Lincoln on the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Civil War is often viewed as an inevitable conflict.  Perhaps.  However, it is certain that it was the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the brain child of Stephen A. Douglas, which set in motion the events of the 1850s which led to the rise of both the Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln.  Trying to square the circle, Douglas thought that his concept of “popular sovereignty” was the solution to the slavery question in the territories.  Let the people decide.  What true American could oppose that idea?  This, he thought, would appease both Northern and Democrat factions in his party and lead him inevitably to the Presidency.

Instead, as Bleeding Kansas demonstrated, Douglas merely gave a target for both anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces to fight the question out with violence rather than words. 

Lincoln in his speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act on October 16, 1854, which may be read here, emphasized how the Compromise of 1850 was thought at the time to end the slavery question:

These points all needed adjustment; and they were all held up, perhaps wisely to make them help to adjust one another. The Union, now, as in 1820, was thought to be in danger; and devotion to the Union rightfully inclined men to yield somewhat, in points where nothing else could have so inclined them. A compromise was finally effected. The south got their new fugitive-slave law; and the North got California, (the far best part of our acquisition from Mexico,) as a free State. The south got a provision that New Mexico and Utah, when admitted as States, may come in with or without slavery as they may then choose; and the north got the slave-trade abolished in the District of Columbia. The north got the western boundary of Texas, thence further back eastward than the south desired; but, in turn, they gave Texas ten millions of dollars, with which to pay her old debts. This is the Compromise of 1850.

Preceding the Presidential election of 1852, each of the great political parties, democrats and whigs, met in convention, and adopted resolutions endorsing the compromise of ’50; as a “finality,” a final settlement, so far as these parties could make it so, of all slavery agitation. Previous to this, in 1851, the Illinois Legislature had indorsed it.

Lincoln points to the Kansas-Nebraska Act as reopening the slavery question with a vengeance:

It is an aggravation, rather, of the only one thing which ever endangers the Union. When it came upon us, all was peace and quiet. The nation was looking to the forming of new bonds of Union; and a long course of peace and prosperity seemed to lie before us. In the whole range of possibility, there scarcely appears to me to have been any thing, out of which the slavery agitation could have been revived, except the very project of repealing the Missouri compromise. Every inch of territory we owned, already had a definite settlement of the slavery question, and by which, all parties were pledged to abide. Indeed, there was no uninhabited country on the continent, which we could acquire; if we except some extreme northern regions, which are wholly out of the question. In this state of case, the genius of Discord himself, could scarcely have invented a way of again getting [setting?] us by the ears, but by turning back and destroying the peace measures of the past. The councils of that genius seem to have prevailed, the Missouri compromise was repealed; and here we are, in the midst of a new slavery agitation, such, I think, as we have never seen before.

Who is responsible for this? Is it those who resist the measure; or those who, causelessly, brought it forward, and pressed it through, having reason to know, and, in fact, knowing it must and would be so resisted? It could not but be expected by its author, that it would be looked upon as a measure for the extension of slavery, aggravated by a gross breach of faith. Argue as you will, and long as you will, this is the naked FRONT and ASPECT, of the measure. And in this aspect, it could not but produce agitation. Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man’s nature—opposition to it, is [in?] his love of justice. These principles are an eternal antagonism; and when brought into collision so fiercely, as slavery extension brings them, shocks, and throes, and convulsions must ceaselessly follow. Repeal the Missouri compromise—repeal all compromises—repeal the declaration of independence—repeal all past history, you still can not repeal human nature. It still will be the abundance of man’s heart, that slavery extension is wrong; and out of the abundance of his heart, his mouth will continue to speak.

Many things contributed to cause the Civil War, but the decisive factor in my mind that led to the Secession crisis of 1860-61 and the War, was clearly the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Published in: on March 17, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Lincoln on the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act  
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