“It was a warmish day in early October, and Mr. Lincoln was in his shirt sleeves when he stepped on the platform. I observed that, although awkward, he was not in the least embarrassed. He began in a slow and hesitating manner, but without any mistakes of language, dates, or facts. It was evident that he had mastered his subject, that he knew what he was going to say, and that he knew he was right.” Chicago Evening Journal, 1854
The occasion was Abraham Lincoln’s legendary three hour speech in Peoria, in which he denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act: “This declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I can not but hate. 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—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men among ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”
Abraham Lincoln, a prominent Republican and prospective Presidential candidate, was bringing up the contradiction which had plagued the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson had originally written in his draft of the Declaration of Independence:
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivatng and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of INFIDEL powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people for whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the LIVES of another.”
However, Mr. Jefferson’s zeal for liberty was doused in the calculating rationale of Benjamin Franklin who feared the divided American sentiment over the issue of slavery would render the US impotent against the British if the flames were stoked. Mr. Franklin saw to it that that draft of the Declaration of Independence never saw the light of day.
After the Constitution was ratified, Mr. Franklin (with his dying breath) and Mr. Jefferson attempted to lead a coalition to phase out the institution of slavery. However, they were foiled by the machinations of James Madison, who blocked an abolitionist floor vote.
Since then, the institution of slavery had gained great strength. The Mexican-American War (unofficially the War of Southern Aggression) had largely been waged with slave industry support and an enormous gain in slave-based territory such as Texas. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was a sign of their growing power — at the point of becoming a hopelessly entrenched political force in American politics for centuries to come.
Lincoln at Peoria “let slip the dogs of war” against the growing slave industry.
Abraham Lincoln put a line in the sand just in time. His human rights view was criticized a great deal in the North and eviscerated in the South. When he was elected President, the Confederacy seceded and drafted a Constitution clear about its view of human nature:
“The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide governments for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several states; and may permit them, at such times, and in such manner as it may by law provide, to form states to be admitted into the Confederacy. In all such territory, the institution of negro slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress, and by the territorial government: and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories, shall have the right to take to such territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the states or territories of the Confederate states.”
The Confederacy was in essence arguing that slavery was a states rights issue rather than a human rights issue. The liberty of a state desiring slavery and an individual desiring freedom were weighed and the individual was found wanting. It was, as Lincoln perceived, a rejection of the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln waged the Civil War with determination in the face of great adversity. No one was breaking the union apart in the name of liberty while fighting for slavery. The soldiers in the ranks caught his vision and the wildly popular Battle Hymn of the Republic eloquently makes the same case:
“In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on!”