#27 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents
“I now propose that I will answer any of the interrogatories, upon condition that he will answer questions from me not exceeding the same number.”
On This Date
HD Daily Report, August 27, 1858
The Lincoln Log, August 27, 1858
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How Historians Interpret
“An analysis of Lincoln as master politician, by political scientist William H. Riker, similarly rests on rational-philosophical explanation. Riker focuses on the Freeport question, wherein Lincoln forced Douglas to reassert the doctrine of popular sovereignty against the Dred Scott decision, as the capstone of the Republican strategy of splitting the Democratic majority, thus preparing the way for the electoral triumph of 1860. Lincoln’s strategy is the most important illustration in American history of the ‘heresthetical art,’ a term invented by Riker to describe the ability of a politician, through language, reasoning and argument, to alter the dimensions of a political situation and manipulate the outcome to achieve a desired end. Lincoln’s question, which was recognized at the time as ‘a work of genius,’ trapped Douglas intellectually so that no matter how he answered, the response would give Lincoln and his party a future victory. According to Riker, ‘there is no more elegant example of the heresthetical device of splitting the majority, and it displays Lincoln the politician at his grandest.'”
—Herman Belz, “The ‘Philosophical Cause’ Of ‘Our Free Government and Consequent Prosperity’: The Problem of Lincoln’s Political Thought, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 10, 1988.
“Lincoln began by answering the seven interrogatories Douglas had posed at Ottawa. He did not, he said, ‘stand pledged’ to the unconditional repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act, nor to the admission of more slave states into the Union, nor to admitting new states into the Union with a constitution approved by the people, nor to the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, nor to the abolition of the domestic slave trade. He did believe that Congress had a right and duty to prohibit slavery in all the territories and would oppose the admission of a new territory if it would ‘aggravate the slavery question among ourselves.’ These remarks evidently did not sit well with some antislavery auditors, who, according to Henry Villard’s report, ‘thought that by his seven answers Lincoln had repudiated the whole Republican creed.’ They ‘began to be restive, to grumble and otherwise express their displeasure in undertones.’ Villard observed that ‘these seven answers may still give Mr. Lincoln much trouble and we should not be surprised if the Republicans in Northern Illinois might label them ‘Lincoln’s seven deadly sins.’’ (Villard’s account is not entirely unbiased, for he told Douglas that he was ‘as enthusiastic & faithful a supporter of your political claims as any can be found anywhere in the State of Illinois.’ The senator hired him as a campaigner, in which capacity he delivered speeches at thirteen localities and organized Douglas clubs.)”
—Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2 volumes, originally published by Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) Unedited Manuscript By Chapters, Lincoln Studies Center, Volume 1, Chapter 13 (PDF), pp. 1390-1391
NOTE TO READERS
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Mr. Lincoln was introduced by Hon. Thomas J. Turner, and was greeted with loud cheers. When the applause had subsided, he said:
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN – On Saturday last, Judge Douglas and myself first met in public discussion. He spoke one hour, I an hour and a half, and he replied for half an hour. The order is now reversed. I am to speak an hour, he an hour and a half, and then I am to reply for half an hour. I propose to devote myself during the first hour to the scope of what was brought within the range of his half-hour speech at Ottawa. Of course there was brought within the scope in that half-hour’s speech something of his own opening speech. In the course of that opening argument Judge Douglas proposed to me seven distinct interrogatories. In my speech of an hour and a half, I attended to some other parts of his speech, and incidentally, as I thought, answered one of the interrogatories then. I then distinctly intimated to him that I would answer the rest of his interrogatories on condition only that he should agree to answer as many for me. He made no intimation at the time of the proposition, nor did he in his reply allude at all to that suggestion of mine. I do him no injustice in saying that he occupied at least half of his reply in dealing with me as though I had refused to answer his interrogatories. I now propose that I will answer any of the interrogatories, upon condition that he will answer questions from me not exceeding the same number. I give him an opportunity to respond. The Judge remains silent. I now say that I will answer his interrogatories, whether he answers mine or not; [applause] and that after I have done so, I shall propound mine to him. [Applause.]
[Owing to the press of people against the platform, our reporter did not reach the stand until Mr. Lincoln had spoken to this point. The previous remakrs were taken by a gentleman in Freeport, who has politely furnished them to us.]
I have supposed myself, since the organization of the Republican party at Bloomington, in May, 1856, bound as a party man by the platforms of the party, then and since. If in any interrogatories which I shall answer I go beyond the scope of what is within these platforms, it will be perceived that no one is responsible but myself.
Having said thus much, I will take up the Judge’s interrogatories as I find them printed in the Chicago Times, and answer them seriatim. In order that there may be no mistake about it, I have copied the interrogatories in writing, and also my answers to them. The first one of these interrogatories is in these words:
Question 1. “I desire to know whether Lincoln to-day stands, as he did in 1854, in favor of the unconditional repeal of the Fugitive Slave law?”
Answer. I do not now, nor ever did, stand in favor of the unconditional repeal of the Fugitive Slave law. [Cries of “Good,” “Good.”]
Q. 2. “I desire him to answer whether he stands pledged to-day, as he did in 1854, against the admission of any more slave States into the Union, even if the people want them?”
A. I do not now, or ever did, stand pledged against the admission of any more slave States into the Union.
Q. 3. “1 want to know whether he stands pledged against the admission of a new State into the Union with such a Constitution as the people of that State may see fit to make?”
A. I do not stand pledged against the admission of a new State into the Union, with such a Constitution as the people of that State may see fit to make. [Cries of “good,” “good.”]
Q. 4. “I want to know whether he stands to-day pledged to the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia?”
A. I do not stand to-day pledged to the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.
Q. 5. “I desire him to answer whether he stands pledged to the prohibition of the slave-trade between the different States?”
A. I do not stand pledged to the prohibition of the slave-trade between the different States.
Q. 6. “I desire to know whether he stands pledged to prohibit slavery in all the Territories of the United States, North as well as South of the Missouri Compromise line?”
A. I am impliedly, if not expressly, pledged to a belief in the right and duty of Congress to prohibit slavery in all the United States Territories.
Q. 7. “I desire him to answer whether he is opposed to the acquisition of any new territory unless slavery is first prohibited therein?”
A. I am not generally opposed to honest acquisition of territory; and, in any given case, I would or would not oppose such acquisition, accordingly as I might think such acquisition would or would not agravate [sic] the slavery question among ourselves. [Cries of good, good.]
Now, my friends, it will be perceived upon an examination of these questions and answers, that so far I have only answered that I was notpledged to this, that or the other. The Judge has not framed his interrogatories to ask me anything more than this, and I have answered in strict accordance with the interrogatories, and have answered truly that I am not pledged at all upon any of the points to which I have answered. But I am not disposed to hang upon the exact form of his interrogatory. I am rather disposed to take up at least some of these questions, and state what I really think upon them.
As to the first one, in regard to the Fugitive Slave law, I have never hesitated to say, and I do not now hesitate to say, that I think, under the Constitution of the United States, the people of the Southern States are entitled to a Congressional Fugitive Slave law. Having said that, I have had nothing to say in regard to the existing Fugitive Slave law, further than that I think it should have been framed so as to be free from some of the objections that pertain to it, without lessening its efficiency. And inasmuch as we are not now in an agitation in regard to an alteration or modification of that law, I would not be the man to introduce it as a new subject of agitation upon the general question of slavery.
In regard to the other question, of whether I am pledged to the admission of any more slave States into the Union, I state to you very frankly that I would be exceedingly sorry ever to be put in a position of having to pass upon that question. I should be exceedingly glad to know that there would never be another slave State admitted into the Union; but I must add, that if slavery shall be kept out of the Territories during the territorial existence of any one given Territory, and then the people shall, having a fair chance and a clear field, when they come to adopt the Constitution, do such an extraordinary thing as to adopt a slave Constitution, uninfluenced by the actual presence of the institution among them, I see no alternative, if we own the country, but to admit them into the Union. [Applause.]
The third interrogatory is answered by the answer to the second, it being, as I conceive, the same as the second.
The fourth one is in regard to the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. In relation to that, I have my mind very distinctly made up. I should be exceedingly glad to see slavery abolished in the District of Columbia. [Cries of “good, good.”] I believe that Congress possesses the constitutional power to abolish it. Yet as a member of Congress, I should not with my present views, be in favor of endeavoring to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, unless it would be upon these conditions: First, that the abolition should be gradual. Second, that it should be on a vote of the majority of qualified voters in the District; and third, that compensation should be made to unwilling owners. With these three conditions, I confess I would be exceedingly glad to see Congress abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, and, in the language of Henry Clay, “sweep from our Capital that foul blot upon our nation.” [Loud applause.]
In regard to the fifth interrogatory, I must say here, that as to the question of the abolition of the slave-trade between the different States, I can truly answer, as I have, that I am pledged to nothing about it. It is a subject to which I have not given that mature consideration that would make me feel authorized to state a position so as to hold myself entirely bound by it. In other words, that question has never been prominently enough before me to induce me to investigate whether we really have the constitutional power to do it. I could investigate it if I had sufficient time, to bring myself to a conclusion upon that subject; but I have not done so, and I say so frankly to you here, and to Judge Douglas. I must say, however, that if I should be of opinion that Congress does possess the constitutional power to abolish the slave-trade among the different States, I should still not be in favor of the exercise of that power unless upon some conservative principle as I conceive it, akin to what I have said in relation to the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.
My answer as to whether I desire that slavery should be prohibited in all the Territories of the United States, is full and explicit within itself, and cannot be made clearer by any comments of mine. So I suppose in regard to the question whether I am opposed to the acquisition of any more territory unless slavery is first prohibited therein, my answer is such that I could add nothing by way of illustration, or making myself better understood, than the answer which I have placed in writing.
Now in all this, the Judge has me, and he has me on the record. I suppose he had flattered himself that I was really entertaining one set of opinions for one place and another set for another place -that I was afraid to say at one place what I uttered at another. What I am saying here I suppose I say to a vast audience as strongly tending to Abolitionism as any audience in the State of Illinois, and I believe I am saying that which, if it would be offensive to any persons and render them enemies to myself, would be offensive to persons in this audience.
I now proceed to propound to the Judge the interrogatories, so far as I have framed them. I will bring forward a new installment when I get them ready. [Laughter.] I will bring them forward now, only reaching to number four.
The first one is:
Question 1. If the people of Kansas shall, by means entirely unobjectionable in all other respects, adopt a State Constitution, and ask admission into the Union under it, before they have the requisite number of inhabitants according to the English bill-some ninety-three thousand-will you vote to admit them? [Applause.]
Q. 2. Can the people of a United States Territory, in any lawful way, against the wish of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution? [Renewed applause.]
Q. 3. If the Supreme Court of the United States shall decide that States cannot exclude slavery from their limits, are you in favor of acquiescing in, adopting and following such decision as a rule of political action? [Loud applause.]
Q. 4. Are you in favor of acquiring additional territory, in disregard of how such acquisition may affect the nation on the slavery question? [Cries of “good,” “good.”]