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Lincoln and Davis and The Agreement Against Popular Sovereignty

Jefferson Davis, 1853 - No Popular Sovereignty, please.
Jefferson Davis, 1853

It was more than happenstance that pitted Abraham Lincoln against Jefferson Davis. They disagreed upon almost everything there was to disagree upon. From family background to head-wear, these two presidents could hardly have been more different. But there was one area of thought upon which they agreed: Popular Sovereignty.

Though the concept had been around since the founding of the nation, it was Stephen Douglas who made it the buzzword of the 1850s. He insisted that the question of slavery in the territories should not be decided by the Federal government, but by the vote of the people living within those territories. While many in both the South and the North considered this a fine idea, both Davis and Lincoln did not.

Though they agreed that Popular Sovereignty was an incredibly flawed concept, the reasons why they agreed were drastically at odds.

Kickings, Contempt, and Death

It’s not too surprising that Lincoln opposed it, feeling that it would allow slavery “to spread to every other part of the wide world, where men can be found inclined to take it.” Popular Sovereignty, he said in 1854, was but “covert real zeal for the spread of slavery.” 1Abraham Lincoln, “Speech at Peoria, October 16, 1854,” Complete Works Vol. 1, (New York: The Century Co. 1920) 186.

When Davis spoke in Mississippi City in October of 1857, he defended his own opposition to Popular Sovereignty. Davis cared little for it because he believed it to be “an evasion of the obligation to give equal protection to all kinds of property….” Whether or not the United States Constitution actually deemed slaves as property was a matter of great debate. 2As is detailed in James Oakes’ Freedom National. Davis, of course, wished it did, but was willing to allow the Federal government to step in. “We will never have obtained all our rights until the legislation of congress shall amply protect slaves as it does all other property.” 3Davis, Jefferson, The Papers of Jefferson Davis 1856-1860 (Louisiana State University, 2012) 140-141.

Though early in his evolving views on race, Lincoln could not understand this concept. There were, he remarked, over 400,000 free black people already in the territories. They were not property, he considered, but former slaves, “and they would be slaves now, but for SOMETHING which has operated on their white owners, inducing them, at vast pecuniary sacrifices, to liberate them. What is that SOMETHING? Is there any mistaking it? In all these cases it is your sense of justice, and human sympathy, continually telling you, that the poor negro has some natural right to himself—that those who deny it, and make mere merchandise of him, deserve kickings, contempt and death.” 4Abraham Lincoln, “Speech at Peoria, October 16, 1854,” Complete Works Vol. 1, (New York: The Century Co. 1920) 194.

But Davis, in a speech given in 1858, couldn’t understand why Northerners even cared about such things. “For what patriotic purpose,” he wondered, “can the Northern mind be agitated in relation to domestic institutions, for which they have no legal or moral responsibility….” Would this abolition spirit, he asked, “exemplify the blessings of self government by the free exercise in each independent community of the power to regular their domestic institutions as soil, climate, and population my determine?” 5Davis, Jefferson, The Papers of Jefferson Davis 1856-1860 (Louisiana State University, 2012) 219.

This was a fine question. If the climate of a certain community, its soil and people (which Davis apparently separated from the government) were conducive to owning slaves, shouldn’t they be allowed by the “blessings of self government” to do so?

Reynolds's political map of the United States, designed to exhibit the comparative area of the free and slave states and the territory open to slavery or freedom by the repeal of the Missouri Compromise.
Reynolds’s political map of the United States, designed to exhibit the comparative area of the free and slave states and the territory open to slavery or freedom by the repeal of the Missouri Compromise.

Popular Sovereignty: Self-Government or Despotism?

Lincoln was not so sure. “When the white man governs himself,” he stated, “that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal;’ and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.” 6Abraham Lincoln, “Speech at Peoria, October 16, 1854,” Complete Works Vol. 1, (New York: The Century Co. 1920) 195.

In 1857, Jeff Davis was optimistic. “We will never have obtained all our rights until the legislation of congress shall amply protect slave as it does all other property.” He was, according to a reporter, “rejoiced to say, he had stronger hopes than ever” that this would soon be the case. 7Davis, Jefferson, The Papers of Jefferson Davis 1856-1860 (Louisiana State University, 2012) 122.

A Common Enemy in Stephen Douglas

But just as Davis wasn’t expecting Lincoln in 1860, he wasn’t expecting Stephen Douglas in 1858 – though he probably should have been. Douglas had, in Davis’ mind, pulled a fast one on the South. Douglas knew that he could get both the Northern and Southern vote by pushing for popular sovereignty in Kansas. The South would see that he appeared to be fighting for the cause of slavery, but since the abolitionists would win in Kansas, he would also secure the Northern vote. 8Allen Tate, Jefferson Davis: His Rise and Fall (Minton, Balch & Company, 1929) 8.

In a reply to Douglas given on the Senate floor in 1857, Davis insisted that “never will I consent to abandon a constitutional right at the mere bidding of popular prejudice.” Going on with that idea, he even interrupted a speech given by George Pugh. Slaves were property, he broke in, asserting that disallowing the slaves to be taken into the territories was “catering to the prejudice of a majority.” 9Davis, Jefferson, The Papers of Jefferson Davis 1856-1860 (Louisiana State University, 2012) 604.

To Lincoln, it was not a question of the majority, but of logic and humanity. “Inasmuch as you do not object to my taking my hog to Nebraska,” he rhetorically reasoned with the South, “therefore I must not object to you taking your slave. Now, I admit this is perfectly logical, if there is no difference between hogs and negroes.”10Abraham Lincoln, “Speech at Peoria, October 16, 1854,” Complete Works Vol. 1, (New York: The Century Co. 1920) 194.

Lincoln and Davis: The Federalist Presidents

Lincoln and Davis agreed on the Federal government’s power, as given by the Constitution, to rule over the territories. The citizens living on Federal land, as the territories were, were on a very short leash. Davis was convinced that the Constitution allowed individual states to outlaw slavery, but that slavery was the default anywhere it was not outlawed. Lincoln on the other hand believed that the Constitution allowed individual states to allow slavery, but otherwise, the black population were to be seen as free persons. In other words, Davis saw the national policy as that of slavery, while Lincoln viewed it as that of freedom.

Abraham Lincoln photographed by Brady in 1860.
Abraham Lincoln photographed by Brady in 1860.

In his 1860 Cooper Union speech, Lincoln reminded that “no such right [to own slaves] is specifically written in the Constitution. That instrument is literally silent about any such right.” He insisted that “the right of property in a slave is not ‘distinctly and expressly affirmed’ in” the Constitution.

A simple reading of the document, Lincoln continued, showed “that neither the word ‘slave’ nor ‘slavery’ is to be found in the Constitution, nor the word ‘property’ even, in any connection with language alluding to the things slave, or slavery; and that wherever in that instrument the slave is alluded to, he is called a ‘person’; and where ever his master’s legal right in relation to him is alluded to, it is spoken of as ‘service or labor which may be due’ – as a debt payable in service or labor.”

Lincoln insisted that this was purposely done “to exclude from the Constitution the idea that there could be property in man.” 11Abraham Lincoln, “Speech at Cooper Union, February 27, 1860,” Complete Works Vol. 1, (New York: The Century Co. 1920) 610.

Both Lincoln and Davis agreed that Popular Sovereignty was no way to govern the territories. Both held that the Constitution simply did not allow it. Neither were very willing to compromise on this matter. While Lincoln vowed not to bother slavery within the states where it was legal, Davis was insistent that slavery be ushered into every territory despite the majority opinion.

There was, perhaps, one other item upon which they would agree. Lincoln himself summed it up best: “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.” 12Abraham Lincoln, “Speech Delivered at Springfield, Illinois, June 16, 1858,” Complete Works Vol. 1, (New York: The Century Co. 1920) 240.

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Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.
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