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Abraham Lincoln On The Slavery Question

From a speech delivered by Abraham Lincoln in Alton, Illinois, on October 15, 1858.

Fellow-citizens, I have not only made the declaration that I do not mean to produce a conflict between the states, but I have tried to show by fair reasoning that I propose nothing but what has a most peaceful tendency. The quotation that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and which has proved so offensive to Judge Douglas, was part of the same thing. He tries to show that variety in the domestic institutions of the different states is necessary and indispensable. I do not dispute it. I very readily agree with him that it would be foolish for us to insist upon having a cranberry law here in Illinois where we have no cranberries, because they have a cranberry law in Indiana where they have cranberries. I should insist that it would be exceedingly wrong in us to deny to Virginia the right to enact oyster laws, where they have oysters, because we want no such laws here. If we here raise a barrel of flour more than we want and the Louisianians raise a barrel of sugar more than they want, it is of mutual advantage to exchange. That produces commerce, brings us together and makes us better friends. These mutual accommodations bind together the different parts of this Union. Instead of being a thing to “divide the house” they tend to sustain it, they are the props of the house tending always to hold it up.

But is it true that all the difficulty and agitation we have in regard to this institution of slavery springs from office seeking, from the mere ambition of politicians? Is that the truth? How many times have we had danger from this question? Go back to the days 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. Parties themselves may be divided and quarrel on minor questions. Yet it extends not beyond the parties themselves.

The Judge alludes very often in the course of his remarks to the exclusive right which the states have to decide for themselves. I agree with him very readily that the different states have the right. Our controversy with him is in regard to the new territories. We agree that when the states come in as states they have the right and the power to do as they please. We have no power as citizens of the free states or in our federal capacity as members of the federal Union through the general government to disturb slavery in the states where it exists. What I insist upon is that the new territories shall be kept free from it while in the territorial condition. Judge Douglas assumes that we have no interest in them, that we have no right whatever to interfere. I think we have some interest. I think that as white men we have. Do we not wish for an outlet for our surplus population, if I may so express myself? Do we not feel an interest in getting to that outlet with such institutions as we would like to have prevail there? If you go to the territory opposed to slavery and another man comes to the same ground with his slave, upon the assumption that the things are equal, it turns out that he has the equal right all his way and you have no part of it your way.

The real issue in this controversy 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 wrong. 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. Has anything ever threatened the existence of this Union save this very institution of slavery? What is it that we hold most dear amongst us? Our own liberty and prosperity. What has ever threatened our liberty and prosperity except this institution of slavery? If this be true, how do you propose to improve the condition of things by enlarging it? You may have a cancer upon your person and not be able to cut it out lest you bleed to death, but surely it is no way to cure it to graft it and spread it over your body. That is no proper way of treating what you regard as wrong.

That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself are silent. 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 is 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.

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