Lake County History Chapter 78: The Great Slavery Debate, Part 7


“There are…433,643… free… black…. men… in this country. At five hundred dollars a head… they… are… worth… two hundred million dollars. How does it come to be these vast amounts of valuable property to be running about without owners?”

Another pause. He waited, he waited.

“We do not free horses. We do not free cattle to allow them to run at large. How is this?”

Now, again, he waited for his thought to mature in the minds of his listeners. His voice dropped to a near whisper. Those farthest from his place strained to hear.

“Something has operated on their white owners to give them freedom. What is this something?”

He paused again.

“Does not your sense of right and justice tell you that the poor black man has a natural right to himself? Why do you deny the humanity of a slave and make him only the equal of a dog? Why do you ask us to do nothing for what two hundred millions of dollars could not induce you to do?”

His voice grew stronger. His words and phrases rolled over the hall and over his listeners like a rising tide.

“If the Negro is a man, then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal.’ There can be no moral right in making one man the slave of another.”

He spoke several words swiftly, then arriving at the word or phrase that he wanted to stress, he let his voice linger and bear hard on the idea. Then he might rush to the end of the sentence like lightning. His words were true, and what he was doing to Douglas could hardly be considered a debate. He was electrifying. At the end of his speech, he reached his conclusion. Now his voice rose to power, and he spoke quickly, enunciating each word driving a nail into a plank.

“All of your sense of justice and human sympathy tells you that the Negro has some natural right to himself. Should not the hands that plant, till the soil, and harvest also have the right to the bread he eats? The question all depends on whether the Negro is a man. The white man does as he pleases with the Negro. But if he is a man, then the white man, who not only governs himself, also governs another. That is more than self-government; that is despotism.”

“Nearly eighty years ago, we declared that all men are created equal. From that beginning, we have run down to the other declaration, the declaration that it is a sacred right of self-government for some men to enslave others. These two principals cannot stand together. They are as opposite as God and Mammon. Whoever holds to one must despise the other. Judge Douglas believes that democracy means that the majority rights must always prevail. I tell you with all the force and conviction I possess that I believe that our democratic government is only… a…means…of…doing…what…is…RIGHT.”

Lincoln was drained. His dark face was shining with sweat and from the emotion he had poured into his speech. The house was as still as death, silent, the perfect logic of the speaker’s words resting on their minds and conscience. A voice uttered a sound, and they began to cheer and shout. There was an ever-rising storm of acclimation. Abraham Lincoln stood for a long pregnant moment in silent acceptance of their applause.

 Lincoln’s star was rising, but slavery would not go away with a single magnificent speech. The problem would erupt with greater force in three more years. Abraham Lincoln’s personal view of slavery reflected a conflict and the general prejudice of most anti-slavery persons;

“I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality. Inasmuch as it becomes a necessity, there must be a difference. I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position.  Notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why a Negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence; the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Next Episode: Who were the Copperheads?

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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