LAKE COUNTY HISTORY CHAPTER 75: THE GREAT SLAVERY DEBATE, PART 4

ABE LISTENS

 “I say to you, Gentlemen, the fresh stream of white labor arriving in the North from Europe must be met by fresh importations of slave labor from Africa if the South is to grow and hold its own.”

The Missouri Compromise and slavery was a white-hot subject in 1854. At that moment the Copperheads, northern adherents of slavery, were a majority in the states of Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri. They were trying with all their might to bring slavery into Nebraska. The basis for their efforts was that the existing laws permitted a slave owner to bring his slaves into any ‘free’ state. Yet, Nebraska did not allow slavery within its borders. Therein was the conundrum.

At the back of the Hall in the shadows, two clerks followed the debate with consuming interest. At the moment, they were free of their duties and listened, as much a part of the audience as any person in the hall.

The older man wore the fashion of the day, stovepipe trousers and a high collar. He had recently grown a beard. His friend was younger, red-haired and clean-shaven. They held a whispered discussion. They spoke of the tall man in the back of the congress hall, who was waiting his turn to speak.

The red-haired clerk whispered first, “Abe is going to speak. He always does when the subject has anything to do with slavery. Look at him. He is champing at the bit for his turn.”

He added an observation that betrayed a small anxiety.

“I worry that Abe, with his raw unpolished speech and lack of sophistication might not be able to match Steven Douglas when his turn comes.”

The bearded Clerk was from Kentucky knew Abe from earlier times and he smiled tolerantly at his worried friend.

“One time I heard Abe say, ‘Have you seen two men about to fight?’

With no other response from the other, the older man explained, “Abe said, ‘One of the men will brag about what he means to do. He will jump high, crack his heels together, smite his fists and waste his breath trying to scare somebody.’ Then Abe said, ‘I am like the other man. He says not a word. His arms are at his side, his fists doubled up, his head is drawn into his shoulder, and his teeth are set firm together. He is saving his wind for the fight and as sure as it comes off he will win it or die a-trying.’

The redheaded clerk chuckled.

“Sounds just like Abe, plain and direct.”

The turn came for the next speaker. Steven Douglas was a pro-slavery Democrat from Virginia. Douglas was one of the most powerful orators in the Congress. Despite the shortness of his stature, he was a powerhouse and a rabble-rouser, one of the best orators of his time. His blue-eyed gimlet stare, his shock of black hair swept back in curly waves and his lion-like head drew men to his magnetic personality as if to a magnet. Of all Democrats, Steven Douglas’ voice has been the loudest for the primacy of States Rights over Federal Rights. He was committed to his idea of democracy that he defined as the Rule of the Majority.

Not all people agreed with Steven Douglas. In Ohio, angry women threw thirty pieces of silver at Douglas as he went by. He was called a Judas. Men said that his middle name, Arnold, was proof of his relationship to Benedict Arnold, the betrayer of the Union. With a touch of his usual arrogance, the short powerful man began with a patient explanation of the phrase, Popular Sovereignty.

“You have heard me say that Popular Sovereignty is a compromise in that it gives each state the right to decide for itself whether slavery should enter their state.”

The term of Popular Sovereignty was hated by the Abolitionists. They cried out at every opportunity that the majority was not always in the right. There were greater and better measures of what was moral and correct than the will of the mob. Abolitionist sentiment demanded all men should be free. At the very least, any new states, the same as Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska should not be added to the existing twelve Slave States in the South.

As Douglas spoke for the Compromise, Lincoln listened with a serious woebegone expression on his lean dark face. Steven Douglas known by many as the ‘Little Giant’ made his powerful voice almost a roar.

“The real question is whether the people should rule and control their own affairs. If the people of a state are able to govern themselves, they should be able to govern a few miserable Negroes in Missouri and all other free states.”

The redheaded clerk was upset. He whispered to his friend, “I don’t like Douglas’ speech much.”

His Bearded friend’s easy reply was, “Don’t bother about it, Abe will hang the judge’s hide on a fence when he gets up to speak.”

The tall lanky man with the crooked tie and tousled hair lounged carelessly in his chair at the rear of the hall. His collar was askew and he glanced idly at his notes before asking to speak.

Next Episode: Lincoln’s turn to speak

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Gene Paleno

Gene runs his life at a full sprint. In his ninety-three years he's dug ditches, painted signs, played semi-pro football, worked as a taxicab driver, an insurance agent, and a school teacher. He's been a technical artist, a marketing director, and a business owner. He served in World War II, raised four children, and was married to the love of his life for fifty years. He's an accomplished oil painter and skilled in ceramics. He's written fifteen books, including the definitive Lake County History, and doesn't show any signs of slowing down.

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