slavery in them all; of forcing it upon Illinois, of forcing it upon New York, upon New England, and upon every other free state, and that they shall keep up the warfare until it has been formally established in them all. In other words, Mr. Lincoln advocates boldly and clearly a war of sections, a war of the North against the South, of the free states against the slave states—a war of extermination—to be continued relentlessly until the one or the other shall be subdued, and all the states shall either become free or become slave.
Now, my friends, I must say to you frankly, that I take bold, unqualified issue with him upon that principle. I assert that it is neither desirable nor possible that there should be uniformity in the local institutions and domestic regulations of the different states of this Union. The framers of our government never contemplated uniformity in its internal concerns. The fathers of the Revolution, and the sages who made the Constitution, well understood . . . that each locality, having separate and distinct interests, required separate and distinct laws, domestic institutions, and police regulations adapted to its own wants and its own condition; and they acted on the presumption, also, that these laws and institutions would be as diversified and as dissimilar as the states would be numerous, and that no two would be precisely alike, because the interests of no two would be precisely the same. Hence, I assert, that the great fundamental principle which underlies our complex system of state and federal governments, contemplated diversity and dissimilarity in the local institutions and domestic affairs of each and every state then in the Union, or thereafter to be admitted into the Confederacy. I therefore conceive that my friend, Mr. Lincoln, has totally misapprehended the great principles upon which our government rests. Uniformity in local and domestic affairs would be destructive of state rights, of state sovereignty, of personal liberty and personal freedom. Uniformity is the parent of despotism the world over, not only in politics, but in religion. . . .
From this view of the case, my friends, I am driven irresistibly to the conclusion that diversity, dissimilarity, variety in all our local and domestic institutions, is the great safeguard of our liberties; and that the framers of our institutions were wise, sagacious, and patriotic, when they made this government a confederation of sovereign states, with a legislature for each, and conferred upon each legislature the power to make all local and domestic institutions to suit the people it represented, without interference from any other state or from the general Congress of the Union. If we expect to maintain our liberties, we must preserve the rights and sovereignty of the states; we must maintain and carry out that great principle of self-government incorporated in the compromise measures of 1850; indorsed by the Illinois legislature in 1851; emphatically embodied and carried out in the Kansas-Nebraska bill, and vindicated this year by the refusal to bring Kansas into the Union with a Constitution distasteful to her people.
The other proposition discussed by Mr. Lincoln in his speech consists in a crusade against the Supreme Court of the United States on account of the Dred Scott decision. . . .
. . . [T]he reason assigned by Mr. Lincoln for resisting the decision of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case, does not in itself meet my approbation. He objects to it because that decision declared that a Negro descended from African parents, who were brought here and sold as slaves, is not, and cannot be, a citizen of the United States. He says it is wrong, because it deprives the Negro of the benefits of that clause of the Constitution which says that citizens of one state shall enjoy all the privileges and immunities of citizens of the several states; in other words, he thinks it wrong because it deprives the Negro of the privileges, immunities and rights of citizenship, which pertain, according to that decision, only to the white man. I am free to say to you that in my opinion this government of ours is founded on the white basis. It was made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men, in such manner as they should determine. It is also true that a Negro, an Indian, or any other man of inferior race to a white man, should be permitted to enjoy, and humanity requires that he should have all the rights, privileges and immunities which he is capable of exercising consistent with the safety of society. . . . [W]hat are these rights and these privileges? My answer is, that each state must decide for itself the nature and extent of these rights. . . .
. . . I do not subscribe to the doctrine of my friend, Mr. Lincoln, that uniformity is either desirable or possible. I do not acknowledge that the states must all be free or must all be slave.
I do not acknowledge that the Negro must have civil and political rights everywhere or nowhere. I do not acknowledge that the Chinese must have the same rights in California that we would confer upon him here. I do not acknowledge that the cooley  imported into this country must necessarily be put upon an equality with the white race. I do not acknowledge any of these doctrines of uniformity in the local and domestic regulations in the different states.
Thus you see, my fellow-citizens, that the issues between Mr. Lincoln and myself, as respective candidates for the U.S. Senate, as made up, are direct, unequivocal, and irreconcilable. He goes for uniformity in our domestic institutions, for a war of sections, until one or the other shall be subdued. I go for the great principle of the Kansas-Nebraska bill, the right of the people to decide for themselves.
- 1. The Lecompton Constitution. See the “Mud Sill” Speech
- 2. The Compromise of 1850
- 3. Instructions to support the Wilmot Proviso, which if adopted would have banned slavery in any territory gained as a consequence of the war with Mexico (1846–1848).
- 4. Abraham Lincoln (“House Divided” Speech)
- 5. Cooly or Coolie is a term used to refer to a day laborer. In the United States, it was used to describe Chinese immigrants and is considered derogatory.