Primary tabs

Speech of Hon. Abraham Lincoln at Ottawa.


Aug. 28, 1858.

My Fellow Citizens: When a man hears himself somewhat misrepresented, it provokes him -- at least, I find it so with myself; but when the misrepresentation becomes gross and palpable, it is more apt to amuse him. [Laughter] The first thing I see fit to notice, is the fact that Judge Douglas alleges, after running through the history of the old Democratic and the old Whig parties, that Judge Trumbull and myself made an arrangement in 1854, by which I was to have the place of Gen. Shields in the United States Senate, and Judge Trumbull was to have the place of Judge Douglas. Now all I have to say on that subject is, that I think no man -- not even Judge Douglas -- can prove it, because it is not true. [Cheers] I have no doubt he is "conscientious" in saying it. [Laughter] As to those resolutions he took such a length of time to read as being the platform of the Republican party in 1854, I say I never had anything to do with them, and I think Trumbull never had. [Renewed laughter.] Judge Douglas cannot show that either one of us ever did have anything to do with them. I believe this is true about those resolutions: There was a call for a convention to form a Republican Party at Springfield, and I think my friend Mr. Lovejoy, who is here upon this stand, had a hand in it. I think this is true, and I think if he will remember accurately, he will be able to recollect that he tried to get me into it, and I would not go in. [Cheers and laughter.] I believe it is also true, that I went away from Springfield when the convention was in session, to attend court in Tazewell County. It is true they did place my name, though without my authority, upon the committee, and afterwards wrote me to attend the meeting of the committee, but I refused to do so, and I never had anything to do with that organization. This is the plain truth about all the matter of the resolutions.

Now, about this story that Judge Douglas tells of Trumbull bargaining to sell out the old Democratic party, and Lincoln agreeing to sell out the old Whig Party, I have the means of knowing about that; [laughter] Judge Douglas cannot have; and I know there is no substance to it whatever, [Applause.] yet I have no doubt he is "conscientious" about it. [Laughter.] I know that after Mr. Lovejoy got into the Legislature that winter, he complained of me that I had told all the old Whigs in his district that the old Whig party was good enough for them, and some of them voted against him because I told them so. Now I have no means of totally disproving such charges as this which the Judge makes. A man cannot prove a negative, but he has a right to claim that when a man makes an affirmative charge, he must offer some proof to show the truth of what he says. I certainly cannot introduce testimony to show the negative about things, but I have a right to claim that if a man says he knows a thing he must show how he knows it. I always have a right to claim this, and it is not satisfactory to me that he may be "conscientious" on this subject. [Cheers and laughter.]

Now gentlemen, I hate to waste my time on such things, but in regard to that general abolition tilt that Judge Douglas makes, when he says that I was engaged at that time in selling out and abolitionizing the old Whig party -- I hope you will permit me to read a part of printed speech that I made then at Peoria, which will show altogether a different view of the position I took in that contest of 1854.

Voice -- Put on your specs.

Mr.Lincoln -- Yes sir, I am obliged to do so. I am no longer a young man. [Laughter]

"When Southern people tell us they are no more responsible for slavery then we are, I acknowledge the fact. When they say that it is an existing institution, and there is no way to get rid of it, I assure them I shall not blame them for not knowing what to do. If all earthly power were given me, I would not know what to do with it. My first impulse would be to free them all, and send them to Liberia, their own native land, but a moment's reflection would convince me that whatever of high hope there might be in this, its execution will be impossible. I reflect that if they were all landed there in a day, they would all perish in the next ten days, and there is not surplus money and surplus shipping enough in the world to accomplish it in many times ten days. Shall we free them and keep them as underlings? Are we quite sure this would better their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery at any rate, but my opinion is not clear enough to denounce people upon. Shall we free them and make them socially and politically our equals?"

Let the Judge note this. I now am among men who have some abolition tendencies.

"Shall we free them and make them socially and politically our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this, and if they would the feelings of the great mass of white people would not, whether this accords with strict justice or not is not the sole question. A universal feeling, whether well or ill founded, cannot safely be disregarded. We cannot make them our equals. * * * * * * When they remind us of their constitutional rights I acknowledge them fully and truly and I would give them any legislation for the recovery of their fugitives, which would not be more likely in the stringency of its provisions to take a free man into slavery, than our ordinary criminal law are to hang an innocent one." [Loud applause.]

I have reason to know that Judge Douglas knows that I said this. I think he has the answer here to one of the questions he put to me. I do not mean to allow him to catechise me unless he pays back for it in kind. I will not answer questions one after another unless he reciprocates, but as he made this inquiry and I have answered it before, he has got it without my getting anything in return. He has got my answer on the Fugitive Slave Law.

Now gentlemen, I don't want to read at any further length, but this is the true complexion of all I have ever said in regard to the institution of slavery and the black race. This is the whole of it, and anything that argues me into his idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro, is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse. [Laughter.] I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgement probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference. I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in the favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the 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. [Loud cheers.] I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas that he is not my equal in many respects -- certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man. [Great applause.]

Now I pass on to consider one or two more of these little follies. The Judge is wofully at fault about his early friend Lincoln being a "grocery keeper." [Laughter] I don't know it as it would be a great sin, if I had been, but he is mistaken. Lincoln never kept a grocery anywhere in the world. It is true that Lincoln did work the latter part of one winter in a little still house, up at the head of a hollow. [Roars of Laughter.] And so I think my friend, the Judge, is equally at fault when he charges me at the time I was in Congress of having opposed our soldiers who were fighting in the Mexican war. The Judge did not make his charge distinctly, but I can tell you what he can prove by referring to the record. You remember I was an old Whig, and whenever the Democratic party tried to get me to vote that the war had been righteously begun by the President, I would not do it. But whenever they ask for any money, or land warrants, or anything to pay the soldiers there, during all that time, I gave the same votes that Judge Douglas did. [Loud applause.] You can think as you please as to whether that was consistent. Such is the truth, and the Judge has the right to make all he can out of it. But when he, by a general charge, conveys the idea that I withheld supplies from the soldiers who were fighting in the Mexican war, or did any thing else to hinder the soldiers, he is, to say the least, grossly and altogether mistaken, as a consultation of the records will prove to him.

As I have not used up so much of my time as I had supposed, I will dwell a little longer upon one or two of those minor topics upon which the Judge has spoken. He has read from my speech at Springfield in which I say that "a house divided against itself cannot stand." Does the Judge say it can stand? [Laughter.] I don't know whether he does or not. The Judge does not seem to be attending to me just now, but I would like to know if it is opinion that a house divided against itself can stand. If he does, then there is a question of veracity, not between him and me, but between the Judge and an authority of a somewhat higher character. [Laughter and applause.]

Now, my friends, I ask your attention to this matter for the purpose of saying something seriously. I know that the Judge may readily agree with me that the maxim which was put forth by the Savior is true, but he may allege that I misapply it; and the Judge has a right to urge that, in my application, I do misapply it, and then I have a right to show that I do not misapply it. When he undertakes to say that because I think this nation, so far as the question of Slavery is concerned, will all become one thing or all the other, I am in favor of bringing about a dead uniformity in the various states, in all their institutions, he argues erroneously. The great variety of the local institutions in the States springing from differences in the soil, differences in the face of the country, and in the climate, are bounds of union. They do not make "a house divided against itself," but they make a house united. If they produce in one section of the country what is called for by the wants of another section, and this other section can supply the wants of the first section, they are not matters of discord, but bonds of union, true bonds of union. But can this question of slavery be considered as among these varieties in the institutions of the country? I leave it to you to say whether, in the history of our government, this institution of slavery has not always failed to be a bond of union, and on the contrary, been an apple of discord and an element of division in the house. [Cries of "Yes, yes," and applause.] I ask you to consider whether, so long as the moral constitution of men's mind shall continue to be the same, after this generation and assemblage shall sink into the grave, and another race shall arise, with the same moral and intellectual development we have --- whether, if that institution is standing in the same irritating position in which it now is, it will not continue an element of division? [Cries of "Yes, yes".] If so, then I have a right to say that in regard to this question, the union is a house divided against itself, and when the Judge reminds me that I have often said to him that the institution of slavery had existed for eighty years in some States, and yet it doesn't exist in some others.

I agree to the fact, and I account for it by looking at the position in which our fathers originally place it -- restricting it from the new Territories where it had not gone, and legislating to cut off its source by the abrogation of the slave trade, thus putting the seal of legislation against its spread. The public mind did rest in the belief that it was in the course of ultimate extinction. [Cries of "Yes, yes."] But lately, I think -- and in this I charge nothing on the Judge's motives -- lately, I think, that he, and those acting with him, have placed that institution on new basis, which looks to the perpetuity and nationalization of slavery. [Loud cheers.] And while it is placed upon this new basis, I say, and I have said, that I believe we shall not have peace upon the question until the opponents of slavery arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or, on the other hand, that its advocates will push it forward until it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South. Now, I believe if we could arrest the spread, and place it where Washington, and Jefferson, and Madison placed it, it would be in the course of ultimate extinction, and the public mind would, as for eighty years past, believe that it was in the course of ultimate extinction. The crises would be past and the institution might be let alone for a hundred years, if it should live so long, in the States where it exists, yet it would be going out of existence in the way best for both the black and the white races. [Great cheering.]

A Voice -- Then do you repudiate Popular Sovereignty?

Mr. Lincoln -- Well, then, let us talk about Popular Sovereignty! [Laughter.] What is Popular Sovereignty? [Cries of "A humbug," "a humbug."] Is it the right of the people to have Slavery or not have it, as they see fit, in the territories? I will state -- and I have an able man to watch me -- my understanding is that Popular Sovereignty, as now applied to the question of Slavery, does allow the people of a Territory to have Slavery if they want to, but does not allow them not to have it if they do not want it. [Applause and laughter.] I do not mean if this vast concourse of people were in a Territory of the United States, any one of them would be obliged to have a slave if he did not want one; but I do say that, as I understand the Dred Scott decision, if any one man wants slaves, all the rest have no way of keeping that one man from holding them.

When I made my speech at Springfield, of which the Judge complains, and from which he quotes, I really was not thinking of the things which he ascribes to me at all. I had no thought in the world that I was doing anything to bring about a war between free and slave States. I had no thought in the world that I was doing anything to bring about a political and social equality of the black and white races. It never occurred to me that I was doing anything or favoring anything to reduce to a dead uniformity all the local institutions of the various States. But I must say, in all fairness to him, if he thinks I am doing something which leads to these bad results, it is none the better that I did not mean it. It is just as fatal to the country, if I have any influence in producing it, whether I intend it or not. But can it be true, that placing this institution upon the original basis -- the basis upon which our fathers placed it -- can have any tendency to set the Northern and Southern States at war with one another, or that it can have any tendency to make the people of Vermont raise sugarcane, because they raise it in Louisiana, or that it can compel the people of Illinois to cut pine logs on the Grand Prairie, where they will not grow, because they cut pine logs in Maine, where they do grow. [Laughter.] The Judge says this is a new principle started in regard to this question. Does the Judge claim that he is working on the plan of the founders of government? I think he says in some of his speeches -- indeed I have one here now -- that he saw evidence of a policy to allow slavery to the south of a certain line, while north of it it should be excluded, and he saw an indisposition on the part of the country to stand upon that policy, and therefore he set about studying the subject upon original principles, and upon original principles he got up the Nebraska Bill! I am fighting it upon these "original principles" -- fighting it in the Jeffersonian, Washingtonian and Madisonian fashion. [Laughter and applause.]




1. These resolutions are a deliberate forgery by Mr. Douglas. None such were passed by the Springfield Convention nor anything like them. -- [Ed. Press & Tribune.]