“But if the negro is a man, is it not to that extent a total destruction of self-government to say that he too shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government — that is despotism”
— Abraham Lincoln, October 16, 1854
Lincoln’s Speech at Peoria was his first great speech, and held within it the seeds war, a war that was a long-time coming. He was specifically discussing the repealing of the Missouri Compromise, slavery, and what that meant for the Union as a whole.
“It was a law, passed on the 6th of March, 1820, providing that Missouri might come into the Union with slavery, but that in all the remaining part of the territory purchased of France… slavery should never be permitted. This provision of law is the “Missouri Compromise.”
— Abraham Lincoln
There is a contemptible myth (perpetuated by public school teachers under the guise of broad-mindedness, and now living within the dust-filled skulls of the American public) that the Civil War wasn’t about Slavery. It was, it is contended, about economics, culture, and most of all — states rights.
That is completely false, nonsensical, and (at best) pernicious.
The truth is that you can’t have a meaningful conversation about the origins of the cultural, economic, and political spirits of that time without discussing slavery and its horrible influence on every facet of American life — arguments over “states rights” were born out of the battles over slavery.
For example, in Mississippi’s declaration of secession:
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world … a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”
Texas went further (if less eloquently):
We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”
There is some truth in the idea that the civil war wasn’t fought over slavery, of course. The north was fighting to keep the Union together, not to free the slaves — at least not at first. But, that is to miss the point.
The dividing line between slave holding states and free states was far more than legal — it expressed everything about what it means to be a free, self-governing, democratic nation. To the south, there was no conflict. To the north, certainly by 1863 and the emancipation proclamation, the conflict had become all too obvious.
Just as how our lives meander over the rivers of time, the north hadn’t planned to free the slaves originally, but emancipation eventually became the explicit goal.
Slavery had existed in the new world for centuries without cause for war. But, by the time of the Revolutionary War, and the ideals upon which it was fought, what it means to be “free”, had become the founding question of the nation — Civil War had become inevitable.
Thomas Jefferson did his part to light the kindling that became the fires of the Civil War by attempting to prevent slavery from entering the North West Territory.
“Mr. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and otherwise a chief actor in the Revolution; then a delegate in Congress; afterwards, twice President; who was, is, and perhaps will continue to be, the most distinguished politician of our history; a Virginian by birth and continued residence, and withal a slaveholder — conceived the idea of taking that occasion to prevent slavery ever going into the Northwestern Territory.”
— Abraham Lincoln
Perceptively, upon hearing the news that the Missouri Compromise had been passed into law — and understanding that the divide it codified would only deepen — Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Holmes that it would ultimately lead to the destruction of the union.
“…but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. it is hushed indeed for the moment. but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.
I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves, by the generation of ’76. to acquire self government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it. if they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves and of treason against the hopes of the world.”
— Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, April 20, 1820*
Jefferson’s passion on this issue might have seemed excessive to the dullards of his day, but by the time Lincoln was President, it had become all too appropriate.
“Thus, with the author of the Declaration of Independence, the policy of prohibiting slavery in the new territory originated.”
— Abraham Lincoln
As Jefferson had feared, the Union was destroyed. What Jefferson failed to predict was that it would also rise from the dead and spend the next 150 years (far too slowly) remaking itself in the image of the words he’d originally written into the Declaration.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
The “self-evidence” of those words is still sinking in. But, it wasn’t until the final shots were fired in the Civil War that the process of fulfilling them could even begin — war, over slavery, over freedom, over democracy itself, was far from over.
Lincoln’s Speech at Peoria was the rhetorical firing of the first shot in a war we are still fighting that has spread itself far beyond the boundaries of our own country — and the question of our nation, “what does it mean to be free?”, has become the central question of our species.
Now go lift something heavy,