College of LAS « Illinois

Taking a Stand Against Slavery

By Vernon Burton
Dr. Burton is a professor emeritus of history, sociology, and African American studies at U of I and is the author of Age of Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln retired from Congress in 1848 and concentrated on his legal practice, but the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 brought Lincoln back into the political fracas. This act meant the repeal of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which, by determining where slavery could and could not exist in the western territories, had muted sectional agitation for 34 years. The prime proponent of the new act, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, instead introduced popular sovereignty as the means of determining slavery’s expansion. He called it “the sacred right of self-government,” although in his franker moments he said it was to make sure government was “for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever.” In reply to Douglas, Abraham Lincoln said of popular sovereignty, “I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world.” Lincoln decried equating slaves with other property rights, and on October 16, 1854, at Peoria, he suggested the historical and moral issues that would form the basis of his later arguments. He asserted that slaves are humans, and that humans have the right of self-government.

Four years later, on June 16, 1858, the Illinois Republican Party convention proposed Lincoln as their candidate to challenge the Democrat Douglas for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Lincoln again ventured into dangerous political waters as he took his stand against slavery. The Bible recounts the trouble Jesus got into when, in the midst of doing good works and casting out demons, he declared, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” In citing these words Lincoln knew that he was throwing down the gauntlet. Advisors strongly urged him to edit that statement out of his speech: it was too radical and seemingly advocated a sectional war. Lincoln was insistent that it remain. The idea that the U.S. could not remain half free, half slave distressed and angered many who pointed out that it had been doing just that quite nicely for 82 years. Lincoln spoke, however, at a unique time in American history. The Supreme Court's decision in the Dred Scott case fundamentally altered the legal and moral landscape; Chief Justice Roger Taney’s Court declared all blacks—slave and free—could never be United States citizens and that slavery could not be prohibited from the western territories. This was too much for Lincoln.

Read the other monthly essays in this special commemorative series.

February 2009

Lincoln Bicentennial Events at U of I

October 13
Lincoln’s Rhetorical Worlds, Professor Michael Leff
November 11
Lincoln Lecture, Professor Robin Blackburn