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Lake County History Chapter 76: The Great Slavery Debate, Part 5

LINCOLN SPEAKS

The day had become warmer still as each of the representatives spoke through the afternoon session in the Maryland Capitol House. From time to time, as Douglas and the others had their say, the Illinois politician looked up at some telling comment. Other times, all six feet four inches of his long body slumped in his chair, further wrinkling his newly pressed rumpled black frock suit.

As the pro-slave men continued their harangues, Lincoln’s long melancholy features grew sad in repose. From time to time, Lincoln appeared amused. He chuckled while Douglas made his argument for the Compromise bill. Lincoln seemed to genuinely appreciate Douglas’ oratory. He laughed along with the other Congressmen when Douglas said something humorous. The bearded clerk listened and watched the congressmen speak. He whispered his criticism to his friend. Abe’s chuckle over Douglas’ humorous remark seemed to be a small betrayal to the bearded clerk.

“Abe should feel guilty at laughing at anything Douglas says,” the bearded Clerk said.

His friend grinned.

“Judge Douglas feels as most slave owners do. Abe says Judge Douglas and the Copperheads are like the boy skinning eels, who explains that it ‘don’t hurt the eels much. It’s always been done. They’re used to it.’”

When Stephen Douglas sat down, men in the audience filled the air with their applause. There were shouts of ‘Go for it Judge’ and ‘That’s what we want.’

Lincoln rose from his seat to speak his turn. There was loud booing from the abolitionists. Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. They expected Lincoln to speak in support of the Missouri Compromise that limited slavery in the new states.

Lincoln unraveled his six feet four inches of lanky homespun height and stood up. As different from Douglas as a cat is from a canary, he stooped, yet he looked even taller than he was because he was thin. There was strength in his sinewy arms and shoulders. The collar of his black broadcloth suit coat was partly turned up in the back. His long black coarse hair needed a haircut. From time to time, when he turned his head, his dark leathery features, his long angular face, and his large nose were fashioned from a woodsman’s ax.

 This was the man who had lifted a three-hundred-pound barrel of liquor to his chest as a trick to amuse the folks of Sangamon County. This was the man who had out-wrestled the best men in his regiment during the Black Hawk war. This was the gentlest of men who refused to shoot a wild turkey. Yet, when it was necessary, he threw the toughest bully in the Grover’s Corners gang ten feet into the dust.

As he waited for quiet, his eyes were deep-set and brooding. His shock of black hair was disheveled. He appeared to be some gaunt harbinger of doom warmed over. Lincoln began with a short history of slavery in America. Yet, he did not directly answer Judge Douglas’ arguments. Abe neither shouted, nor did he rant. In the easiest and gentlest manner, he gave his reasons for his hatred of slavery.

“I do not propose to question the patriotism or assail the motives of any man. Let me say I think I have no prejudice against the southern people. They are just what I would be in their situation. If slavery did not exist among them, they would not introduce it. If it existed among us, we should not instantly give it up. In both North and South, there are some that would free their slaves, and there are others who would become slave owners. Slavery is difficult to get rid of in any satisfactory way. Surely I do not blame the Southerners for not doing what I should not know how to do myself.”

Sometime before, as he was growing to his maturity, Lincoln had written in a notebook quoting Socrates, the Greek philosopher. The homily that Socrates had written two thousand years ago was ‘Deliberate slowly, and execute promptly.’ Abe gave that impression now as he spoke. The two clerks, watching him, waited expectantly for the moment when the tall, dark scarecrow of a man would begin his blast away at slavery. Instead, he proceeded to speak with deceptive moderation.

Next Episode: Lincoln answers a question.

For more on Civil War History, read Paleno’s ‘The Porter Conspiracy’

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Gene Paleno

Gene runs his life at a full sprint. In his ninety-three years he's dug ditches, painted signs, played semi-pro football, worked as a taxicab driver, an insurance agent, and a school teacher. He's been a technical artist, a marketing director, and a business owner. He served in World War II, raised four children, and was married to the love of his life for fifty years. He's an accomplished oil painter and skilled in ceramics. He's written fifteen books, including the definitive Lake County History, and doesn't show any signs of slowing down.

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