Slavery Protest (March 3, 1837)

Contributing Editors for this page include Greg O’Reilly

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#53 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents

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“They believe that the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy; but that the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than to abate its evils.”

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Posted at YouTube by Understanding Lincoln course participant Greg O’Reilly, August 2014. You can read a transcript of this video here.

How Historians Interpret

 “Lincoln wrote a protest and circulated it among his colleagues, all of whom refused to sign except for Stone, a native of Vermont and a graduate of Middlebury College. Stone was not seeking reelection because he would soon become a judge.  Lincoln declared in the document which he and Stone spread on the journal of the House of Representatives ‘that the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy,’ foreshadowing his great 1854 Peoria speech denouncing the ‘monstrous injustice of slavery.’ In 1860, a newspaper widely regarded as his organ explained that ‘Lincoln could not, and did not vote in favor of the resolutions . . . because the old Calhoun doctrine embraced in the second of the series [‘that the right of property in slaves is sacred to the slave-holding states by the Federal Government’] was abhorrent to his ideas of the true meaning of the Constitution.’  To announce that ‘slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy’ was a remarkably bold gesture for 1837, when antislavery views enjoyed little popularity in central Illinois – or elsewhere in the nation.”

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 4 (PDF), p.398

“Lincoln’s ‘protest’ differed from the resolutions primarily in its strong language against slavery and in omitting the description of slaveholders’ property rights as ‘sacred.’ It foreshadowed Lincoln’s public stance in the 1850s: slavery was unjust; northerners had an obligation to respect the constitutional compromises that protected the institution; the national government had the power to act against slavery in the District of Columbia; and Lincoln was not an abolitionist.”

—Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), p.26

“He understood but would not join abolitionist organizations that attacked the personal and human horrors of the institution. Lincoln first spoke publicly against slavery in 1837 with a short protest against resolutions that attacked abolition societies and defended states’ rights to property in slaves. Joining with Dan Stone, a fellow Springfield lawyer and Whig, Lincoln called slavery unjust and bad policy but asserted that abolition societies ‘tend[ed] rather to increase than to abate its evils.'”

—Phillip S. Paludan, “Lincoln’s Prewar Constitutional Vision” in Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Society 15 (1994)

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Searchable Text

March 3, 1837
The following protest was presented to the House, which was read and ordered to be spread on the journals, to wit:
 
“Resolutions upon the subject of domestic slavery having passed both branches of the General Assembly at its present session, the undersigned hereby protest against the passage of the same.
 
They believe that the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy; but that the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than to abate its evils.
 
They believe that the Congress of the United States has no power, under the constitution, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the different States.
 
They believe that the Congress of the United States has the power, under the constitution, to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia; but that that power ought not to be exercised unless at the request of the people of said District.
 
The difference between these opinions and those contained in the said resolutions, is their reason for entering this protest.”
 
DAN STONE,
 
A. LINCOLN,
 
Representatives from the county of Sangamon.
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