Abraham Lincoln to Joshua F. Speed, 24 August 18551Springfield, Aug: 24. 1855Dear Speed:
You know what a poor correspondent I am. Ever since I received your very agreeable letter of the 22nd of May I have been intending to write you in answer to it–2 You suggest that in political action now, you and I would differ– I suppose we would; not quite as much, however, as you may think– You know I dislike slavery; and you fully admit the abstract wrong of it. So far there is no cause of difference– But you say that sooner than yield your legal right to the slave— especially at the bidding of those who are not themselves interested, you would see the Union dissolved– I am not aware that any one is bidding you to yield ^that right;^ very certainly I am not– I leave that matter entirely to yourself– I also acknowledge your rights and my obligations, under the constitution, in regard to your slaves– I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite
<Page 2>my lip, and keep quiet.3 In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St Louis– You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio, there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons–4 That sight was a continual torment to me; and I see something like ^it^ every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border– It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable– You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the constitution and the Union–
I do oppose the extension of slavery, because my judgment and feelings so prompt me; and I am under no obligation to the contrary– If for this you and I must differ, differ we must– You say if you were President, you would send an army and hang the leaders of the Missouri outrages upon the Kansas elections; still, if Kansas fairly votes herself a slave state, she must be admitted, or
<Page 3>the Union must be dissolved–5 But how if she votes herself a slave state unfairly— that is, by the very means for which you say you would hang men? Must she still be admitted, or the Union be dissolved? That will be the phase of the question when it first becomes a practical one– In your assumption that there may be a fair decision of the slavery question in Kansas, I plainly see you and I would differ about the Nebraska-law– I look upon that enactment not as a law, but as violence from the beginning– It was conceived in violence, passed in violence, is maintained in violence ^and is being executed in violence–^– I say it was conceived in violence, because the destruction of the Missouri Compromise, under the circumstances, was nothing less than violence– It was passed in violence, because it could ^not^ have passed at all but for the votes of many members, in violent disregard of the known will of their constituents– It is maintained in violence because the elections since, clearly demand it’s repeal, and this demand is openly disregarded–6 You say men ought to be hung for the way they are executing that law; and I say the way it is being executed
<Page 4>is quite as good as any of its antecedents. It is being executed in the precise way which was intended from the first; else why does no Nebraska man express astonishment or condemnation? Poor Reeder is the only public man who has been silly enough to believe that any thing like fairness was ever intended; and ^he^ has been bravely undeceived.
That Kansas will form a Slave constitution, and, with it, will ask to be admitted into the Union, I take to be an already settled question; and so settled by the very means you so positively pointedly condemn–7 By every principle of law, ever held by any court, North or South, every negro taken to Kansas is free; yet in utter disregard of this— in the spirit of violence merely— that beautiful Legislature gravely passes a law to hang men who shall venture to inform a negro of his legal rights– This is the substance, and real object of the law–8 If, like Haman, they should hang upon the gallows of their own building, I shall not be among the mourners for their fate–9
In my humble sphere, I shall advocate the restoration of the Missouri Compromise, so long as Kansas remains a territory; and when, by all these foul means, it seeks to come into the Union as a Slave-state, I shall oppose it– I am very loth, in any case, to withhold my assent to the enjoyment of property acquired, or located, in good faith; but I do not admit that good faith, in taking a negro to Kansas, to be held in slavery, is a possibility with any man– Any man who has sense enough to be the controller of his own property, has too much sense to misunderstand the outrageous character of this whole Nebraska business– But I digress– In my opposition to the admission of Kansas I shall have some company; but we may be beaten– If we are, I shall not, on that account, attempt to dissolve the Union– On the contrary, if we succeed, there will be enough of us to take care of the Union– I think it probable, however, we shall be beaten– Standing as a unit among yourselves, you can, directly, and indirect-
<Page 6>ly, bribe enough of our men to carry the day— as you could on an open proposition to establish monarchy– Get hold of some man in the North, whose position and ability is such, that he can make the support of your measure— whatever it may be— a democratic party necessity, and the thing is done– Appropos of this, let me tell you an anecdote– Douglas introduced the Nebraska bill in January– In February afterwards, there was a call session of the Illinois Legislature– Of the one hundred members composing the two branches of that body, about seventy were democrats– These latter held a caucus, in which the Nebraska bill was talked of, if not formally discussed– It was thereby discovered that just three, and no more, were in favor of the measure– In a day or two Dougla’s orders came on to have resolutions passed approving the bill; and they were passed by large majorities!!! The truth of this is vouched for by a bolting democratic member– The masses too, democratic as well as whig, were even, nearer unanamous against it; but as soon as the
<Page 7>party necessity of supporting it, became apparent, the way the democracy began to see the wisdom and justice of it, was perfectly astonishing–10
You say if Kansas fairly votes herself a free state, as a christian you will rather rejoice at it– All decent slave-holders talk that way; and I do not doubt their candor– But they never vote that way– Although in a private letter, or conversation, you will express your preference that Kansas shall be free, you would vote for no man for Congress who would say the same thing publicly– No such man could be elected from any district in any slave-state– You that think Stringfellow & Co [Company] ought to be hung; and yet, at the next presidential election you will vote for the exact type and representative of Stringfellow– The slave-breeders and slave-traders, are a small, odious and detested class, among you; and yet in politics, they dictate the course of all of you, and are as completely your masters, as you are the masters of your own negroes–
You enquire where I now stand– That is a disputed point– I think I am a whig; but others say there are no whigs, and that I am an abolitionist– When I was at Washington I voted for the Wilmot Proviso as good as forty times, and I never heard of any one attempting to unwhig me for that–11 I now do no more than oppose the extension of slavery–
I am not a Know-Nothing– That is certain– How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid– As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal”12 We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics”. When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty– to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy–
Mary will probably pass a day or two in Louisville in October– My kindest regards to Mrs Speed– On the leading subject of this letter, I have more of her sympathy than I have of yours–And yet let say I am your friend foreverA. Lincoln–
1Abraham Lincoln wrote and signed this letter. Another version of this letter in an unidentified hand is extant.
2Joshua F. Speed’s letter to Lincoln of May 22, 1855, has not been located, nor has any response by Speed to this letter.
3Under article four, section two, clause three of the U.S. Constitution, any enslaved person escaping from the state where they were held in bondage into another state could not be released from labor and had to be returned to the person who claimed their labor.
U.S. Const. art. IV, § 2, cl. 3.
4Following a visit to Speed’s family in Kentucky, Lincoln and Speed departed Louisville via steamboat on September 7, 1841, with Lincoln likely arriving home in Springfield on September 15. Not long after their trip, in a letter to Speed’s half-sister, Mary Speed, Lincoln described his feelings on seeing this group of twelve enslaved people being taken from their homes and families in Kentucky to a farm in a the south.
The Lincoln Log: A Daily Chronology of the Life of Abraham Lincoln, 7 September 1841, http://www.thelincolnlog.org/Results.aspx?type=CalendarDay&day=1841-09-07; 15 September 1841, http://www.thelincolnlog.org/Results.aspx?type=CalendarDay&day=1841-09-15.
5The period between the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and the outbreak of the Civil War seven years later was marked by violence and political conflict in the Kansas Territory that was collectively referred to as Bleeding Kansas. At issue was whether slavery would be legal in Kansas, and as the Kansas-Nebraska Act established that the question would be determined by popular sovereignty, both pro- and anti-slavery advocates sought to flood the territory with supporters and ensure a majority for their position. Slaveholders in Missouri in particular sought to influence the question of slavery in Kansas in order to protect slavery in their own state, and so promoted settlement in Kansas and also crossed into the territory to vote in elections. In both 1854, when Kansas elected its first congressional delegate, and again in 1855, when the territory voted for its territorial legislature, pro-slavery Missourians so overwhelmed the proceedings that less than half the votes were cast by Kansas residents.
David M. Potter and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 199-202, 514; A. T. Andreas, History of the State of Kansas (Chicago: A. T. Andreas, 1883), 1:83-85, 93-97.
6For the effect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act on electoral politics, see the 1854 Federal Election.
7During the turmoil of the Bleeding Kansas years, constitutions were drafted by both pro- and anti-slavery factions in the territory. Ultimately, a constitutional convention in 1859 drafted the largely anti-slavery Wyandotte Constitution, and following ratification by Kansas residents, it was this constitution under which Kansas was governed upon achieving statehood in 1861.
David M. Potter and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, 204-5, 302-18; A. T. Andreas, History of the State of Kansas, 1:111-12, 122, 162-68, 173-76, 179.
8The pro-slavery Kansas Territorial Legislature that met at the Shawnee Manual Labor School in 1855 had recently passed an act which made it a capital offense to lead, assist, or encourage through spoken or printed word any rebellion by free or enslaved African Americans.
“An Act to Punish Offences Against Slave Property,” 14 August 1855, The Statutes of the Territory of Kansas (1855), 715-17; An Act to Punish Offences Against Slave Property. Passed by the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Kansas, August 14, 1855 (Shawnee, M. L. S.: John T. Brady, 1855), 1-4; Illinois State Journal (Springfield), 15 August 1855, 3:2.
9The biblical book of Esther tells the story of Haman, who was hanged on gallows he himself ordered to be built.
Esther 7:9, 8:7.
10The Illinois Senate passed resolutions in support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Stephen A. Douglas on February 23, 1854 by a vote of fourteen to eight, with five Democrats voting against the resolutions. The Illinois House of Representatives passed resolutions of approval two days later, with thirty-six house members voting for the resolutions, twenty-two voting against them, and eighteen not voting. Among Democrats in the House, thirty-three supported the resolutions, eight voted against them, and thirteen did not vote.
It is uncertain who Lincoln refers to in describing a “bolting democratic member” of the Illinois General Assembly who broke ranks over Douglas purportedly ordering the passage of resolutions in support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. One possibility is Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, John Reynolds, who voted in support of the resolutions only to recant his vote the following month and declare the resolutions to be a mistake on the part of the General Assembly and “a misrepresentation of the popular will.” In an additional recounting of this anecdote, Lincoln altered his description of the episode to say that there were in fact multiple Illinois Democrats who broke with their caucus on this issue and confessed publicly that the resolutions were actually unpopular with Illinois Democrats, who supported them not as a matter of conscience, but only to bolster Douglas.
Arthur Charles Cole, The Era of the Civil War 1848-1870, vol. 3 of The Centennial History of Illinois (Springfield: Illinois Centennial Commission, 1919), 121-22; Illinois House Journal. 1854. 18th G. A., 2nd sess., 166-68; Illinois Senate Journal. 1854. 18th G. A., 2nd sess., 78-81; The Belleville Advocate (IL), 22 March 1854, 2:1.
11While a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1847 to 1849, Lincoln voted for some form of the Wilmot Proviso closer to five times.
Biographical Directory of the American Congress 1774-1996 (Alexandria, VA: CQ Staff Directories, 1997), 1394-95; Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 1:278.
Autograph Letter Signed, 8 page(s), Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston, MA).