Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates

By Harry V. Jaffa | Go to book overview

Chapter XVI
Popular Sovereignty: True and False

Lincoln constantly warned those who would either approve or withhold their disapproval of slavery that this was a matter upon which, in principle, there could be no compromise or equivocation. To those Southerners who appealed to the Bible to justify slavery he said that Douglas was wiser than they, for Biblical slavery was the slavery of white men. We have given it as our opinion, in Chapter II, that for Douglas the essence of free government lay in the power of decision of a free people of the most vital, no less than of the most trivial, questions. Lincoln agreed, believed that shifting responsibility for the future of the nation upon the first few stragglers into Kansas or Nebraska was a miserable evasion of responsibility. And Douglas's assumption, in his "Don't care" policy, that the doctrine of popular sovereignty was such that the duty of statesmanship was exhausted when the people's power of decision was secured to them was absolutely false. Lincoln's classic refutation of this thesis may be found in the Peoria speech:

The doctrine of self-government is right -- absolutely and eternally right, but it has no just application, as here attempted. Or perhaps I should say that whether it has such application depends upon whether the negro is not or is a man. If he is not a man, why in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him. But if the negro is a man, is it not to that extent a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself,

-347-

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