This series has three easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: The Destruction of The Compromise of 1850.
The Republican Party was never a minor (third) party. In 1854 it simply replaced the Whig Party as the major party opposing the Democrats. The immediate cause of this was the Democrats’ Kansas-Nebraska Bill of that year which largely negated the Compromise of 1850. But this event alone could not have explained a sudden transformation of American politics of this magnitude.
So, what did cause all of this? The best contemporary explanation can be found in Abraham Lincoln’s first speech in his famous debate with the Kansas-Nebraska Acts chief author, Stephen Douglas.
This selection is from the speech in the First Debate with Stephen Douglas by Abraham Lincoln delivered on June 17, 1858. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Lincoln’s speech is given in its entirety.
Place: Springfield, Illinois
If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object and confident promise of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this Government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.
Have we no tendency to the latter condition? Let anyone who doubts, carefully contemplate that now almost complete legal combination–piece of machinery, so to speak — compounded of the Nebraska doctrine and the Dred Scott decision. Let him consider, not only what work the machinery is adapted to do, and how well adapted, but also let him study the history of its construction, and trace, if he can, or rather fail, if he can, to trace the evidences of design, and concert of action, among its chief architects, from the beginning.
The new year of 1854 found slavery excluded from more than half the States by State constitutions, and from most of the national territory by Congressional prohibition. Four days later commenced the struggle which ended in repealing that Congressional prohibition. This opened all the national territory to slavery, and was the first point gained. But, so far, Congress only had acted, and an indorsement by the people, real or apparent, was indispensable to save the point already gained, and give chance for more.
This necessity had not been overlooked, but had been provided for, as well as might be, in the notable argument of “squatter sovereignty,” otherwise called “sacred right of self-government,” which latter phrase, though expressive of the only rightful basis of any government, was so perverted in this attempted use of it as to amount to just this: That if any _one_ man choose to enslave _another_, no _third_ man shall be allowed to object. That argument was incorporated into the Nebraska Bill itself, in the language which follows: “It being the true intent and meaning of this act not to legislate slavery into any Territory or State, nor to exclude it therefrom, but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the Constitution of the United States.” Then opened the roar of loose declamation in favor of “squatter sovereignty” and “sacred right of self-government.” “But,” said opposition members, “let us amend the bill so as to expressly declare that the people of the Territory may exclude slavery.” “Not we,” said the friends of the measure; and down they voted the amendment.
While the Nebraska Bill was passing through Congress, a law case, involving the question of a negro’s freedom, by reason of his owner having voluntarily taken him first into a free State, and then into a Territory covered by the Congressional prohibition, and held him as a slave for a long time in each, was passing through the United States Circuit Court for the District of Missouri; and both Nebraska Bill and lawsuit were brought to a decision in the same month of May, 1854. The negro’s name was “Dred Scott,” which name now designates the decision finally made in the case. Before the then next Presidential election, the law case came to and was argued in the Supreme Court of the United States; but the decision of it was deferred until after the election. Still, before the election, Senator Trumbull, on the floor of the Senate, requested the leading advocate of the Nebraska Bill to state _his opinion_ whether the people of a Territory can constitutionally exclude slavery from their limits; and the latter answers, “That is a question for the Supreme Court.”
The election came. Buchanan was elected, and the indorsement, such as it was, secured. That was the second point gained. The indorsement, however, fell short of a clear popular majority by nearly four hundred thousand votes, and so, perhaps, was not overwhelmingly reliable and satisfactory. The outgoing President, in his last annual message, as impressively as possible echoed back upon the people the weight and authority of the indorsement. The Supreme Court met again, did not announce their decision, but ordered a reargument. The Presidential inauguration came, and still no decision of the court; but the incoming President, in his inaugural address, fervently exhorted the people to abide by the forthcoming decision, whatever it might be. Then, in a few days, came the decision.
The reputed author of the Nebraska Bill finds an early occasion to make a speech at this capital indorsing the Dred Scott decision, and vehemently denouncing all opposition to it. The new President, too, seizes the early occasion of the Silliman letter to indorse and strongly construe that decision, and to express his astonishment that any different view had ever been entertained!