On this date in 1857 Abraham Lincoln spoke at length in Springfield, Illinois on the Dred Scott decision. His comments were printed and were available for purchase. Several newspapers also printed his speech in full.
In my view, this is an incredibly important speech. Lincoln has not yet faced Douglas in the celebrated debates—those are still a year away. Lincoln is still developing those ideas, but his rhetoric has already come a long way. The villain in this speech is not Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the author of the Dred Scott decision, the villain is Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who has recently commented on the wisdom of the decision itself. Lincoln lays out the fundamental disagreement—how do we interpret our Declaration of Independence?
But this speech is not simply a sermon about a Supreme Court decision or a meditation on how we interpret one of our nation's founding documents. This speech reveals how Lincoln sees African Americans as of 1857. Take a few moments to read through some of these passages. Lincoln’s comments are incredibly eye-opening.
He begins by establishing common ground with Douglas:
There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people, to the idea of an indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races; and Judge Douglas evidently is basing his chief hope, upon the chances of being able to appropriate the benefit of this disgust to himself. If he can, by much drumming and repeating, fasten the odium of that idea upon his adversaries, he thinks he can struggle through the storm. He therefore clings to this hope, as a drowning man to the last plank. He makes an occasion for lugging it in from the opposition to the Dred Scott decision. He finds the Republicans insisting that the Declaration of Independence includes ALL men, black as well as white; and forth-with he boldly denies that it includes negroes at all, and proceeds to argue gravely that all who contend it does, do so only because they want to vote, and eat, and sleep, and marry with negroes! He will have it that they cannot be consistent else. Now I protest against that counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. I need not have her for either, I can just leave her alone. In some respects she certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of any one else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others.
Now, here is the fundamental disagreement. Lincoln says he disagrees with both the Taney and Douglas interpretation of the Declaration of Independence:
Chief Justice Taney, in his opinion in the Dred Scott case, admits that the language of the Declaration is broad enough to include the whole human family, but he and Judge Douglas argue that the authors of that instrument did not intend to include negroes, by the fact that they did not at once, actually place them on an equality with the whites. Now this grave argument comes to just nothing at all, by the other fact, that they did not at once, or ever afterwards, actually place all white people on an equality with one or another. And this is the staple argument of both the Chief Justice and the Senator, for doing this obvious violence to the plain unmistakable language of the Declaration. I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal---equal in ``certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'' This they said, and this meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere. The assertion that ``all men are created equal'' was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, nor for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism. They knew the proneness of prosperity to breed tyrants, and they meant when such should re-appear in this fair land and commence their vocation they should find left for them at least one hard nut to crack.
Lincoln then quotes from a recent speech by Senator Douglas. This, Lincoln says, is how Douglas interprets the same Declaration of Independence:
``No man can vindicate the character, motives and conduct of the signers of the Declaration of Independence except upon the hypothesis that they referred to the white race alone, and not to the African, when they declared all men to have been created equal---that they were speaking of British subjects on this continent being equal to British subjects born and residing in Great Britain---that they were entitled to the same inalienable rights, and among them were enumerated life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration was adopted for the purpose of justifying the colonists in the eyes of the civilized world in withdrawing their allegiance from the British crown, and dissolving their connection with the mother country.''
Lincoln says the Douglas interpretation is not only wrong, but ultimately, it is dangerous. “My good friends,” Lincoln says, “read that carefully over some leisure hour, and ponder well upon it---see what a mere wreck---mangled ruin---it makes of our once glorious Declaration.” Lincoln continues:
Why, according to this, not only negroes but white people outside of Great Britain and America are not spoken of in that instrument. The English, Irish and Scotch, along with white Americans, were included to be sure, but the French, Germans and other white people of the world are all gone to pot along with the Judge's inferior races.
I had thought the Declaration promised something better than the condition of British subjects; but no, it only meant that we should be equal to them in their own oppressed and unequal condition. According to that, it gave no promise that having kicked off the King and Lords of Great Britain, we should not at once be saddled with a King and Lords of our own.
I had thought the Declaration contemplated the progressive improvement in the condition of all men everywhere; but no, it merely ``was adopted for the purpose of justifying the colonists in the eyes of the civilized world in withdrawing their allegiance from the British crown, and dissolving their connection with the mother country.'' Why, that object having been effected some eighty years ago, the Declaration is of no practical use now---mere rubbish---old wadding left to rot on the battle-field after the victory is won.
The Dred Scott decision is important because the interpretation of one of the nation’s founding documents is at stake:
I understand you are preparing to celebrate the ``Fourth,'' tomorrow week. What for? The doings of that day had no reference to the present; and quite half of you are not even descendants of those who were referred to at that day. But I suppose you will celebrate; and will even go so far as to read the Declaration. Suppose after you read it once in the old fashioned way, you read it once more with Judge Douglas' version. It will then run thus: ``We hold these truths to be self-evident that all British subjects who were on this continent eighty-one years ago, were created equal to all British subjects born and then residing in Great Britain.''
And now I appeal to all---to Democrats as well as others,---are you really willing that the Declaration shall be thus frittered away?---thus left no more at most, than an interesting memorial of the dead past? thus shorn of its vitality, and practical value; and left without the germ or even the suggestion of the individual rights of man in it?
Throughout the speech, Lincoln clearly says America’s different races should remain separated. Lincoln went on to develop these ideas further in the Lincoln-Douglas debates (see, for instance, the fourth debate at Charleston). I think it is important to acknowledge these remarks. This is how Lincoln saw race relations in 1857:
But Judge Douglas is especially horrified at the thought of the mixing blood by the white and black races: agreed for once---a thousand times agreed. There are white men enough to marry all the white women, and black men enough to marry all the black women; and so let them be married. On this point we fully agree with the Judge; and when he shall show that his policy is better adapted to prevent amalgamation than ours we shall drop ours, and adopt his.
Lincoln says the Republicans have a solution: they oppose the spread of slavery, thus the “amalgamation” of the races will not occur. Lincoln uses statistics to illustrate his case:
Let us see. In 1850 there were in the United States, 405,751, mulattoes. Very few of these are the offspring of whites and free blacks; nearly all have sprung from black slaves and white masters. A separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation but as an immediate separation is impossible the next best thing is to keep them apart where they are not already together. If white and black people never get together in Kansas, they will never mix blood in Kansas. That is at least one self-evident truth. A few free colored persons may get into the free States, in any event; but their number is too insignificant to amount to much in the way of mixing blood. In 1850 there were in the free states, 56,649 mulattoes; but for the most part they were not born there---they came from the slave States, ready made up. In the same year the slave States had 348,874 mulattoes all of home production. The proportion of free mulattoes to free blacks---the only colored classes in the free states---is much greater in the slave than in the free states. It is worthy of note too, that among the free states those which make the colored man the nearest to equal the white, have, proportionably the fewest mulattoes the least of amalgamation. In New Hampshire, the State which goes farthest towards equality between the races, there are just 184 Mulattoes while there are in Virginia---how many do you think? 79,775, being 23,126 more than in all the free States together.
These statistics show that slavery is the greatest source of amalgamation; and next to it, not the elevation, but the degeneration of the free blacks. Yet Judge Douglas dreads the slightest restraints on the spread of slavery, and the slightest human recognition of the negro, as tending horribly to amalgamation.
I have said that the separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation. I have no right to say all the members of the Republican party are in favor of this, nor to say that as a party they are in favor of it. There is nothing in their platform directly on the subject. But I can say a very large proportion of its members are for it, and that the chief plank in their platform---opposition to the spread of slavery---is most favorable to that separation.
Such separation, if ever effected at all, must be effected by colonization; and no political party, as such, is now doing anything directly for colonization. Party operations at present only favor or retard colonization incidentally. The enterprise is a difficult one; but ``when there is a will there is a way;'' and what colonization needs most is a hearty will. Will springs from the two elements of moral sense and self-interest. Let us be brought to believe it is morally right, and, at the same time, favorable to, or, at least, not against, our interest, to transfer the African to his native clime, and we shall find a way to do it, however great the task may be. The children of Israel, to such numbers as to include four hundred thousand fighting men, went out of Egyptian bondage in a body.
People often get squimish when they read Lincoln's words. We don't want to believe the author of the Emancipation Proclamation said or believed such things, nor do we want to hear that crowds cheered such comments. In the end, these words are important. They tell us a lot about the Nineteenth Century. There is a reason why books like Lerone Bennett's Forced into Glory are written, but in my view, such books inevitably miss the mark. Was Lincoln a racist or was he the Great Emancipator? Well, it simply isn't that easy.
Lincoln was wrestling with tough questions all his life. This speech documents the answers he had found as of 1857. But also realize how few statues there are that depict the wayLincoln looked in 1857!
Lincoln never stopped looking for answers. His ideas evolved. Douglas challenged him to develop his ideas further, just as the election of 1860 presented different variables. And then the war came and with it came four years of unspeakable suffering. Forget the Emancipation Proclamation, read the Conkling letter or the Second Inaugural. There is a transformation.
CLICK HERE to read the entire speech on the Dred Scott decision.