• Inside the Lincoln Sitting Room

    Lincoln Home

    National Historic Site Illinois

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Summary of Lincoln's Arguments at Cooper Union

Note: Abraham Lincoln began The Cooper Union Address by explaining he would refute the arguments made by Stephen Douglas in a widely circulated article. Douglas had attempted to show that the Founding Fathers did not believe the National Government could regulate slavery in the territories. Lincoln's Cooper Union Address can be seen as having three parts. Part One presents rational arguments concerning the Founding Fathers. Part Two is an emotional "talk" to the South. And Part Three is an even more emotional appeal to Republicans.

Part One

Abraham Lincoln agrees with Stephen Douglas's assertion that the Founding Fathers knew the issue as well or better than we do now. The issue was whether the National Government could regulate slavery in the territories. Lincoln asserts that Douglas had misled the people on what the Founding Fathers believed.

Lincoln makes his arguments based upon the Constitution. There were 39 signers of the Constitution, what evidence exists concerning their belief that the National Government could regulate slavery in the territories?

Four of the thirty-nine were in the "Pre-Constitution" Congress when in 1784 it failed to pass an Ordinance prohibiting slavery in the Northwest Territory (3 voted for the prohibition, one against). Two other of the thirty-nine were in the "Pre-Constitution" Congress when in 1787 it passed an Ordinance prohibiting slavery in the Northwest Territory (both voted for the prohibition). Sixteen of the thirty-nine were in the First Congress when it, in 1789, "unanimously" passed an Ordinance to enforce the 1787 Ordinance. "Unanimously" means it passed both branches of Congress without recording yeas and nays. President George Washington, another of the thirty-nine, signed this bill.

In 1798, when organizing the Territory of Mississippi, Congress forbade any slaves from outside the United States to be brought into the territory. Three of the thirty-nine were in Congress when this passed "unanimously" and none of the three placed into the record their opposition to its passage.

In 1804, when organizing the Territory of Louisiana, Congress placed three restrictions on slavery. One restriction forbade the importation of foreign slaves. The second forbade any slave brought into the United States after the 1st of May 1798 to be moved to Louisiana. And the third stated no slave could be taken into the territory, except by his owner, and then only for the purpose of aiding the owner's settlement (i.e., no slaves to be brought in to be bought and sold). Two of the thirty-nine were in Congress when this passed "unanimously" and neither of the two placed into the record their opposition to its passage.

During 1819-1820, Congress debated the Missouri Question. Two of the thirty-nine were in this Congress. Rufus King voted for the prohibition of slavery and against all compromises and Charles Pinckney voted against the prohibition of slavery and against all compromises.

This means twenty-one of the thirty-nine voted, in one form or another, to regulate slavery in the territories.

Two of the thirty-nine voted against regulation of slavery in the territories. This does not necessarily mean they thought the prohibition of slavery in the territories by the National Government was unconstitutional. They may have voted against the particular bills because they found them inexpedient (there is no record of them calling the Bills unconstitutional).

Sixteen of the thirty-nine leave no record as to their thoughts on the National Government regulating slavery in the territories. However, several, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Gouverneur Morris, were noted anti-slavery men. And only one, John Rutledge, was known to be pro-slavery, and remember, he leaves no record of his thoughts concerning the National Government regulating slavery in the territories.

Those opposed to the National Government regulating slavery in the territories often point to the Amendments to the Constitution to justify their position. The Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case used the Fifth Amendment (cannot deprive one of life, liberty, or property). Stephen Douglas and his cohorts use the 10th Amendment (all powers not delegated to the United States are reserved to the States or the people). Seventy-six members of the First Congress (including sixteen of the thirty-nine) framed the first ten Amendments at the very same time that they were passing the Ordinance that enforced the prohibition of slavery in the Northwest Territory.

Knowing this, how could anyone argue that the National Government regulating slavery in the territories is inconsistent with the first ten Amendments?

Lincoln defies anyone to find anyone who prior to 1850 said it was unconstitutional for the National Government to regulate slavery in the territories. All Republicans ask is that the principals established by the Founding Fathers be followed: that the National Government be allowed to regulate slavery in the territories.

Part Two

Note: In this section Abraham Lincoln uses "you" to refer to the South and "we" to refer to the Republican Party. He devotes nine paragraphs to discussing slave rebellions.

You will give hearings to pirates and murderers, but you will not give a hearing to "Black Republicans."

You say we are sectional. We deny it. The burden of proof is on you. You say President Washington warned against sectional parties. Yet, he signed the law that enforced the prohibition of slavery in the Northwest Territory and later he wrote to LaFayette saying he thought the prohibition was a wise decision. We say this makes you the sectional party.

You say you are conservative. We are the conservatives. We want to maintain things as they were. You advocate new and untried ideas.

You are divided on what you want. Some of you are for the "Gur-reat Pur-rinciple that if one man can enslave another, no third man should object, the Gur-reat Pur-rincipal of Popular Sovereignty." You can only unite on one thing, rejecting the old policy of our Fathers.

You say we stir up insurrections. Where is your proof? John Brown? John Brown was no Republican. No Republicans have been implicated in the plot.

You say our policies led to Harpers Ferry. We deny it. Our only policy is to hold to the doctrine our Fathers framed. Slave insurrections were just as common before the formation of the Republican Party.

"In the language of Mr. Jefferson, uttered many years ago, 'It is still in our power to direct emancipation, and deportation, peaceably, and in such slow degrees, as the evil will wear off insensibly; and their places be, pari passu, filled up by free white laborers. If, on the contrary, it is left to force itself on, human nature must shudder at the prospect held up.'" Lincoln went on to explain it was in the power of the individual states to emancipate and deport, not in the power of the Federal Government. The Federal Government has the power to resist the extension of slavery!

You say you will break up the Union rather than be denied your Constitutional Rights. You are talking about your right to take slavery to the Federal Territories. No such right exists or ever existed. You want to destroy the Government to create this new right.

You use the Dred Scott decision to justify your position. It was a divided decision, a five to four decision. The five in the majority could not agree on their reasons. You are divided on what it means.

You say you will destroy the Government if a Republican is elected President. And you say it will be our fault.

Part Three

Note: In this section Abraham Lincoln "talks" to Republicans.

Lincoln urges calm. Asks them to listen and respond to reasonable demands.

He explains that appeasement will not work. The South will always want more.

So, what will satisfy them? We must stop calling slavery wrong. We must call it right. We cannot be silent. We must be with them. We must support Senator Douglas's sedition act, it must be enacted and enforced. We must suppress all declarations that slavery is wrong. We must pull down the Free State Constitutions. Yes, to outlaw slavery is to say it is wrong, so we must allow slavery. We must remove all taint of opposition to slavery. This, and this alone, will satisfy them.

So, Republicans, I say: Do not give in! Do not compromise! Do not seek some middle ground between right and wrong. "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."

Go to Text of Cooper Union Address

Go to Cooper Union: The Making of a Candidate

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Did You Know?

Potrait of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass said Lincoln was "the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color." Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Illinois