Between Two Evils: Exegesis of Lincoln’s Peoria Address

Cole Aronson, Yale University

Winston Churchill, in his infinite wisdom, quipped, “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Why? Because too often we fallible humans equate what is moral with what We the People decide together to do. Sometimes it’s merely something ill advised (frosted tips, mullets, zoot suits– we all shudder in horror, I’m sure). Sometimes it’s something truly evil. The practice of owning and working fellow human beings, for example.

Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Peoria, Illinois on the Kansas-Nebraska Act makes and keeps a “distinction between the existing institution” of slavery “and the extension of it.” I argue that in making this distinction, Lincoln means to contrast two dispositions toward slavery’s existence in the United States. The first, and the one Lincoln proposes, holds slavery to be an evil contrary to the principles of American republicanism, and therefore to be tolerated only by necessity–that is, to avoid a greater evil. The second is that of Stephen Douglas, which holds that slavery and freedom are equally compatible with self-government, and, therefore, equally to be permitted to the settlers of new territories. The substance and rhetoric of the Peoria speech are intended to remind the American people of the distinction between a free and a slave republic. If they forget this distinction, Lincoln fears, self-government will be undermined, because the people will not recognize the propositions on which it relies.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed in 1854, organized a part of the Louisiana Purchase north of the Missouri Compromise line. The Act ruled “inoperative and void” the portion of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which, in restricting slavery from territories of the Louisiana purchase north of 36°30’[1], contradicted “the principle of non-intervention by Congress with slavery in the States and Territories.”[2]

Lincoln opposed the Act because it permitted the extension of slavery, an institution Lincoln termed a “monstrous injustice” and a violation of America’s founding principles. Our “ancient faith,” Lincoln said, teaches that “all men are created equal” and therefore that “no man is good enough to govern another man, without that man’s consent.” This second principle is Lincoln’s view of self-government–“allow ALL the governed,” he said, “an equal voice in the government, and that, and that only is self-government.”[3] This idea is the “leading principle–the sheet anchor of American republicanism.” To accentuate the point, Lincoln quotes the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, moving from the natural equality of men to their right to an equal share in government. The master-slave relationship, he says, is “pro tanto a total violation of this principle,” because the master governs the slave without his consent and by a set of rules “altogether different from those which he prescribes for himself.”[4]

Lincoln’s case against slavery attacks not only the institution itself, but also the specious interpretation of “self-government” by which Douglas would permit it to be extended. The argument from self-government, Lincoln says, is Douglas’ best in defense of the Act, and the Act’s opponents have had difficulty refuting it. Lincoln does so in the following manner: by conceding that while “the doctrine of self government is right,” he says that  “it has no just application, as here attempted.” If the Negro is a man, Lincoln says, than for the white man to govern him without his consent is not self-government, but “despotism.” Because Douglas’ view permits natural equality of men–on which self-government, as Lincoln understands it, rests–to be subverted by slavery, it in fact undermines the idea of self-government. “These principles can not stand together,” Lincoln says of the permissibility of slavery and the right of self-government.[5]

Lincoln opposes the Kansas-Nebraska Act because he thinks it does an evil thing– permits slavery, an immoral institution contrary to America’s founding principles, to extend. He frames the question of the correct approach to slavery by invoking how the Founders, prophets of Lincoln’s ancient faith in natural equality, dealt with it. Lincoln’s comparison of the Founders’ view with Douglas’ defines the choice before his audience as between a moral pragmatism and outright viciousness, with the first option agreeing with the audience’s patriotic sympathies. “The argument of ‘Necessity’,” Lincoln says, “was the only argument [the Founders] ever admitted in favor of slavery; and so far, and so far only as it carried them, did they ever go.” What did the Founders do, and what necessitated their course?[6]


Lincoln believed that the Union was not merely a series of political institutions, but a nation dedicated to certain propositions. The basis of the Union–the “anchor” of its republicanism–was articulated not in the Constitution, but in the Declaration of Independence. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln says that the new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality, was brought forth “four score and seven years ago,” placing the birth of the republic in 1776. And he says in the Peoria Address that readopting the Declaration, and the policies according with it, will both save the Union and make it “forever worthy of saving.”[7]

When the American colonies declared independence from Great Britain and then constituted a more perfect Union, they included states with slavery. Lincoln says accommodating slavery in the Constitution was a matter of necessity. I suggest the following interpretation of this remark: Lincoln believed that unless the nation as it was when it declared its belief in the self-evident truths of the Declaration purged its whole self of slavery, the American experiment in self-government was a failure. This interpretation accounts for his claim that the founders “hid” slavery away in the Constitution, “just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death; with the promise, nevertheless, that the cutting may begin at the end of a given time.” Slavery, to Lincoln, was a festering disease on an otherwise healthy body. It had to be extirpated, but that required only waiting for the right moment, not sundering otherwise healthy parts from the Union. Lincoln’s most perfect Union was a whole Union without slavery.[8]

But why was the unified whole so important to Lincoln? Why was it so necessary for the Founders to accommodate the slave states? Any account of Lincoln’s view that accommodating slavery was a matter of “necessity” must answer this question. His First Inaugural Address provides a solution. “The central idea of secession,” he says in that speech, “is the essence of anarchy. A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations … is the only true sovereign of a free people.” In 1861 as in 1787, the experiment in self-government required that the minority accept the will of the majority when restrained “by constitutional checks and limitations.” The slave states, together with the free ones, had acceded to the Union’s principles of self-government by free people when their representatives signed the Declaration of Independence. Those principles received concrete expression in the Constitution, but the commitment to them preceded its ratification. To not accommodate slavery in the Constitution would have been provoke the slave states to leave the Union. This would have negated the unified commitment to self-government, dissolving the Declaration’s coalition, and proving self-government by free men a failed cause.[9]

To accommodate slavery as a matter of necessity was, therefore, a “Union-saving measure” when the Founders did it. Their choice was between a nation hostile “to the principle” of slavery tolerating it “only by necessity,” and declaring the experiment in self-government to be failed one. They chose the former, lesser evil–the latter they “could not do.”[10]

Lincoln’s audience, of course, faced its own choice concerning slavery–whether to vote in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act or in favor of restoring the Missouri Compromise. Douglas supported the former. What was Lincoln’s case against him?

Lincoln’s defense of the Founders’ appeal to necessity depended upon whether the evil permitted was better than the alternative. In that case, whether accommodating slavery was better than destroying the Union. Lincoln argued that it was, because it permitted a fully healthy Union to exist at some future date, when the tumor of slavery could be severed without the body bleeding to death. Douglas, Lincoln asserted, could make no such appeal to necessity–could not, in other words, say that the price of repealing the Kansas-Nebraska Act was disunion. Rather, the Act was an “aggravation … of the only one thing which ever endangers the Union.”[11]

            Lincoln did not just mean that the Act would convulse the Union’s politics, though he promised that it would leave the North “brooding on wrong and burning for revenge.” This made the Act, at worse, impractical. But Lincoln asserted that it was also “wrong in its direct effect … and wrong in its prospective principle.” The direct effect was to permit an evil institution, slavery, to spread to where it would otherwise be prohibited. But it appears Lincoln worried more about the prospective principle of the Act.[12]

The Kansas-Nebraska Act’s supporters, Lincoln argues, hold Nebraska “alone [to be] a small matter–to establish a principle, for future use, is what they particularly desire.” Lincoln wanted to stop the America from trading their belief “that all men are created equal” for the belief that “for some men to enslave others is a ‘sacred right of self government.’” This would amount to “giving up the old for the new faith,” the spirit of seventy-six for the spirit of Nebraska. Why is this dalliance so “dangerous for a free people”? Because of the connection Lincoln saw between the idea of natural equality and self-government. Without the principle of the former, the system of the latter is baseless. Morality is reduced to “self-interest,” and tyrants over tens or thousands may reign without any principle to answer them. Douglas argued that the Act, in imitatio Dei, amounted to placing “good and evil before man” and “telling him to make his choice.” This view meant that slavery and freedom ought to be equally available to a republic. But if slavery is a “monstrous injustice” and the natural equality of men a “self-evident truth,” then providing the choice was ignoble. Douglas’ equation was viciousness masquerading as neutrality. Accepting it amounted to confuting good government with evil government and not knowing the difference.[13]

Lincoln’s speech contrasted two choices: the Founders’ to save the Union by tolerating slavery instead of dissolving it by not doing so, and Douglas’ to assist slavery without necessity instead of maintaining the peaceful, anti-slavery status quo ante. Lincoln supported the first choice’s anti-slavery intention and effect, and by linking it to the Founders’ thought–sourcing it in his own “ancient faith”–he appeals to the patriotic piety of his audience. His rhetorical means for doing so, however, aim at a result beyond rebutting Douglas’ support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. A re-adoption of the Founders’ hostility toward slavery in principle, and toleration of it in practice only as necessary, had a future use: to oppose the people, in principle, to slavery’s existence. That is because accepting the Founders’ choice as the superior choice means not only tolerating slavery from necessity, but agreeing with the ultimate goal–slavery’s extirpation from the whole Union–in the service of which slavery is tolerated at all. The arguments Lincoln makes for why the audience ought to oppose slavery’s extension apply, mutatis mutandis, to slavery where it already exists. Once the intrinsic evil of slavery is admitted, the only limit of Lincoln’s arguments’ application is what the Union’s politics will admit at one moment or another. By convincing the people of slavery’s turpitude and conflict with America’s founding principles, Lincoln’s argument, rhetorically, and substantively, attempts to put slavery on the path to ultimate extinction. In so doing, it saves the people from Douglas’ perverse view that it matters not whether slavery is voted up or down, a view that, by equating natural equality with slavery, undermines self-government.

Lincoln did not leave this task to the vocabulary of statecraft and moral philosophy, however. In two ways, he also appeals to his audience’s interests as citizens of a free state. Douglas argued that slavery’s extension “should be left to the people of Nebraska, because they are more particularly interested.” If this were accepted, Lincoln warned his listeners in Illinois, “you must leave it to each individual to say for himself whether he will have slaves.” The free citizens of Illinois, by allowing slavery into Nebraska, surrender the principle by which they may exclude from their state. Lincoln also explains that because seats in the House of Representatives are apportioned according to total–not free–population, slave states have outsized power in Congress. Lincoln calls this “manifestly unfair.” “If it really be a sacred right of self-government, in the man who shall go to Nebraska, to decide whether he will be the equal of me or the double of me … I should like for some gentleman … [to] find out, if he can, what has become of my sacred rights!” The existence of any slave state, then, abrogates the rights of free-state white voters. Lincoln attempts to convince them that, far from being unaffected by slavery’s extension, their interests accord with its abolition.[14]

Lincoln never proposed abolishing slavery where it already existed. But he dedicated his career prior to the presidency to making the case for its restriction. In doing so, he opposed particular policies, like the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision. But his rhetoric and arguments always aimed at a higher goal: educating the people in the moral and political evils of slavery such that, when there was an opportunity to loosen slavery’s hold, they took it, purifying their republican robe in the spirit of the Revolution.




Works Cited:

“Avalon Project – Kansas – Nebraska Act 1854.” Avalon Project – Kansa – Nebraska Act 1854.

Accessed February 14, 2016.






[1] Except for Missouri, which was inducted to the Union as a slave state.

[2] Text of “Kansas-Nebraska Act,” Avalon Project, Yale Law School

[3] We do not wish, of course, to disagree with Professor Smith’s lecture on self-government as the ability to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor unimpeded. We mean only to refer to the definition of self-government Lincoln uses in this portion of the address.

[4] Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act at Peoria, 66, 76-7

[5] Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act at Peoria, 76, 85

[6] Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act at Peoria, 83

[7] Gettysburg Address, 417; Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act at Peoria, 86

[8] Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act at Peoria, 84

[9] First Inaugural Address, 329

[10] Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act at Peoria, 80, 84

[11] Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act at Peoria, 80

[12] Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act at Peoria, 66, 80

[13] Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act at Peoria, 66, 83, 85, 88

[14] Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act at Peoria, 77-80