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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

Yet Lincoln accepted the Fugitive Slave Law


It was wrong because it was

inconsistent with the doctrines enunciated in the Declaration of Independence in which he firmly believed. Really good thinking like Lincoln's is necessarily outside time, and therefore he was not at all affected by the mere use and wont which had tended to reconcile so many to Slavery. Yet he was far from being a fanatical Abolitionist. Because Slavery was wrong it did not follow that it should be immediately uprooted. But it did follow that whatever treatment it received should be based on the assumption of its wrongness. An excellent illustration of his attitude of mind will be found in the exact point at which he drew the line. For the merely sentimental opponent of Slavery, the Fugitive Slave Law made a much more moving appeal to the imagination than the extension of Slavery in the territories. Yet Lincoln accepted the Fugitive Slave Law. He supported it because, as he put it, it was "so nominated in the bond." It was part of the terms which the Fathers of the Republic, disapproving of Slavery, had yet made with Slavery. He also, disapproving of Slavery, could honour those terms. But it was otherwise in regard to the territorial controversy. Douglas openly treated Slavery not as an evil difficult to cure, but as a thing merely indifferent. Southern statesmen were beginning to echo Calhoun's definition of it as "a positive good." On the top of this came Taney's decision making the right to own slaves a fundamental part of the birthright of an American citizen. This was much
more important than the most drastic Fugitive Slave Law, for it indicated a change in first principles.

This is the true meaning of his famous use of the text "a house divided against itself cannot stand," and his deduction that the Union could not "permanently exist half slave and half free." That it had so existed for eighty years he admitted, but it had so existed, he considered, because the Government had acted on the first principle that Slavery was an evil to be tolerated but curbed, and the public mind had "rested in the belief that it was in process of ultimate extinction." It was now, as it seemed, proposed to abandon that principle and assume it to be good or at least indifferent. If _that_ principle were accepted there was nothing to prevent the institution being introduced not only into the free territories but into the Free States. And indeed the reasoning of Taney's judgment, though not the judgment itself, really seemed to point to such a conclusion.

Lincoln soon became the leader of the Illinois Republicans, and made ready to match himself against Douglas when the "Little Giant" should next seek re-election. Meanwhile a new development of the Kansas affair had split the Democratic Party and ranged Senator Douglas and President Buchanan on opposite sides in an open quarrel. The majority of the population now settled in Kansas was of Northern origin, for the conditions of life in the North were much more favourable to emigration into new lands than those of the slave-owning States. Had a free ballot been taken of the genuine settlers there would certainly have been a large majority against Slavery. But in the scarcely disguised civil war into which the competition for Kansas had developed, the Slave-State party had the support of bands of "border ruffians" from the neighbouring State, who could appear as citizens of Kansas one day and return to their homes in Missouri the next. With such aid that party succeeded in silencing the voices of the Free State men while they held a bogus Convention at Lecompton, consisting largely of men who were not really inhabitants of Kansas at all, adopted a Slave Constitution, and under it applied for admission to the Union. Buchanan, who, though a Northerner, was strongly biassed in favour of the Slavery party, readily accepted this as a _bona fide_ application, and recommended Congress to accede to it. Douglas was much better informed as to how things were actually going in Kansas, and he felt that if the Lecompton Constitution were acknowledged his favourite doctrine of Popular Sovereignty would be justly covered with odium and contempt. He therefore set himself against the President, and his personal followers combined with the Republicans to defeat the Lecompton proposition.


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