The Political Crisis over Slavery’s Expansion

Background: In 1846, the U.S. declared war on Mexico, sparking the most profound
political crisis over slavery’s expansion since the Missouri Crisis of 1820. This war was
sought by predominately Southern Democrats who hoped to annex the newlyindependent
Republic of Texas while also waging war to acquire all of the territory
north of the Rio Grande River to the Pacific Ocean. The acquisition of all of this
territory created a new crisis over the question of whether slavery should spread all the
way to California. Once again, the Congress worked out a compromise in 1850 in an
attempt to solve the increasingly perplexing problem of slavery’s spread. Yet this time
around, a growing majority of Northerners, deeply committed to free labor ideology
and democratic institutions, were firmly against slavery’s expansion. Northerners had
become so adamant about the importance of free labor to economic mobility and
democracy that a growing number of them saw slavery’s spread into the newlyacquired
territories as a threat to the future of the Republic.
By 1854, these issues came to a head when Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois,
a Northern Democrat, proposed that the power to determine the legal status of slavery
in new territories be removed from the Congress and given directly to the residents of
those territories. Douglas’s theory, “popular sovereignty,” assumed that residents’
power to decide slavery’s future in their own territories was the most democratic way
to solve the problem. His theory would be tested in the territories of Kansas and
Nebraska. It did not go well. In Kansas, pro-slavery Missouri residents crossed the
border to cast illegal ballots. Soon, two Kansas territorial governments claimed
legitimacy—one free and the other pro-slavery. What followed was a virtual civil war
within the territory as hundreds were killed. It was clear that the normal democratic
processes could no longer handle such a toxic issue. “Bleeding Kansas” and more
broadly the spread of slavery plagued the nation. The crisis gave rise to a new political
party, one that was predominately Northern, against the spread of slavery, and profree
labor: the Republican Party. These Republicans quickly ascended to power and
began challenging Southerners for both the Congress and the Presidency. By the late
1850s, the political divide over slavery’s spread had developed into a chasm. The conflict
appeared irrevocable and careening towards civil war.
As the following sources will reveal, the political fight over slavery was also a
broader ideological struggle between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions of
Americans who contested the very meanings of American institutions, the rule of law,
and the U.S. Constitution itself.
1. John C. Calhoun, “Speech on the Virtues of Slavery before the U.S. Senate,”
By far, the most important pro-slavery theorist and politician prior to the American
Civil War was John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. A wealthy slaveholder and long-time
public servant having served in the House of Representatives, Senate, various
Presidential Cabinets, and as Vice President to Andrew Jackson, Calhoun had come to
regard slavery as the most important (and most besieged) American institution by the
1830s. By that time, the emerging abolitionist movement began bombarding
Congressional representatives with petitions to take up the cause of immediately
abolishing slavery in Washington, D.C. Calhoun saw these petitions—a hallmark of
American democracy—as an existential threat to slavery. Already troubled by the
Missouri Crisis of 1820, Calhoun saw the abolitionists as just the latest threat to his
beloved institution. In 1836, he lent his political capital to support slaveholder and
South Carolina Congressman James Hammond, who proposed a “gag rule” to prohibit
the consideration of all abolitionist petitions in the Congress. This measure was
ushered through the House of Representatives thanks to the support of slaveholder and
Speaker of the House (and future President) James K. Polk of Tennessee. In 1837, now-
Senator Calhoun delivered a speech reaffirming his commitment to the gag rule and
more broadly to the slavery institution. His impassioned pro-slavery theories would
become dogma among an entire generation of Southern slaveholders up to the
outbreak of civil war.
The peculiar institution of the South–that, on the maintenance of which the very
existence of the slaveholding States depends, is pronounced to be sinful and odious, in
the sight of God and man; and this with a systematic design of rendering us hateful in
the eyes of the world–with a view to a general crusade against us and our institutions.
This, too, in the legislative halls of the Union; created by these confederated States, for
the better protection of their peace, their safety, and their respective institution; –and
yet, we, the representatives of twelve of these sovereign States against whom this deadly
war is waged, are expected to sit here in silence, hearing ourselves and our constituents
day after day denounced, without uttering a word; for if we but open our lips, the charge
of agitation is resounded on all sides, and we are held up as seeking to aggravate the evil
which we resist. Every reflecting mind must see in all this a state of things deeply and
dangerously diseased.
I do not belong to the school which holds that aggression is to be met by
concession. Mine is the opposite creed, which teaches that encroachments must be met
at the beginning, and that those who act on the opposite principle are prepared to
become slaves. In this case, in particular, I hold concession or compromise to be fatal. If
we concede an inch, concession would follow concession–compromise would follow
compromise, until our ranks would be so broken that effectual resistance would be
impossible. We must meet the enemy on the frontier, with a fixed determination of
maintaining our position at every hazard. Consent to receive these insulting petitions,
and the next demand will be that they be referred to a committee in order that they may
be deliberated and acted upon…If we yield, that will be followed by another, and we will
thus proceed, step by step, to the final consummation of the object of these petitions.
We are now told that the most effectual mode of arresting the progress of abolition is, to
reason it down…[But,] [t]he subject is beyond the jurisdiction of Congress–they have no
right to touch it in any shape or form, or to make it the subject of deliberation or
In opposition to this view it is urged that Congress is bound by the constitution
[specifically the First Amendment] to receive petitions in every case and on every
subject, whether within its constitutional competency or not. I hold the doctrine to be
absurd, and do solemnly believe, that it would be as easy to prove that it has the right to
abolish slavery, as that it is bound to receive petitions for that purpose. The very
existence of the rule that requires a question to be put on the reception of petitions, is
conclusive to show that there is no such obligation. It has been a standing rule from the
commencement of the Government, and clearly shows the sense of those who formed
the constitution on this point. The question on the reception would be absurd, if, as is
contended, we are bound to receive; but I do not intend to argue the question; I
discussed it fully at the last session, and the arguments then advanced neither have been
nor can be answered.
As widely as this incendiary spirit has spread, it has not yet infected this body,
or the great mass of the intelligent and business portion of the North; but unless it be
speedily stopped, it will spread and work upwards till it brings the two great sections of
the Union into deadly conflict…A large portion of the Northern States believe slavery
to be a sin, and would consider it as an obligation of conscience to abolish it if they
should feel themselves in any degree responsible for its continuance, –and that this
doctrine would necessarily lead to the belief of such responsibility. I then predicted
that would commence as it has with this fanatical portion of society, that they would
begin their operations on the ignorant, the weak, the young, and the thoughtless,–
and gradually extend upwards till they would become strong enough to obtain
political control, when he and others holding the highest stations in society, would,
however reluctant, be compelled to yield to their doctrines, or be driven into
Standing at the point of time at which we have now arrived, it will not be
more difficult to trace the course of future events now than it was then. They who
imagine that the spirit now abroad in the North, will die away of itself without a
shock or convulsion, have formed a very inadequate conception of its real character;
it will continue to rise and spread, unless prompt and efficient measures to stay its
progress be adopted. Already it has taken possession of the pulpit, of the schools,
and, to a considerable extent, of the press; those great instruments by which the
mind of the rising generation will be formed.
However sound the great body of the non-slaveholding States are at present, in
the course of a few years they will be succeeded by those who will have been taught to
hate the people and institutions of nearly one-half of this Union, with a hatred more
deadly than one hostile nation ever entertained towards another. It is easy to see the
end. By the necessary course of events, if left to themselves, we must become, finally,
two people. It is impossible under the deadly hatred which must spring up between the
two great sections, if the present causes are permitted to operate unchecked, that we
should continue under the same political system. The conflicting elements would burst
the Union asunder, powerful as are the links which hold it together. Abolition and the
Union cannot co-exist. As the friend of the Union I openly proclaim it, – and the sooner
it is known the better. The former may now be controlled, but in a short time it will be
beyond the power a man to arrest the course of events. We of the South will not, cannot
surrender our institutions. Too maintain the existing relations between the two races,
inhabiting that section of the Union, is indispensable to the peace and happiness of
both. It cannot be subverted without drenching the county in blood, and extirpating one
or the other of the races. Be it good or bad, it has grown up with our society and
institutions, and is so interwoven with them, that to destroy it would be to destroy us as
a people. But let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the
existing relations between the two races in the slaveholding States is an evil: – far
otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be to both, and will
continue to probe so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition. I appeal to facts.
Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the
present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but
morally and intellectually. It came among us in a low, degraded, and savage condition,
and in the course of a few generations it has grown up under the fostering care of our
institutions, reviled as they have been, to its present comparatively civilized condition.
This, with the rapid increase of numbers, is conclusive proof of the general happiness of
the race, in spite of all the exaggerated tales to the contrary.
In the mean time, the white or European race has not degenerated. It has kept
pace with its brethren in other sections of the Union where slavery does not exist. It is
odious to make comparison; but I appeal to all sides whether the South is not equal in
virtue, intelligence, patriotism, courage, disinterestedness, and all the high qualities
which adorn our nature. I ask whether we have not contributed our full share of talents
and political wisdom in forming and sustaining this political fabric; and whether we
have not constantly inclined most strongly to the side of liberty, and been the first to see
and first to resist the encroachments of power. In one thing only are we inferior-the arts
of gain; we acknowledge that we are less wealthy than the Northern section of this
Union, but I trace this mainly to the fiscal action of this Government, which has
extracted much from, and spent little among us. Had it been the reverse, –if the
exaction had been from the other section, and the expenditure with us, this point of
superiority would not be against us now, as it was not at the formation of this
But I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where
two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences,
as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the
slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good-a positive good. I feel
myself called upon to speak freely upon the subject where the honor and interests of
those I represent are involved. I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and
civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on
the labor of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully borne out by
history. This is not the proper occasion, but if it were, it would not be difficult to trace
the various devices by which the wealth of all civilized communities has been so
unequally divided, and to show by what means so small a share has been allotted to
those by whose labor it was produced, and so large a share given to the nonproducing
classes. The devices are almost innumerable, from the brute force and gross superstition
of ancient times, to the subtle and artful fiscal contrivances of modern. I might well
challenge a comparison between them and the more direct, simple, and patriarchal
mode by which the labor of the African race is, among us, commanded by the European.
I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and
so little exacted from him; or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness
or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the
more civilized portions of Europe-look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one
hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his
master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the
pauper in the poor house.
But I will not dwell on this aspect of the question; I turn to the political; and here
I fearlessly assert that the existing relation between the two races in the South, against
which these blind fanatics are waging war, forms the most solid and durable foundation
on which to rear free and stable political institutions. It is useless to disguise the fact.
There is and always has been in an advanced stage of wealth and civilization, a conflict
between labor and capital. The condition of society in the South exempts us from the
disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict; and which explains why it is that the
political condition of the slaveholding States has been so much more stable and quiet
than that of the North. The advantages of the former, in this respect, will become more
and more manifest if left undisturbed by interference from without, as the country
advances in wealth and numbers. We have, in fact, but just entered that condition of
society where the strength and durability of our political institutions are to be tested;
and I venture nothing in predicting that the experience of the next generation will fully
test how vastly more favorable our condition of society is to that of other sections for
free and stable institutions, provided we are not disturbed by the interference of others,
or shall have sufficient intelligence and spirit to resist promptly and successfully such
interference. It rests with ourselves to meet and repel them. I look not for aid to this
Government, or to the other States; not but there are kind feelings towards us on the
part of the great body of the non-slaveholding States; but as kind as their feelings may
be, we may rest assured that no political party in those States will risk their ascendency
for our safety. If we do not defend ourselves none will defend us; if we yield we will be
more and more pressed as we recede; and if we submit we will be trampled under foot.
Be assured that emancipation itself would not satisfy these fanatics: -that gained, the
next step would be to raise the negroes to a social and political equality with the whites;
and that being affected, we would soon find the present condition of the two races
reversed. They and their northern allies would be the masters, and we the slaves; the
condition of the white race in the British West India Islands, bad as it is, would be
happiness to ours. There the mother country is interested in sustaining the supremacy
of the European race. It is true that the authority of the former master is destroyed, but
the African will there still be a slave, not to individuals but to the community,-forced to
labor, not by the authority of the overseer, but by the bayonet of the soldiery and the rod
of the civil magistrate.
Surrounded as the slaveholding States are with such imminent perils, I rejoice
to think that our means of defense are ample, if we shall prove to have the intelligence
and spirit to see and apply them before it is too late. All we want is concert, to lay aside
all party differences, and unite with zeal and energy in repelling approaching dangers.
Let there be concert of action, and we shall find ample means of security without
resorting to secession, or disunion. I speak with full knowledge and a thorough
examination of the subject, and for one, see my way clearly. One thing alarms me-the
eager pursuit of gain which overspreads the land, and which absorbs every faculty of the
mind and every feeling of the heart. Of all passions avarice is the most blind and
compromising-the last to see and the first to yield to danger. I dare not hope that
anything I can say will arouse the South to a due sense of danger; I fear it is beyond the
power of mortal voice to awaken it in time from the fatal security into which it has
2. Wendell Phillips, “The Constitution: A Pro-Slavery Compact,” (1844).
In 1840, James Madison’s detailed notes on the Constitutional Convention were finally
published. The revelations that the founders had in-depth conversations regarding
slavery and had compromised to protect aspects of slavery in the Constitution sent
shockwaves throughout the Northern abolitionist community. The publication of these
notes triggered a divide among the abolitionists: there were those who still believed the
Constitution offered the ideal moral principles to abolish slavery while other
disillusioned abolitionists concluded that the Constitution was morally corrupt and
crafted by slaveholders for slaveholders. Wendell Phillips, a Boston lawyer, joined the
so-called Garrisonian wing of the abolitionist movement. By the 1840s, William Lloyd
Garrison concluded that political activity, the legislative process, and Constitutional
jurisprudence in the service of ending slavery was futile. Phillips and other
Garrisonians were convinced that the entire political system was firmly controlled by
the slaveholder power and the only solution to the evils of slavery would ultimately be
the dissolution of the Union. In 1844, Phillips’s guide to the Constitution explained to
readers how specifically it existed to protect slavery, offering a prototypical view of the
Garrisonian mindset.
These extracts [from the Constitution] develop most clearly all the details of that
“compromise,” which was made between freedom and slavery in 1787 granting to the
slaveholder distinct privileges and protection for his slave property, in return for certain
commercial concessions on his part toward the North. They prove also that the nation at
large were aware of this bargain at the time, and entered into it willingly and with open
For no man or party, of any authority in such matters, has ever pretended to doubt to
what subject [James Madison’s notes on the Constitution and the Constitution itself] all
relate. If indeed they were ambiguous in their terms, a resort to the history of those
times would set the matter at rest forever. A few persons, to be sure, of late years, to
serve the purposes of a party, have tried to prove that the Constitution makes no
compromise with slavery. Notwithstanding the clear light of history ; — the unanimous
decision of all the courts in the land, both State and Federal ; — the action of Congress
and the State Legislature ; — the constant practice of the Executive in all its branches ;
— and the deliberate acquiescence of the whole people for half a century, still they
contend that the nation does not know its own meaning, and that the Constitution does
not tolerate slavery!
Every candid mind, however, must acknowledge that the language of the Constitution is
clear and explicit. Its terms are so broad, it is said, that they include many others besides
slaves, and hence it -is wisely inferred that they cannot include the slaves themselves!
Many persons besides slaves in this country doubtless are “held to service and labor
under the laws of the States,” but that does not at all show that slaves are not “held to
service ;” many persons beside the slaves may take part “in insurrections,” but that does
not prove that when the slaves rise, the National Government is not bound to put them
down by force. Such a thing has been heard of before as one description including a
great variety of persons, and this is the case in the present instance.
But granting that the terms of the Constitution are ambiguous -— that they are
susceptible of two meanings — if the unanimous, concurrent, unbroken practice of
every department of the Government, judicial, legislative, and executive, and the
acquiescence of the whole people for fifty years, do not prove which is the true
construction, then how and where can such a question ever be settled. If the people and
the courts of the land do not know what they themselves mean, who has authority to
settle their meaning for them.
If, then, the people and the courts of a country are to be allowed to determine what their
own laws mean, it follows that at this time, and for the last half century, the
Constitution of the United States has been, and still is, a pro-slavery instrument, and
that anyone who swears to support it, swears to do pro-slavery acts, and violates his duty
both as a man and an abolitionist. What the Constitution may become a century hence,
we know not we speak of it as it is, and repudiate it as it is.
But the purpose, for which we have thrown these pages before the community, is this.
Some men, finding the nation unanimously defending that the Constitution tolerates
slavery, have tried to prove that this false construction, as they think it, has been foisted
into the instrument by the corrupting influence of slavery itself, tainting all it touches.
They assert that the known anti-slavery spirit of revolutionary times never could have
consented to so infamous a bargain as the Constitution is represented to be, and has in
its present hands become.
Now these pages prove the melancholy fact, that willingly, with deliberate purpose, our
[founding] fathers bartered honesty for gain, and became partners with tyrants, that
they might share in the profits of their tyranny.
And in view of this fact, will it not require a very strong argument to make any candid
man believe, that the bargain which the fathers tell us they meant to incorporate into the
Constitution, and which the sons have always thought they found there incorporated,
does not exist there, after all. Forty of the shrewdest men and lawyers in the land
assemble to make a bargain, among other things, about slaves.
After months of anxious deliberation, they put it into writing, and sign their names to
the instrument. Fifty years roll away, — twenty millions, at least, of their children pass
over the stage of life, — courts sit and pass judgment, — parties arise and struggle
fiercely ; still, all concur in finding in the instrument just that meaning which the
fathers tell us they intended to express : — must not he be a desperate man, who, after
all this, sets out to prove that the others were bunglers and the sons fools, and that
slavery is not referred to at all?
Besides, the advocates of this new theory of the Anti-slavery character of the
Constitution quote some portions of the Madison Papers in support of their views, —
and this makes it proper that the community should hear all that these Debates have to
say on the subject. The further we explore them, the clearer becomes the fact, that the
Constitution was meant to be, what it has always been esteemed, a compromise
between slavery and freedom.
If, then, the Constitution be, what these Debates show that our fathers intended to
make it, and what, too, their descendants, this nation, say they did make it and agree to
uphold, — then we affirm that it is “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell,”
and ought to be immediately annulled. No abolitionist can consistently take office under
it, or swear to support it.
But if, on the contrary, our fathers failed in their purpose, and the Constitution is all
pure and untouched by slavery, — then, Union itself is impossible, without guilt. For it is
undeniable that fifty years [have] passed under this (anti-8lavery) Constitution and
show us the slaves [tripling] in numbers ; — slaveholders monopolizing the offices and
dictating the policy of the Government ; — prostituting the strength and influence of
the nation to the support of slavery here and elsewhere ; — trampling on the rights of
the free States, and making the courts of the country their tools. To continue this
disastrous alliance longer is madness. The trial of fifty years with the best of men and
the best of constitutions, on this supposition, only proves that it is impossible for free
and slave States to unite on any terms, without all becoming partners and responsible
for the sin of slavery.
We dare not prolong the experiment, and with double earnestness we repeat our
demand upon every honest man to join in the outcry of the American Anti-Slavery
Society, —
3. Lysander Spooner, “The Unconstitutionality of Slavery,” (1845).
Lysander Spooner had a vastly different take on the U.S. Constitution. A Massachusetts
political philosopher, labor advocate, and abolitionist, Spooner waded into the post-
1840 debate among the abolitionists by directly challenging Garrison’s and Phillips’s
contention that the Constitution protected slavery and thus was no longer legally
binding. As Spooner saw it, the Constitution never protected slavery—it was
impossible since slavery had always been a violation of natural law. As abolitionists
argued among themselves and as slaveholders countered with their defenses of
slavery, Spooner saw pointless all sides’ interpretations of the “intentions” of the
Constitution’s founding creators. As he argued, original “intentions” were irrelevant
in the face of original and universal “meanings.” The significance of “meanings” held
the very answer to the question: Was slavery constitutionality? For Spooner, the
answer was decidedly “no.”
The true and general meaning of it, is that natural , permanent, unalterable principle,
which governs any particular thing or class of things. The principle is strictly
a natural one; and the term applies to every natural principle, whether mental, moral or
physical. Thus we speak of the laws of mind; meaning thereby those natural , universal
and necessary principles, according to which mind acts, or by which it is governed. We
speak too of the moral law; which is merely an universal principle of moral obligation,
that arises out of the nature of men, and their relations to each other, and to other
things—and is consequently as unalterable as the nature of men. And it is solely because
it is unalterable in its nature, and universal in its application, that it is denominated law.
If it were changeable, partial or arbitrary, it would be no law. Thus we speak of physical
laws; of the laws, for instance, that govern the solar system; of the laws of motion, the
laws of gravitation, the laws of light, &c., &c.—Also the laws that govern the vegetable
and animal kingdoms, in all their various departments: among which laws may be
named, for example, the one that like produces like. Unless the operation of this
principle were uniform, universal and necessary, it would be no law…
Natural law recognizes the validity of all contracts which men have a natural right to
make, and which justice requires to be fulfilled: such, for example, as contracts that
render equivalent for equivalent, and are at the same time consistent with morality, the
natural rights of men, and those rights of property, privilege, &c., which men have a
natural right to acquire by labor and contract.
Natural law, therefore, inasmuch as it recognizes the natural right of men to enter into
obligatory contracts, permits the formation of government, founded on contract, as all
our governments profess to be. But in order that the contract of government may be
valid and lawful, it must purport to authorize nothing inconsistent with natural justice,
and men’s natural rights. It cannot lawfully authorize government to destroy or take
from men their natural rights: for natural rights are inalienable, and can no more be
surrendered to government—which is but an association of individuals—than to a
single individual. They are a necessary attribute of man’s nature; and he can no more
part with them—to government or anybody else—than with his nature itself. But the
contract of government may lawfully authorize the adoption of means—not
inconsistent with natural justice—for the better protection of men’s natural rights. And
this is the legitimate and true object of government. And rules and statutes, not
inconsistent with natural justice and men’s natural rights, if enacted by such
government, are binding, on the ground of contract, upon those who are parties to the
contract, which creates the government, and authorizes it to pass rules and statutes to
carry out its objects…
When our ancestors came to this country, they brought with them the common law of
England, including the writ of habeas corpus , (the essential principle of which, as will
hereafter be shown, is to deny the right of property in man,) the trial by jury, and the
other great principles of liberty, which prevailed in England, and which have made it
impossible that her soil should be trod by the foot of a slave.
These principles were incorporated into all the charters, granted to the colonies, (if all
those charters were like those I have examined, and I have examined nearly all of
them.)—The general provisions of those charters, as will be seen from the extracts given
in the note, were, that the laws of the colonies should “not be repugnant or contrary, but
as nearly as circumstances would allow, conformable to the laws, statutes and rights of
our kingdom of England.”
Those charters were the fundamental constitutions of the colonies, with some
immaterial exceptions, up to the time of the revolution; as much so as our national and
state constitutions are now the fundamental laws of our governments.
The authority of these charters, during their continuance, and the general authority of
the common law, prior to the revolution, have been recognized by the Supreme Court of
the United States.
No one of all these charters that I have examined—and I have examined nearly all of
them—contained the least intimation that slavery had, or could have, any legal existence
under them. Slavery was therefore as much unconstitutional in the colonies, as it was in
It was decided by the Court of King’s Bench in England—Lord Mansfield being Chief
Justice—before our revolution [in 1772], and while the English Charters were the
fundamental law of the colonies—that the principles of English liberty were so plainly
incompatible with slavery, that even if a slaveholder, from another part of the world,
brought his slave into England—though only for a temporary purpose, and with no
intention of remaining—he nevertheless thereby gave the slave his liberty…
But the colonial legislation on the subject of slavery, was not only void as being
forbidden by the colonial charters, but in many of the colonies it was void for another
reason, viz: that it did not sufficiently define the persons who might be made slaves .
Slavery, if it can be legalized at all, can be legalized only by positive legislation. Natural
law gives it no aid. Custom imparts to it no legal sanction. This was the doctrine of the
King’s Bench in Somerset’s case [in 1772], as it is the doctrine of common sense. Lord
Mansfield said, “So high an act of dominion must be recognized by the law of the
country where it is used. The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of
being introduced on any reasons, moral or political—but only positive law, which
preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was
created, is erased from the memory. It is so odious that nothing can be suffered to
support it but positive law”…
Slavery, then, being the creature of positive legislation alone, can be created only by
legislation that shall so particularly describe the persons to be made slaves, that they
may be distinguished from all others. If there be any doubt left by the letter of the law, as
to the persons to be made slaves, the efficacy of all other slave legislation is defeated
simply by that uncertainty.
In several of the colonies, including some of those where slaves were most numerous,
there were either no laws at all defining the persons who might be made slaves, or the
laws, which attempted to define them, were so loosely framed that it cannot now be
known who are the descendants of those designated as slaves, and who of those held in
slavery without any color of law. As the presumption must—under the United States
constitution —and indeed under the state constitutions also—be always in favor of
liberty, it would probably now be impossible for a slaveholder to prove, in one case in an
hundred, that his slave was descended, (through the maternal line, according to the
slave code,) from anyone who was originally a slave within the description given by the
When slavery was first introduced into the country, there were no laws at all on the
subject. Men bought slaves of the slave traders, as they would have bought horses; and
held them, and compelled them to labor, as they would have done horses, that is, by
brute force. By common consent among the white race, this practice was tolerated
without any law.—At length slaves had in this way become so numerous, that some
regulations became necessary, and the colonial governments began to pass statutes,
which assumed the existence of slaves, although no laws defining the persons who
might be made slaves, had ever been enacted…
Admitting, for the sake of the argument, that prior to the revolution, slavery had a
constitutional existence, (so far as it is possible that crime can have such an existence,)
was it not abolished by the declaration of independence?
The Declaration was certainly the constitutional law of this country for certain
purposes. For example, it absolved the people from their allegiance to the English
crown. It would have been so declared by the judicial tribunals of this country, if an
American, during the revolutionary war or since, had been tried for treason to the
crown. If, then, the declaration were the constitutional law of the country for that
purpose, was it not also constitutional law for the purpose of recognizing and
establishing, as law, the natural and inalienable right of individuals to life, liberty and
the pursuit of happiness? The lawfulness of the act of absolving themselves from their
allegiance to the crown, was avowed by the people of the country—and that too in the
same instrument that declared the absolution—to rest entirely upon, and to be only a
consequence of the natural right of all men to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
If, then, the act of absolution was lawful, does it not necessarily follow that the
principles that legalized the act, were also law? And if the country ratified the act of
absolution, did they not also necessarily ratify and acknowledge the principles which
they declared legalized the act?…
But again. The people of this country—in the very instrument by which they first
announced their independent political existence, and first asserted their right to
establish governments of their own—declared that the natural and inalienable right of
all men to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, was a “self-evident truth ”…
Of all the state constitutions, that were in force at the adoption of the constitution of the
United States, in 1789, not one of them established, or recognized slavery .
All those parts of the state constitutions, (i.e. of the old thirteen states,) that recognize
and attempt to sanction slavery, have been inserted, by amendments, since the adoption
of the constitution of the United States …
We come now to the period commencing with the adoption of the constitution of the
United States.
We have already seen that slavery had not been authorized or established by any of the
fundamental constitutions or charters that had existed previous to this time; that it had
always been a mere abuse sustained by the common consent of the strongest party, in
defiance of the avowed constitutional principles of their governments. And the question
now is, whether it was constitutionally established, authorized or sanctioned by the
constitution of the United States?
It is perfectly clear, in the first place, that the constitution of the United States did
not, of itself, create or establish slavery as a new institution; or even give any authority
to the state governments to establish it as a new institution.—The greatest sticklers for
slavery do not claim this. The most they claim is, that it recognized it as an institution
already legally existing, under the authority of the state governments; and that it
virtually guaranteed to the states the right of continuing it in existence during their
pleasure. And this is really the only question arising out of the constitution of the United
States on this subject, viz: whether it did thus recognize and sanction slavery as
an existing institution?
This question is, in reality, answered in the negative by what has already been shown;
for if slavery had no constitutional existence, under the state constitutions, prior to the
adoption of the constitution of the United States, then it is absolutely certain that the
constitution of the United States did not recognize it as a constitutional institution; for
it cannot, of course, be pretended that the United States constitution recognized, as
constitutional, any state institution that did not constitutionally exist.
Even if the constitution of the United States had intended to recognize slavery, as a
constitutional state institution, such intended recognition would have failed of effect,
and been legally void, because slavery then had no constitutional existence to be
Although we might stop—we yet do not choose to stop—at the point last suggested. We
will now go further, and attempt to show, specifically from its provisions, that the
constitution of the United States, not only does not recognize or sanction slavery, as a
legal institution, but that, on the contrary, it presumes all men to be free; that it
positively denies the right of property in man; and that it, of itself , makes it impossible
for slavery to have a legal existence in any of the United States.
In the first place—although the assertion is constantly made, and rarely denied, yet it is
palpably a mere begging of the whole question in favor of slavery, to say that the
constitution intended to sanction it; for if it intended to sanction it, it did thereby
necessarily sanction it, (that is, if slavery then had any constitutional existence to be
sanctioned.) The intentions of the constitution are the only means whereby it sanctions
anything. And its intentions necessarily sanction everything to which they apply, and
which, in the nature of things, they are competent to sanction. To say, therefore, that the
constitution intended to sanction slavery, is the same as to say that it did sanction it;
which is begging the whole question, and substituting mere assertion for proof.
Why, then, do not men say distinctly, that the constitution did sanction slavery, instead
of saying that it intended to sanction it? We are not accustomed to use the word
“intention ,” when speaking of the other grants and sanctions of the constitution. We do
not say, for example, that the constitution intended to authorize congress “to coin
money,” but that it did authorize them to coin it. Nor do we say that it intended to
authorize them “to declare war;” but that it did authorize them to declare it. It would be
silly and childish to say merely that it intended to authorize them “to coin money,” and
“to declare war,” when the language authorizing them to do so, is full, explicit and
positive. Why, then, in the case of slavery, do men say merely that the
constitution intended to sanction it, instead of saying distinctly, as we do in the other
cases, that it did sanction it? The reason is obvious. If they were to say unequivocally
that it did sanction it, they would lay themselves under the necessity of pointing to
the words that sanction it; and they are aware that the words alone of the constitution
do not come up to that point. They, therefore, assert simply that the
constitution intended to sanction it; and they then attempt to support the assertion by
quoting certain words and phrases, which they say are capable of covering, or rather of
concealing such an intention; and then by the aid of exterior, circumstantial and
historical evidence, they attempt to enforce upon the mind the conclusion that, as
matter of fact, such was the intention of those who drafted the constitution; and thence
they finally infer that such was the intention of the constitution itself.
The error and fraud of this whole procedure—and it is one purely of error and fraud—
consists in this—that it artfully substitutes the supposed intentions of those who
drafted the constitution, for the intentions of the constitution itself; and, secondly, it
personifies the constitution as a crafty individual; capable of both open and secret
intentions; capable of legally participating in, and giving effect to all the subtleties and
double dealing of knavish men; and as actually intending to secure slavery, while openly
professing to “secure and establish liberty and justice.” It personifies the constitution as
an individual capable of having private and criminal intentions, which it dare not
distinctly avow, but only darkly hint at, by the use of words of an indefinite, uncertain
and double meaning, whose application is to be gathered from external circumstances.
The falsehood of all these imaginings is apparent, the moment it is considered that the
constitution is not a person , of whom an “intention,” not legally expressed, can be
asserted; that it has none of the various and selfish passions and motives of action,
which sometimes prompt men to the practice of duplicity and disguise; that it is merely
a written legal instrument; that, as such, it must have a fixed, and not a double meaning;
that it is made up entirely of intelligible words; and that it has, and can have, no soul, no
“intentions,” no motives, no being, no personality, except what those words alone
express or imply. Its “intentions” are nothing more nor less than the legal meaning of its
words. Its intentions are no guide to its legal meaning—as the advocates of slavery all
assume; but its legal meaning is the sole guide to its intentions. This distinction is all
important to be observed; for if we can gratuitously assume the intentions of a legal
instrument to be what we may wish them to be, and can then strain or pervert the
ordinary meaning of its words, in order to make them utter those intentions, we can
make any thing we choose of any legal instrument whatever. The legal meaning of the
words of an instrument is, therefore, necessarily our only guide to its intentions.
In ascertaining the legal meaning of the words of the constitution, these rules of
law…are vital to be borne constantly in mind, viz: 1st, that no intention in violation of
natural justice and natural right, (like that to sanction slavery,) can be ascribed to the
constitution, unless that intention be expressed in terms that are legally competent to
express such an intention; and, 2d, that no terms, except those that are plenary, express,
explicit, distinct, unequivocal, and to which no other meaning can be given, are legally
competent to authorize or sanction anything contrary to natural right. The rule of law is
materially different as to the terms necessary to legalize and sanction anything contrary
to natural right, and those necessary to legalize things that are consistent with natural
right. The latter may be sanctioned by implication and inference; the former only by
inevitable implication, or by language that is full, definite, express, explicit, unequivocal,
and whose unavoidable import is to sanction the specific wrong intended.
To assert, therefore, that the constitution intended to sanction slavery, is, in reality,
equivalent to asserting that the necessary meaning, the unavoidable import of the words
alone of the constitution, come fully up to the point of a clear, definite, distinct, express,
explicit, unequivocal, necessary and peremptory sanction of the specific thing, human
slavery, property in man . If the necessary import of its words alone do but fall an iota
short of this point, the instrument gives, and, legally speaking, intended to give no legal
sanction to slavery. Now, who can, in good faith, say that the words alone of the
constitution come up to this point? No one, who knows anything of law, and the
meaning of words. Not even the name of the thing, alleged to be sanctioned, is given…
The idea that the children of slaves are necessarily born slaves, or that they necessarily
follow that natural law of property, which gives the natural increase of property to the
owner of the original stock, is an erroneous one.
It is a principle of natural law in regard to property, that a calf belongs to the owner of
the cow that bore it; fruit to the owner of the tree or vine on which it grew; and so on.
But the principle of natural law , which makes a calf belong to the owner of the cow, does
not make the child of a slave belong to the owner of the slave—and why? Simply because
both cow and calf are naturally subjects of property; while neither men nor children
are naturally subjects of property. The law of nature gives no aid to anything
inconsistent with itself. It therefore gives no aid to the transmission of property in
man—while it does give aid to the transmission of property in other animals and in
Slavery, then, is an arbitrary institution throughout. It depends, from first to last, upon
the letter of the arbitrary law. Natural law gives it no aid, no extension, no new
application, under any circumstances whatever. Unless, therefore, the letter of the
arbitrary law explicitly authorize the enslavement of the child, the child is born free,
though the parent were a slave.
If the views that have already been taken of our written constitutions, be correct, no
parent has ever yet been legally enslaved in this country; and of course no child…
This law of nature, that all men are born free, was recognized by this country in the
Declaration of Independence.—But it was no new principle then. Justinian [an ancient
Roman legal theorist] says, “Captivity and servitude are both contrary to the law of
nature; for by that law all men are born free.” But the principle was not new with
Justinian; it exists in the nature of man, and is as old as man—and the race of man
generally has acknowledged it. The exceptions have been special; the rule general.
The constitution of the United States recognizes the principle that all men are born free;
for it recognizes the principle that natural birth in the country gives citizenship—which
of course implies freedom. And no exception is made to the rule. Of course all born in
the country since the adoption of the constitution of the United States, have been born
free, whether there were, or were not any legal slaves in the country before that time.
4. Frederick Douglass, “What, to the slave, is the Fourth of July?” (1852).
Born into slavery in Maryland in 1818, Frederick Douglass would ultimately run away
and emerge as the most important abolitionist voice through the American Civil War.
Thanks to the great deal of time he spent in Baltimore as an enslaved person, Douglass
encountered a wider world of knowledge and experience that enabled his literacy and
refined his understandings of freedom and slavery. By the 1850s, Douglass split from
the Garrisonian wing of the abolitionist movement as he was convinced that the
Constitution and the founding principles of the United States offered universal truths
of liberty and equality that applied to all human beings. However flawed the founders
and the original Constitution may have been, Douglass believed that American
democracy offered the vehicle to persuade white Americans that slavery was an
abomination that defied—rather than reinforced—American principles. Douglass’s
power to mobilize others against slavery came both from his personal experiences with
the institution and through his moral conviction defining slavery as fundamentally
against American political institutions and ideas. His most famous speech on July 4,
1852 in Rochester, NY sought to convince a crowd of black and white Northerners that
American democracy and slavery were simply incompatible.
This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your
National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover
was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the
act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that
act, and that day. This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your
national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. I am
glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old
age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the
allotted time for individual men; but nations number their years by thousands.
According to this fact, you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career,
still lingering in the period of childhood. I repeat, I am glad this is so. There is hope in
the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the
horizon. The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times;
but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is
still in the impressible stage of her existence. May he not hope that high lessons of
wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny? Were the nation
older, the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. Its future
might be shrouded in gloom, and the hope of its prophets go out in sorrow. There is
consolation in the thought that America is young. Great streams are not easily turned
from channels, worn deep in the course of ages. They may sometimes rise in quiet and
stately majesty, and inundate the land, refreshing and fertilizing the earth with their
mysterious properties. They may also rise in wrath and fury, and bear away, on their
angry waves, the accumulated wealth of years of toil and hardship. They, however,
gradually flow back to the same old channel, and flow on as serenely as ever. But, while
the river may not be turned aside, it may dry up, and leave nothing behind but the
withered branch, and the unsightly rock, to howl in the abyss-sweeping wind, the sad
tale of departed glory. As with rivers so with nations…
Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers
of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too—great
enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one
time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view
them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great
deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the
good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their
They loved their country better than their own private interests; and, though this is not
the highest form of human excellence, all will concede that it is a rare virtue, and that
when it is exhibited, it ought to command respect. He who will, intelligently, lay down
his life for his country, is a man whom it is not in human nature to despise. Your fathers
staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country.
In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests.
They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage.
They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They
showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the
order of tyranny. With them, nothing was “settled” that was not right. With them,
justice, liberty and humanity were “final;” not slavery and oppression. You may well
cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their
solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times…
What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him,
more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly to which he is the
constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy
license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and
heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty
and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and
thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast,
fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would
disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more
shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour…
Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade,
sustained by American politics and America religion. Here you will see men and women
reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a
man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and
crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these
human flesh-jobbers, armed with pistol, whip and bowie-knife, driving a company of a
hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New
Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They
are food for the cotton-field, and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it
moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells
and his blood-chilling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old
man, with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young
mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the
brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as
she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat
and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like
the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears
are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the center of your soul! The
crack you heard, was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard, was from the
woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and
her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow the drove to New
Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women
rudely and brutally exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers. See this
drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from
that scattered multitude. Tell me citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a
spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slavetrade,
as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.
I was born amid such sights and scenes. To me the American slave-trade is a terrible
reality. When a child, my soul was often pierced with a sense of its horrors. I lived on
Philpot Street, Fell’s Point, Baltimore, and have watched from the wharves, the slave
ships in the Basin, anchored from the shore, with their cargoes of human flesh, waiting
for favorable winds to waft them down the Chesapeake. There was, at that time, a grand
slave mart kept at the head of Pratt Street, by Austin Woldfolk. His agents were sent into
every town and county in Maryland, announcing their arrival, through the papers, and
on flaming hand-bills headed “Cash for Negroes.” These men were generally well
dressed men, and very captivating in their manners. Ever ready to drink, to treat, and to
gamble. The fate of many a slave has depended upon the turn of a single card; and many
a child has been snatched from the arms of its mother by bargains arranged in a state of
brutal drunkenness…
Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are
flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and
your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the
two great political parties) is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the
enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the
crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria, and pride yourselves on your Democratic
institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and bodyguards of the
tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from
abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them,
salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives
from your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot and kill. You glory in your
refinement and your universal education yet you maintain a system as barbarous and
dreadful as ever stained the character of a nation—a system begun in avarice, supported
in pride, and perpetuated in cruelty. You shed tears over fallen Hungary, and make the
sad story of her wrongs the theme of your poets, statesmen and orators, till your gallant
sons are ready to fly to arms to vindicate her cause against her oppressors; but, in regard
to the ten thousand wrongs of the American slave, you would enforce the strictest
silence, and would hail him as an enemy of the nation who dares to make those wrongs
the subject of public discourse! You are all on fire at the mention of liberty for France or
for Ireland; but are as cold as an iceberg at the thought of liberty for the enslaved of
America. You discourse eloquently on the dignity of labor; yet, you sustain a system
which, in its very essence, casts a stigma upon labor. You can bare your bosom to the
storm of British artillery to throw off a threepenny tax on tea; and yet wring the last
hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country. You profess
to believe “that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the
earth,” and hath commanded all men, everywhere to love one another; yet you
notoriously hate, (and glory in your hatred), all men whose skins are not colored like
your own. You declare, before the world, and are understood by the world to declare,
that you “hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; and are
endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and that, among these are, life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which,
according to your own Thomas Jefferson, “is worse than ages of that which your fathers
rose in rebellion to oppose,” a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.
Fellow-citizens! I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The
existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity
as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it
corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name
a hissing, and a by word to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your
government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. It fetters
your progress; it is the enemy of improvement, the deadly foe of education; it fosters
pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that
supports it; and yet, you cling to it, as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes. Oh! be
warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous
creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God,
tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions
crush and destroy it forever!…
But I differ from those who charge this baseness on the framers of the Constitution of
the United States. It is a slander upon their memory, at least, so I believe…Fellowcitizens!
There is no matter in respect to which, the people of the North have allowed
themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon, as that of the pro-slavery character of the
Constitution. In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of
the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a
glorious liberty document. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among
them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither. While I do not intend to
argue this question on the present occasion, let me ask, if it be not somewhat singular
that, if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slaveholding
instrument, why neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can anywhere be found
in it. What would be thought of an instrument, drawn up, legally drawn up, for the
purpose of entitling the city of Rochester to a track of land, in which no mention of land
was made? Now, there are certain rules of interpretation, for the proper understanding
of all legal instruments. These rules are well established. They are plain, common-sense
rules, such as you and I, and all of us, can understand and apply, without having passed
years in the study of law. I scout the idea that the question of the constitutionality or
unconstitutionality of slavery is not a question for the people. I hold that every American
citizen has a fight to form an opinion of the constitution, and to propagate that opinion,
and to use all honorable means to make his opinion the prevailing one. Without this
fight, the liberty of an American citizen would be as insecure as that of a Frenchman.
Ex-Vice-President Dallas tells us that the constitution is an object to which no American
mind can be too attentive, and no American heart too devoted. He further says, the
constitution, in its words, is plain and intelligible, and is meant for the home-bred,
unsophisticated understandings of our fellow-citizens. Senator Berrien tell us that the
Constitution is the fundamental law, that which controls all others. The charter of our
liberties, which every citizen has a personal interest in understanding thoroughly. The
testimony of Senator Breese, Lewis Cass, and many others that might be named, who
are everywhere esteemed as sound lawyers, so regard the constitution. I take it,
therefore, that it is not presumption in a private citizen to form an opinion of that
Now, take the Constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of
a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles
and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery…
Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day
presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in
operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is
not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began,
with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the
great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also
cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same
relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the
surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without
interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of
hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social
impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the
multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of
mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce
has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest
corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth.
Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link
nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is
comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are, distinctly
heard on the other…
God speed the day when human blood Shall cease to flow! In every clime be understood,
The claims of human brotherhood, And each return for evil, good, Not blow for blow;
That day will come all feuds to end. And change into a faithful friend Each foe.
God speed the hour, the glorious hour, When none on earth Shall exercise a lordly
power, Nor in a tyrant’s presence cower; But all to manhood’s stature tower, By equal
birth! That hour will com, to each, to all, And from his prison-house, the thrall Go forth.
Until that year, day, hour, arrive, With head, and heart, and hand I’ll strive, To break the
rod, and rend the gyve, The spoiler of his prey deprive- So witness Heaven! And never
from my chosen post, Whate’er the peril or the cost, Be driven.
5. U.S. Supreme Court, “Dred Scott v. Sandford,” (1857).
By the 1840s, pro-slavery theorist John C. Calhoun had developed an interpretation that
the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution broadly protected slaveholders’ property
rights. In his view, Congress did not have the power to restrict slavery’s spread into
Western territories since it would violate the property and due process rights of slaveowning
citizens. One lawyer who also shared this interpretation was Roger Taney, who
was born into slave-owning Maryland family and served as Attorney General in the
Jackson Administration. In 1836, Taney replaced John Marshall as Chief Justice of the
Supreme Court, a position he would hold for the next 28 years. The Taney Court, a
majority Southern and pro-slavery court, hoped to find a case that could finally settle
the growing political disputes over the spread of slavery. By the mid-1850s, a case out of
Missouri worked its way up the federal courts and offered the potential for setting a
sweeping precedent. An enslaved Dred Scott had been transported and compelled to
reside illegally by his master in the free territories of Illinois and Wisconsin. Upon his
forced return to Missouri, Scott had initially argued successfully before a Missouri jury
that both Missouri state law and federal law required his automatic freedom due to his
residence on free soil. He was subsequently ordered re-enslaved by the Missouri state
Supreme Court and his challenge to his re-enslavement eventually made its way before
the Taney Court in 1855. The Taney Court had to answer just one key question: Was
Scott automatically freed due to his long residency on “free soil”? Instead, the Taney
Court hoped to put its radical theory of the Fifth Amendment into practice. In a 7-2
decision, Roger Taney issued the majority ruling. Rather than solve the political crisis
over slavery, the Taney Court made it much worse. To this day, the infamous Dred Scott
decision is regarded by many legal experts and historians as the most controversial—
and worst—decision ever made by the U.S. Supreme Court.
On whether Dred Scott has legal standing as a citizen to sue in federal court:
This is certainly a very serious question, and one that now for the first time has been
brought for decision before this court. But it is brought here by those who have a right to
bring it, and it is our duty to meet it and decide it.
The question is simply this: Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this
country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and
brought into existence by the constitution of the United States, and as such become
entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guaranteed by that instrument
to the citizen? One of which rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United
States in the cases specified in the constitution.
It will be observed, that the plea applies to that class of persons only whose ancestors
were negroes of the African race, and imported into this country, and sold and held as
slaves. The only matter in issue before the court, therefore, is, whether the descendants
of such slaves, when they shall be emancipated, or who are born of parents who had
become free before their birth, are citizens of a State, in the sense in which the word
citizen is used in the constitution of the United States.
The situation of this population was altogether unlike that of the Indian race. The latter,
it is true, formed no part of the colonial communities, and never amalgamated with
them in social connections or in government. But although they were uncivilized, they
were yet a free and independent people, associated together in nations or tribes, and
governed by their own laws. Many of these political communities were situated in
territories to which the white race claimed the ultimate right of dominion. But that
claim was acknowledged to be subject to the right of the Indians to occupy it as long as
they thought proper, and neither the English nor colonial Governments claimed or
exercised any dominion over the tribe or nation by whom it was occupied, nor claimed
the right to the possession of the territory, until the tribe or nation consented to cede
it. These Indian governments were regarded and treated as foreign governments, as
much so as if an ocean had separated the red man from the white; and their freedom has
constantly been acknowledged, from the time of the first emigration to the English
colonies to the present day, by the different governments which succeeded each other.
Treaties have been negotiated with them, and their alliance sought for in war; and the
people who compose these Indian political communities have always been treated as
foreigners not living under our Government. It is true that the course of events has
brought the Indian tribes within the limits of the United States under subjection to the
white race; and it has been found necessary, for their sake as well as our own, to regard
them as in a state of pupilage, and to legislate to a certain extent over them and the
territory they occupy. But they may, without doubt, like the subjects of any other foreign
Government, be naturalized by the authority of Congress, and become citizens of a
State, and of the United States; and if an individual should leave his nation or tribe, and
take up his abode among the white population, he would be entitled to all the rights and
privileges which would belong to an emigrant from any other foreign people.
We proceed to examine the case as presented by the pleadings.
The words “people of the United States” and “citizens” are synonymous terms, and mean
the same thing. They both describe the political body who, according to our republican
institutions, form the sovereignty, and who hold the power and conduct the government
through their representatives. They are what we familiarly call the “sovereign people,”
and every citizen is one of this people, and a constituent member of this sovereignty.
The question before us is, whether the class of persons described in the plea in
abatement compose a portion of this people, and are constituent members of this
sovereignty? We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not
intended to be included, under the word “citizen” in the constitution, and can therefore
claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures
to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a
subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant
race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had
no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might
choose to grant them.
It is not the province of the court to decide upon the justice or injustice, the policy or
impolicy, of these laws. The decision of that question belonged to the political or lawmaking
power; to those who formed the sovereignty and framed the constitution. The
duty of the court is, to interpret the instrument they have framed. . . .
In discussing this question, we must not confound the rights of citizenship which a
State may confer within its own limits, and the rights of citizenship as a member of the
Union. It does not by any means follow, because he has all the rights and privileges of a
citizen of a State, that he must be a citizen of the United States. He may have all of the
rights and privileges of the citizen of a State, and yet not be entitled to the rights and
privileges of a citizen in any other State. For, previous to the adoption of the
Constitution of the United States, every State had the undoubted right to confer on
whomsoever it pleased the character of citizen, and to endow him with all its rights. But
this character of course was confined to the boundaries of the State, and gave him no
rights or privileges in other States beyond those secured to him by the laws of nations
and the comity of States. Nor have the several States surrendered the power of
conferring these rights and privileges by adopting the Constitution of the United States.
Each State may still confer them upon an alien, or any one it thinks proper, or upon any
class or description of persons; yet he would not be a citizen in the sense in which that
word is used in the Constitution of the United States, nor entitled to sue as such in one
of its courts, nor to the privileges and immunities of a citizen in the other States. The
rights which he would acquire would be restricted to the State which gave them. The
Constitution has conferred on Congress the right to establish an uniform rule of
naturalization, and this right is evidently exclusive, and has always been held by this
court to be so. Consequently, no State, since the adoption of the Constitution, can be
naturalizing an alien, invest him with the rights and privileges secured to a citizen of a
State under the Federal Government…
The question then arises, whether the provisions of the Constitution, in relation to the
personal rights and privileges to which the citizen of a State should be entitled,
embraced the negro African race, at that time in this country, or who might afterwards
be imported, who had then or should afterwards be made free in any State; and to put it
in the power of a single State to make him a citizen of the United States, and endue him
with the full rights of citizenship in every other State without their consent? Does the
Constitution of the United States act upon him whenever he shall be made free under
the laws of a State, and raised there to the rank of a citizen, and immediately cloth him
with all the privileges of a citizen in every other State, and in its own courts?
The court thinks the affirmative of these propositions cannot be maintained. And if it
cannot, the plaintiff in error could not be a citizen of the State of Missouri, within the
meaning of the Constitution of the United States, and, consequently, was not entitled to
sue in its courts.
It is true, every person, and every class and description of persons, who were at the time
of the adoption of the constitution recognized as citizens in the several states, became
also citizens of this new political body; but none other; it was formed by them, and for
them and their posterity, but for no one else…
It becomes necessary, therefore, to determine who were citizens of the several States
when the constitution was adopted…
In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language
used in the Declaration of Independence, show, that neither the class of persons who
had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or
not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the
general words used in that memorable instrument.
It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that
unfortunate race, which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world
at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the
United States was framed and adopted. But the public history of every European nation
displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken.
They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order,
and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political
relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to
respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his
benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and
traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and
universal in the civilized portion of the white race…
And in no nation was this opinion more firmly fixed or more uniformly acted upon than
by the English Government and English people. They not only seized them on the coast
of Africa, and sold them or held them in slavery for their own use; but they took them as
ordinary articles of merchandise to every country where they could make a profit on
them, and were far more extensively engaged in this commerce than any other nation in
the world.
The opinion thus entertained and acted upon in England was naturally impressed upon
the colonies they founded on this side of the Atlantic. And, accordingly, a negro of the
African race was regarded by them as an article of property, and held, and bought and
sold as such, in every one of the thirteen colonies which united in the Declaration of
Independence, and afterwards formed the Constitution of the United States. The slaves
were more or less numerous in the different colonies, as slave labor was found more or
less profitable. But no one seems to have doubted the correctness of the prevailing
opinion of the time.
The language of the Declaration of Independence is equally conclusive:
It begins by declaring that, “when in the course of human events it becomes necessary
for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,
and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which
the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect for the opinions of
mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the
It then proceeds to say: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created
equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that
among them is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights,
Governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the
The general words above quoted would seem to embrace the whole human family, and if
they were used in a similar instrument at this day would be so understood. But it is too
clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and
formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration; for if the
language, as understood in that day, would embrace them, the conduct of the
distinguished men who framed the Declaration of Independence would have been
utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles they asserted; and instead of the
sympathy of mankind, to which they so confidently appeared, they would have deserved
and received universal rebuke and reprobation.
Yet the men who framed this declaration were great men — high in literary
acquirements — high in their sense of honor, and incapable of asserting principles
inconsistent with those on which they were acting. They perfectly understood the
meaning of the language they used, and how it would be understood by others; and they
knew that it would not in any part of the civilized world be supposed to embrace the
negro race, which, by common consent, had been excluded from civilized Governments
and the family of nations, and doomed to slavery. They spoke and acted according to the
then established doctrines and principles, and in the ordinary language of the day, no
one misunderstood them. The unhappy black race were separated from the white by
indelible marks, and laws long before established, and were never thought of or spoken
of except as property, and when the claims of the owner or the profit of the trader were
supposed to need protection.
This state of public opinion had undergone no change when the Constitution was
adopted, as is equally evident from its provisions and language…
But there are two clauses in the Constitution which point directly and specifically to the
negro race as a separate class of persons, and show clearly that they were not regarded
as a portion of the people or citizens of the Government then formed.
One of these clauses reserves to each of the thirteen States the right to import slaves
until the year 1808, if it thinks proper. And the importation which it thus sanctions was
unquestionably of persons of the race of which we are speaking, as the traffic in slaves in
the United States had always been confined to them. And by the other provision the
States pledge themselves to each other to maintain the right of property of the master,
by delivering up to him any slave who may have escaped from his service, and be found
within their respective territories. By the first above-mentioned clause, therefore, the
right to purchase and hold this property is directly sanctioned and authorized for
twenty years by the people who framed the Constitution. And by the second, they pledge
themselves to maintain and uphold the right of the master in the manner specified, as
long as the Government they then formed should endure. And these two provisions
show, conclusively, that neither the description of persons therein referred to, not their
descendants, were embraced in any of the other provisions of the Constitution; for
certainly these two clauses were not intended to confer on them or their posterity the
blessings of liberty, or any of the personal rights so carefully provided for the citizen.
No one of that race had ever migrated to the United States voluntarily; all of them had
been brought here as articles of merchandise. The number that had been emancipated
at that time were but few in comparison with those held in slavery; and they were
identified in the public mind with the race to which they belonged, and regarded as a
part of the slave population rather than the free. It is obvious that they were not even in
the minds of the framers of the Constitution when they were conferring special rights
and privileges upon the citizens of a State in every other part of the Union.
Indeed, when we look to the condition of this race in the several States at the time, it is
impossible to believe that these rights and privileges were intended to be extended to
These only two provisions [in the Constitution] which point to [Negroes] and include
them, treat them as property, and make it the duty of the Government to protect it; no
other power, in relation to this race, is to be found in the Constitution; and as it is a
Government of special, delegated, powers, no authority beyond these two provisions can
be constitutionally exercised. The Government of the United States had no right to
interfere for any other purpose but that of protecting the rights of the owner, leaving it
altogether with the several States to deal with this race, whether emancipated or not, as
each State may think justice, humanity, and the interests and safety of society, require.
The States evidently intended to reserve this power exclusively to themselves…
And upon a full and careful consideration of the subject, the court is of opinion, that,
upon the facts stated in the plea in abatement, Dred Scott was not a citizen of Missouri
within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States, and not entitled as such to
sue in its courts…
On the issue of Dred Scott’s freedom and Congress’s ability to restrict slavery in
And upon a full and careful consideration of the subject, the court is of opinion, that,
upon the facts stated in the plea in abatement, Dred Scott was not a citizen of Missouri
within the meaning of the constitution of the United States, and not entitled as such to
sue in its courts and, consequently, that the circuit court had no jurisdiction of the case,
and that the judgment on the plea in abatement is erroneous.
In the case before us, we have already decided that the circuit court erred in deciding
that it had jurisdiction upon the facts admitted by the pleadings. And it appears that, in
the further progress of the case, it acted upon the erroneous principle it had decided on
the pleadings, and gave judgment for the defendant, where, upon the facts admitted in
the exception, it had no jurisdiction.
The plaintiff was a negro slave, belonging to Dr. Emerson, who was a surgeon in the
army of the United States. In the year 1834, he took the plaintiff from the State of
Missouri to the military post at Rock Island, in the State of Illinois, and held him there
as a slave until the month of April or May, 1836. At the time last mentioned, said Dr.
Emerson removed the plaintiff from said military post at Rock Island to the military
post at Fort Snelling, situate on the west bank of the Mississippi river, in the territory
known as upper Louisiana . . . situate north of the latitude of thirty-six degrees thirty
minutes north, and north of the State of Missouri. . . .
In considering this part of the controversy, two questions arise: 1. Was he, together with
his family, free in Missouri by reason of the stay in the territory of the United States
herein before mentioned? And 2. If they were not, is Scott himself free by reason of his
removal to Rock Island, in the State of Illinois, as stated in the above admissions?
We proceed to examine the first question.
The act of Congress, upon which [Dred Scott] relies, declares that slavery and
involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, shall be forever prohibited in
all that part of the territory ceded by France, under the name of Louisiana, which lies
north of thirty-six degrees thirty minutes north latitude, and not included within the
limits of Missouri. And the difficulty which meets us at the threshold of this part of the
inquiry is, whether Congress was authorized to pass this law under any of the powers
granted to it by the Constitution; for if the authority is not given by that instrument, it is
the duty of this court to declare it void and inoperative, and incapable of conferring
freedom upon any one who is held as a slave under the laws of any one of the States…
The power to expand the territory of the United States by the admission of new States is
plainly given; and in the construction of this power by all the departments of the
Government, it has been held to authorize the acquisition of territory, not fit for
admission at the time, but to be admitted as soon as its population and situation would
entitle it to admission. It is acquired to become a State, and not to be held as a colony
and governed by Congress with absolute authority; and as the propriety of admitting a
new State is committed to the sound discretion of Congress, the power to acquire
territory for that purpose, to be held by the United States until it is in a suitable
condition to become a Stated upon an equal footing with the other States, must rest
upon the same discretion. It is a question for the political department of the
Government, and not the judicial; and whatever the political department of the
Government shall recognize as within the limits of the United States, the judicial
department is also bound to recognize, and to administer in it the laws of the United
States, so far as they apply, and to maintain in the Territory the authority and rights of
the Government, and also the personal rights and rights of property of individual
citizens, as secured by the Constitution. All we mean to say on this point is, that, as there
is no express regulation in the Constitution defining the power which the General
Government may exercise over the person or property of a citizen in a Territory thus
acquired, the court must necessarily look to the provisions and principles of the
Constitution, and its distribution of powers, for the rules and principles by which its
decision must be governed.
Taking this rule to guide us, it may be safely assumed that citizens of the United States
who migrate to a Territory belonging to the people of the United States, cannot be ruled
as mere colonists, dependent upon the will of the General Government, and to be
governed by any laws it may think proper to impose. The principle upon which our
Governments rest, and upon which alone they continue to exist, is the union of States,
sovereign and independent within their own limits in their internal and domestic
concerns, and bound together as one people by a General Government, possessing
certain enumerated and restricted powers, delegated to it by the people of the several
States, and exercising supreme authority within the scope of the powers granted to it,
throughout the dominion of the United States. A power, therefore, in the General
Government to obtain and hold colonies and dependent territories, over which they
might legislate without restriction, would be inconsistent with its own existence in its
present form. Whatever it acquires, it acquires for the benefit of the people of the
several states who created it. It is their trustee acting for them, and charged with the
duty of promoting the interests of the whole people of the Union in the exercise of the
powers specifically granted…
In some cases a Government, consisting of persons appointed by the Federal
Government, would best serve the interests of the Territory, when the inhabitants were
few and scattered, and new to one another. In other instances, it would be more
advisable to commit the powers of self-government to the people who had settled in the
Territory, as being the most competent to determine what was best for their own
interests. But some form of civil authority would be absolutely necessary to organize
and preserve civilized society, and prepare it to become a State; and what is the best
form must always depend on the condition of the Territory at the time, and the choice of
the mode must depend upon the exercise of a discretionary power by Congress, acting
within the scope of its constitutional authority, and not infringing upon the rights of
person or rights of property of the citizen who might go there to reside, or for any other
lawful purpose. It was acquired by the exercise of this discretion, and it must be held
and governed in like manner, until it is fitted to be a State.
But the power of Congress over the person or property of a citizen can never be a mere
discretionary power under our Constitution and form of Government. The powers of
the Government and the rights and privileges of the citizen are regulated and plainly
defined by the Constitution itself. And when the Territory becomes a part of the United
States, the Federal Government enters into possession in the character impressed upon
it by those who created it. It enters upon it with its powers over the citizen strictly
defined, and limited by the Constitution, from which it derives its own existence, and by
virtue of which alone it continues to exist and act as a Government and sovereignty. It
has no power of any kind beyond it; and it cannot, when it enters a Territory of the
United States, put off its character, and assume discretionary or despotic powers which
the Constitution has denied to it. It cannot create for itself a new character separated
from the citizens of the United States, and the duties it owes them under of the United
States, the Government and the citizen both enter it under the authority of the
Constitution, with their respective rights defined and marked out; and the Federal
Government can exercise no power over his person or property, beyond what that
instrument confers, nor lawfully deny any right which it has reserved.
A reference to a few of the provisions of the Constitution will illustrate this proposition.
For example, no one, we presume, will contend that Congress can make any law in a
Territory respecting that establishment of religion, or the free exercise thereof, or
abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people of the
Territory peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for the redress of
These powers, and others, in relation to rights of person, which it is not necessary here
to enumerate, are, in express and positive terms, denied to the General Government;
and the rights of private property have been guarded with equal care. Thus the rights of
property are united with the rights of person, and placed on the same ground by the
fifth amendment to the Constitution, which provides that no person shall be deprived of
life, liberty, and property, without due process of law. And an act of Congress which
deprives a citizen of the United States of his liberty or property, merely because he came
himself or brought his property into a particular Territory of the United States, and who
had committed no offence against the laws, could hardly be dignified with the name of
due process of law…
It seems, however, to be supposed, that there is a difference between property in a slave
and other property, and that different rules may be applied to it in expounding the
Constitution of the United States…
Now, as we have already said in an earlier part of this opinion, upon a different point,
the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution.
The right to traffic in it, like an ordinary article of merchandise and property, was
guaranteed to the citizens of the United States, in every State that might desire it, for
twenty years. And the Government in express terms is pledged to protect it in all future
time, if the slave escapes from his owner. This is done in plain words — too plain to be
misunderstood. And no word can be found in the Constitution which gives Congress a
greater power over slave property, or which entitles property of that kind to less
protection than property of any other description. The only power conferred is the
power coupled with the duty of guarding and protecting the owner in his rights.
Upon these considerations, it is the opinion of the court that the act of Congress which
prohibited a citizen from holding and owning property of this kind in the territory of
the United States north of the line therein mentioned, is not warranted by the
Constitution, and is therefore void[in other words, Missouri Compromise of 1820 was
unconstitutional]; and that neither Dred Scott himself, nor any of his family, were made
free by being carried into this territory [north of that artificial Missouri line]; even if
they had been carried there by the owner, with the intention of becoming a permanent
6. Abraham Lincoln, “Debate Responses to Stephen Douglas,” (1858).
The moment that ultimately put Abraham Lincoln on the national political map was
when the Illinois Republican Party tapped Lincoln to challenge Senator Stephen
Douglas’s reelection in 1858. Douglas was one of the most powerful figures in the U.S.
Senate, but had also become the public face of the fiasco in “Bleeding Kansas.” The two
men met at seven debates in Illinois to convince a majority of that state’s legislature to
choose them as Senator. Thousands of ordinary residents and newspaper journalists
attended the debates and watched anxiously as Lincoln and Douglas debated the
problem of slavery and the very meaning of freedom in America. The debates
themselves were a microcosm of the divides that fractured the nation. Stephen Douglas
made a number of claims in attacking Lincoln: 1) He accused Lincoln of being a
“Radical abolitionist Republican” who sought racial equality 2) He asserted the
sovereignty of each state to decide slavery for themselves 3) He believed that the
abolitionists hoped to destroy the Union 4) He emphasized that the founders intended
that white men alone were equal to one another 5) And finally, he reasserted the
principle of popular sovereignty in letting territories decide slavery for themselves.
The following excerpt from Lincoln’s responses to Douglas in the final debate reveal
Lincoln’s political philosophy and his vision for the nation’s future (bracketed material
denotes the audience’s response). Although Lincoln lost the election, his run at Douglas
made him a household name, using this momentum to be elected the 16th President of
the United States in 1860. It was Lincoln’s election that would lead Southerners—
fearful that Lincoln and the Republicans would destroy slavery—into secession and
treason. That slaveholders’ rebellion would lead the nation into civil war by 1861.
Following Lincoln’s introduction to the audience, after the cheering had subsided:
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN….I have heard the Judge state two or three times what he
has stated to-day-that in a speech which I made at Springfield, Illinois, I had in a very
especial manner complained that the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case had decided
that a negro could never be a citizen of the United States. I have omitted by some
accident heretofore to analyze this statement, and it is required of me to notice it now.
In point of fact it is untrue . I never have complained especially of the Dred Scott
decision because it held that a negro could not be a citizen, and the Judge is always
wrong when he says I ever did so complain of it. I have the speech here, and I will thank
him or any of his friends to show where I said that a negro should be a citizen, and
complained especially of the Dred Scott decision because it declared he could not be one.
I have done no such thing, and Judge Douglas so persistently insisting that I have done
so, has strongly impressed me with the belief of a predetermination on his part to
misrepresent me. He could not get his foundation for insisting that I was in favor of this
negro equality anywhere else as well he could by assuming that untrue proposition. Let
me tell this audience what is true in regard to that matter; and the means by which they
may correct me if I do not tell them truly is by a recurrence to the speech itself. I spoke
of the Dred Scott decision in my Springfield speech, and I was then endeavoring to
prove that the Dred Scott decision was a portion of a system or scheme to make slavery
national in this country. I pointed out what things had been decided by the court. I
mentioned as a fact that they had decided that a negro could not be a citizen-that they
had done so, as I supposed, to deprive the negro, under all circumstances, of the
remotest possibility of ever becoming a citizen and claiming the rights of a citizen of the
United States under a certain clause of the Constitution. I stated that, without making
any complaint of it at all. I then went on and stated the other points decided in the case…
Out of this, Judge Douglas builds up his beautiful fabrication-of my purpose to
introduce a perfect, social, and political equality between the white and black races. His
assertion that I made an “especial objection” (that is his exact language) to the decision
on this account, is untrue in point of fact…
You have heard him frequently allude to my controversy with him in regard to the
Declaration of Independence. I confess that I have had a struggle with Judge Douglas on
that matter, and I will try briefly to place myself right in regard to it on this occasion. I
said-and it is between the extracts Judge Douglas has taken from this speech, and put in
his published speeches:
“It may be argued that there are certain conditions that make necessities and impose
them upon us, and to the extent that a necessity is imposed upon a man he must submit
to it. I think that was the condition in which we found ourselves when we established
this Government. We had slaves among us, we could not get our Constitution unless we
permitted them to remain in slavery, we could not secure the good we did secure if we
grasped for more; and having by necessity submitted to that much, it does not destroy
the principle that is the charter of our liberties. Let the charter remain as our standard.”
Now I have upon all occasions declared as strongly as Judge Douglas against the
disposition to interfere with the existing institution of slavery. You hear me read it from
the same speech from which he takes garbled extracts for the purpose of proving upon
me a disposition to interfere with the institution of slavery, and establish a perfect social
and political equality between negroes and white people.
Allow me while upon this subject briefly to present one other extract from a speech of
mine, more than a year ago, at Springfield, in discussing this very same question, soon
after Judge Douglas took his ground that negroes were not included in the Declaration
of Independence:
“I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did
not mean to declare all men equal in all respects . They did not mean to say all men were
equal in color, size, intellect, moral development or social capacity. They defined with
tolerable distinctness in what 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 they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were
then actually enjoying that equality, or 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:
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.”
There again are the sentiments I have expressed in regard to the Declaration of
Independence upon a former occasion-sentiments which have been put in print and
read wherever anybody cared to know what so humble an individual as myself chose to
say in regard to it.
The principle upon which I have insisted in this canvass, is in relation to laying the
foundations of new societies. I have never sought to apply these principles to the old
States for the purpose of abolishing slavery in those States. It is nothing but a miserable
perversion of what I have said, to assume that I have declared Missouri, or any other
slave State, shall emancipate her slaves. I have proposed no such thing…
I have said, and I repeat, my wish is that the further spread of [slavery] may be arrested,
and that it may be placed where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the
course of ultimate extinction. [Great applause from crowd] I have expressed that as my
wish. I entertain the opinion upon evidence sufficient to my mind, that the fathers of
this Government placed that institution where the public mind did rest in the belief that
it was in the course of ultimate extinction. Let me ask why they made provision that the
source of slavery-the African slave-trade-should be cut off at the end of twenty years?
Why did they make provision that in all the new territory we owned at that time, slavery
should be forever inhibited? Why stop its spread in one direction and cut off its source
in another, if they did not look to its being placed in the course of ultimate extinction?
Again; the institution of slavery is only mentioned in the Constitution of the United
States two or three times, and in neither of these cases does the word “slavery” or “negro
race” occur; but covert language is used each time, and for a purpose full of
And I understand the contemporaneous history of those times to be that covert
language was used with a purpose, and that purpose was that in our Constitution, which
it was hoped and is still hoped will endure forever-when it should be read by intelligent
and patriotic men, after the institution of slavery had passed from among us-there
should be nothing on the face of the great charter of liberty suggesting that such a thing
as negro slavery had ever existed among us. [Enthusiastic applause.] This is part of the
evidence that the fathers of the Government expected and intended the institution of
slavery to come to an end…
I have not only made the declaration that I do not mean to produce a conflict between
the States, but I have tried to show by fair reasoning, and I think I have shown to the
minds of fair men, that I propose nothing but what has a most peaceful tendency. The
quotation that I happened to make in that Springfield speech, that “a house divided
against itself cannot stand,” and which has proved so offensive to the Judge, was part
and parcel of the same thing. He tries to show that variety in the domestic institutions
of the different States is necessary and indispensable. I do not dispute it. I have no
controversy with Judge Douglas about that. I shall very readily agree with him that it
would be foolish for us to insist upon having a cranberry law here, in Illinois, where we
have no cranberries, because they have a cranberry law in Indiana, where they have
cranberries. [Laughter, “good,good.”] I should insist that it would be exceedingly wrong
in us to deny to Virginia the right to enact oyster laws where they have oysters, because
we want no such laws here. [Renewed laughter.] I understand, I hope, quite as well as
Judge Douglas or anybody else, that the variety in the soil and climate and face of the
country, and consequent variety in the industrial pursuits and productions of a country,
require systems of law conforming to this variety in the natural features of the country.
I understand quite as well as Judge Douglas, that if we here raise a barrel of flour more
than we want, and the Louisianans raise a barrel of sugar more than they want, it is of
mutual advantage to exchange. That produces commerce, brings us together, and makes
us better friends. We like one another the more for it. And I understand as well as Judge
Douglas, or anybody else, that these mutual accommodations are the cements which
bind together the different parts of this Union-that instead of being a thing to “divide
the house”- figuratively expressing the Union-they tend to sustain it; they are the props
of the house tending always to hold it up.
But when I have admitted all this, I ask if there is any parallel between these things and
this institution of slavery? I do not see that there is any parallel at all between them.
Consider it. When have we had any difficulty or quarrel amongst ourselves about the
cranberry laws of Indiana, or the oyster laws of Virginia, or the pine lumber laws of
Maine, or the fact that Louisiana produces sugar, and Illinois flour? When have we had
any quarrels over these things? When have we had perfect peace in regard to this thing
which I say is an element of discord in this Union? We have sometimes had peace, but
when was it? It was when the institution of slavery remained quiet where it was. We
have had difficulty and turmoil whenever it has made a struggle to spread itself where it
was not. I ask, then, if experience does not speak in thunder-tones, telling us that the
policy which has given peace to the country heretofore, being returned to, gives the
greatest promise of peace again. [“Yes;” “yes;” “yes.”] You may say, and Judge Douglas has
intimated the same thing, that all this difficulty in regard to the institution of slavery is
the mere agitation of office seekers and ambitious Northern politicians. He thinks we
want to get “his place,” I suppose. [Cheers and laughter]…
But is it true that all the difficulty and agitation we have in regard to this institution of
slavery springs from office seeking-from the mere ambition of politicians? Is that the
truth? How many times have we had danger from this question? Go back to the day of
the Missouri Compromise. Go back to the Nullification question, at the bottom of which
lay this same slavery question. Go back to the time of the Annexation of Texas. Go back
to the troubles that led to the Compromise of 1850. You will find that every time, with
the single exception of the Nullification question, they sprung from an endeavor to
spread this institution. There never was a party in the history of this country, and there
probably never will be, of sufficient strength to disturb the general peace of the country.
Parties themselves may be divided and quarrel on minor questions, yet it extends not
beyond the parties themselves. But does not this question make a disturbance outside of
political circles? Does it not enter into the churches and rend them asunder?…
Is it not this same mighty, deep-seated power that somehow operates on the minds of
men, exciting and stirring them up in every avenue of society-in politics, in religion, in
literature, in morals, in all the manifold relations of life? [Applause.] Is this the work of
politicians? Is that irresistible power which for fifty years has shaken the Government
and agitated the people to be stilled and subdued by pretending that it is an exceedingly
simple thing, and we ought not to talk about it? [Great cheers and laughter]…
The Judge alludes very often in the course of his remarks to the exclusive right which the
States have to decide the whole thing for themselves. I agree with him very readily that
the different States have that right. He is but fighting a man of straw when he assumes
that I am contending against the right of the States to do as they please about it. Our
controversy with him is in regard to the new Territories. We agree that when the States
come in as States they have the right and the power to do as they please. We have no
power as citizens of the free States or in our federal capacity as members of the Federal
Union through the General Government, to disturb slavery in the States where it exists.
We profess constantly that we have no more inclination than belief in the power of the
Government to disturb it; yet we are driven constantly to defend ourselves from the
assumption that we are warring upon the rights of the States . What I insist upon is, that
the new Territories shall be kept free from it while in the Territorial condition. Judge
Douglas assumes that we have no interest in them-that we have no right whatever to
interfere. I think we have some interest. I think that as white men we have. Do we not
wish for an outlet for our surplus population, if I may so express myself? Do we not feel
an interest in getting to that outlet with such institutions as we would like to have
prevail there?…
Now irrespective of the moral aspect of this question as to whether there is a right or
wrong in enslaving a negro, I am still in favor of our new Territories being in such a
condition that white men may find a home-may find some spot where they can better
their condition-where they can settle upon new soil and better their condition in life.
[Great and continued cheering.] I am in favor of this not merely, (I must say it here as I
have elsewhere,) for our own people who are born amongst us, but as an outlet for free
white people everywhere , the world over-in which Hans and Baptiste and Patrick, and
all other men from all the world, may find new homes and better their conditions in life.
[Loud and long continued applause]…
The real issue in this controversy-the one pressing upon every mind-is the sentiment on
the part of one class that looks upon the institution of slavery as a wrong , and of another
class that does not look upon it as a wrong. The sentiment that contemplates the
institution of slavery in this country as a wrong is the sentiment of the Republican party.
It is the sentiment around which all their actions-all their arguments circle-from which
all their propositions radiate. They look upon it as being a moral, social and political
wrong; and while they contemplate it as such, they nevertheless have due regard for its
actual existence among us, and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way
and to all the constitutional obligations thrown about it. Yet having a due regard for
these, they desire a policy in regard to it that looks to its not creating any more danger.
They insist that it should as far as may be, be treated as a wrong, and one of the methods
of treating it as a wrong is to make provision that it shall grow no larger . [Loud
On this subject of treating it as a wrong, and limiting its spread, let me say a word. Has
anything ever threatened the existence of this Union save and except this very
institution of Slavery? What is it that we hold most dear amongst us? Our own liberty
and prosperity. What has ever threatened our liberty and prosperity save and except this
institution of Slavery? If this is true, how do you propose to improve the condition of
things by enlarging Slavery-by spreading it out and making it bigger? You may have a
wen or cancer upon your person and not be able to cut it out lest you bleed to death; but
surely it is no way to cure it, to engraft it and spread it over your whole body. That is no
proper way of treating what you regard a wrong. You see this peaceful way of dealing
with it as a wrong-restricting the spread of it, and not allowing it to go into new
countries where it has not already existed. That is the peaceful way, the old-fashioned
way, the way in which the fathers themselves set us the example…
That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor
tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between
these two principles-right and wrong-throughout the world. They are the two principles
that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to
Whenever the issue can be distinctly made, and all extraneous matter thrown out so that
men can fairly see the real difference between the parties, this controversy will soon be
settled, and it will be done peaceably too. There will be no war, no violence. It will be
placed again where the wisest and best men of the world placed it. Brooks of South
Carolina once declared that when this Constitution was framed, its framers did not look
to the institution existing until this day. When he said this, I think he stated a fact that
is fully borne out by the history of the times. But he also said they were better and wiser
men than the men of these days; yet the men of these days had experience which they
had not, and by the invention of the cotton-gin it became a necessity in this country that
slavery should be perpetual. I now say that, willingly or unwillingly, purposely or
without purpose, Judge Douglas has been the most prominent instrument in changing
the position of the institution of slavery which the fathers of the Government expected
to come to an end ere this-and putting it upon Brooks’s cotton-gin basis -placing it
where he openly confesses he has no desire there shall ever be an end of it [Renewed
7. Convention of South Carolina, “Ordinance for Secession,” (1860).
In the fall of 1860, Abraham Lincoln’s electoral victory and a new Republican majority
elected to the Congress shocked many white Southerners. Fanatical slaveholders in
South Carolina, hoping for civil war and fearful of an ascendent Republican Party
opposed to the spread of slavery, swiftly held a convention and voted 169-0 for
secession. The following source is an excerpt from the Convention’s official
justifications for secession—an unprecedented and treasonous action not sanctioned
in U.S. Constitutional law. But South Carolina’s secessionists reimagined the U.S.
Constitution including an implicit notion of compact between states—that is if a state
had joined the Union in the 1780s, it could then conceivably leave it. But as South
Carolina’s rationale for secession made clear, the most important factor in their illegal
rebellion against United States’ sovereignty was their paranoid assertion that
Northern states had been waging a war against slavery for years. As South Carolina
saw it, the U.S. Constitution existed to firmly protect slavery. With Lincoln’s election,
the secessionists concluded the Constitution itself was null and void.
We hold that the Government [created under the Constitution in 1787] thus
established is subject to the two great principles asserted in the Declaration of
Independence; and we hold further, that the mode of its formation subjects it to a third
fundamental principle, namely: the law of compact. We maintain that in every compact
between two or more parties, the obligation is mutual; that the failure of one of the
contracting parties to perform a material part of the agreement, entirely releases the
obligation of the other; and that where no arbiter is provided, each party is remitted to
his own judgment to determine the fact of failure, with all its consequences.
In the present case, that fact is established with certainty. We assert that fourteen of
the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional
obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.
The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: “No
person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into
another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such
service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or
labor may be due.”
This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would
not have been made. The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they
had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a
condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which
now composes the States north of the Ohio River.
The same article of the Constitution stipulates also for rendition by the several
States of fugitives from justice from the other States.
The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect
these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. But an
increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of
slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General
Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of Maine,
New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York,
Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws
which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them.
In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in
none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the
Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with
her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more
recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law
and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave
has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to
surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile
insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately
broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows
that South Carolina is released from her obligation.
The ends for which the Constitution was framed are declared by itself to be “to form
a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the
common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to
ourselves and our posterity.”
These ends it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government, in which each
State was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions.
The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political
rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for
three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years;
and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.
We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been
defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of
the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the
propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property
established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have
denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment
among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the
property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of
our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries,
books and pictures to servile insurrection.
For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now
secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of
the Constitution, a sectional party [the new Republicans] has found within
that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the
Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the
States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of
President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is
to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has
declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and
that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate
This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided
in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the
land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a
new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.
On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It
has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the
judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery
until it shall cease throughout the United States.
The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the
States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of selfgovernment,
or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their
Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is
rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political
error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief.
We, therefore, the People of South Carolina, by our delegates in Convention
assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our
intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this
State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South
Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and
independent State; with full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances,
establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may
of right do.
Adopted December 24, 1860.

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