Lincoln and the Slavery Question

Session 1: Lincoln and the Slavery Question (with Lucas Morel)


Is the rule of the majority the heart of democracy? Or must the will of the majority be tempered by other considerations to fulfill the requirements of just government? Was the slavery question a territorial, political, racial, or moral question—or all combined? “Abraham Lincoln and the Slavery Question” will explore Lincoln’s constitutional approach to the problem of slavery in America and his response to the opposing arguments of the day.


  • Materials for this guide include background information about Lincoln and discussion questions to enhance your understanding and stimulate conversation. In addition, the guide includes a series of short video discussions conducted by Diana Schaub (What So Proudly We Hail) with Lucas Morel (Washington & Lee University).


By 1854, Abraham Lincoln’s rather undistinguished political career seemed to be over. He had served four terms in the Illinois State House and one two-year term in the U.S. House of Representatives, but since 1848 he had returned full-time to his law practice. Lincoln’s re-entry into politics was triggered by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. That legislation, spearheaded by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery in the former Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36°30’ north. Douglas hoped that his principle of “popular sovereignty,” which allowed settlers to decide the issue of slavery in the territories, would put slavery to rest as a national issue.

The contest between Lincoln and Douglas came to a head in the Senate campaign of 1858 in a series of seven debates. We should remember that the Lincoln-Douglas debates did not pit an abolitionist against a slaveholder. Neither man was an extremist. They represented the principal divisions within Northern opinion, not the division between the most radical Northerners (like the abolitionist Frederick Douglass) and the most reactionary Southerners (the followers of John C. Calhoun). And yet, the divisions between them were quite deep. We can analyze their disagreements on three main topics: first, slavery in the territories; second, slavery and the Constitution; and third, the subject not of slavery, but of race.

Section Overview

On the issue of slavery in the territories, the policy difference between Lincoln and Douglas is clear. Lincoln supported national restrictions against slavery that would effectively quarantine slavery, whereas Douglas supported an open-ended policy, called “popular sovereignty,” leaving the question of whether slavery would be allowed to the determination of each territory and each new state. On the subject of slavery itself, the difference between Lincoln and Douglas was more a moral difference grounded on the rights enunciated in the Declaration of Independence but not fully guaranteed under the Constitution. Lincoln held slavery to be wrong and proposed to yield to it only the minimum protection guaranteed by the Constitutional bargain. Douglas refused to pass any judgment, either pro or con, upon slavery. He professed indifference to its ultimate fate.

Specific topics covered in this section include:

  •  Stephen Douglas’ Defense of Popular Sovereignty
  • Lincoln, Non-abolitionist
  • Lincoln’s Challenge to Dred Scott
  • The Lincoln-Douglas Debates and White Public Opinion
  • Cooperstown Union Address: Lincoln’s Appeal to the Founders
  • Lincoln and Emancipation
  • Lincoln and Frederick Douglass


Watch the full conversation Lincoln and the Slavery Question:


Helpful primary texts for this session

Further Reading


A. Slavery in the Territories

  • What is “popular sovereignty,” and how does it address the slavery question? What did Douglas hope to achieve by proposing it?
  • Why was Lincoln so opposed to popular sovereignty? Isn’t the rule of the majority at the heart of democracy?
  • According to Lincoln, what’s wrong with (or missing from) Douglas’s account of democracy? How does the principle of popular sovereignty undercut the “sacred right of self-government,” according to Lincoln? How does Lincoln understand free government?
  • In an 1855 letter to his friend Joshua Speed, a Kentucky slaveholder, Lincoln discusses his dislike of slavery and his policy towards it. He says that some people have called him an abolitionist. He says he is not. Why isn’t he an abolitionist? In what ways does his position differ from that of the abolitionists proper?
  • What is Lincoln’s alternative policy toward slavery in the territories?

WATCH: Stephen Douglas’ Defense of Popular Sovereignty


WATCH: Abraham Lincoln, Non-Abolitionist


 B. Slavery and the Constitution

  • In the 1857 Dred Scott case, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared that “no negro slave … and no descendant of such slave can ever be a citizen of any state, in the sense of that term as used in the Constitution of the United States.” In his response, Lincoln defends both the Declaration and the Constitution against Taney’s misrepresentations of those documents. How does Lincoln counter these slanders? What is Lincoln’s interpretation of the Declaration?
  • Lincoln believed that the Dred Scott case was wrongly decided. Douglas, on the other hand, expressed his agreement with the decision, and further argued that the Republicans, by questioning the rightness of the decision, were behaving in a revolutionary fashion, undermining the legitimacy of the government. How does Lincoln respond to this charge? Given what Lincoln says about his reverence for the Constitution and the law, is he contradicting his own principles? What is his view of judicial precedent?
  • In his 1860 Cooper Union Address. Lincoln takes as his text for the speech a single sentence from Douglas which stated that “Our fathers, when they framed the Government under which we live, understood this question [the question of the powers of the federal government respecting slavery in the territories] just as well, and even better, than we do now.” Lincoln agrees with Douglas that the Founding Fathers had the right understanding and he proposes to show what that understanding was. How does Lincoln proceed and what does he accomplish in this speech?

WATCH: Lincoln’s Challenge to Dred Scott


C. Equality and Race

  • Where did Douglas and Lincoln stand on the relationship between races?
  • In the debates, Lincoln argues for the fundamental equality of all men and the right of African Americans to enjoy the fruit of their labor. However, he also declared his opposition to Negro suffrage, and political and social equality in general. As a result, commentators, both then and now, have accused Lincoln of not really believing in the principles of the Declaration. Is Lincoln sincere? Is he consistent?
  • What is the relationship between natural and political rights? With his words, is Lincoln foreclosing the possibility of civil rights for African Americans, or rather is he preparing the ground for later securing those rights?
  • How important was public opinion to Lincoln’s position on civil rights for African Americans? Note in particular what Lincoln says about the role of “universal” feelings in public life in his Peoria Address. Is Lincoln right to take public opinion into account?

WATCH: The Lincoln-Douglas Debates and White Public Opinion



D. Lincoln and Emancipation

  • Before his election to the presidency in 1860, Lincoln often stated that he had no intention, and no constitutional authority, to interfere with slavery in the states where it existed. He reiterated his pledge to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act in his First Inaugural address. How, then, did he come to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and how did he justify it?
  • There were many who urged Lincoln to take the step of freeing the slaves much earlier. They wanted him to convert the war for the Union into a crusade against slavery. How did Lincoln understand the relation between these two causes: the cause of Union and the cause of Emancipation?
  • We know that Lincoln pushed hard for the 13th Amendment—the amendment that bans slavery forever in the United States. His great biographer Lord Charnwood indicates that Lincoln may have used some questionable means to secure the congressional vote proposing the amendment. Why was the Amendment necessary? Wouldn’t the Emancipation Proclamation have been sufficient to end slavery?
  • What about Frederick Douglass’s claim in 1863 that the Constitution was already an anti-slavery document? “Abolish slavery tomorrow,” he said, “and not a sentence or syllable of the Constitution need be altered. It was purposely so framed as to give no claim, no sanction to the claim, of property in man.”

WATCH: Lincoln and Emancipation


E. Assessing Lincoln: Lincoln and Frederick Douglass

  • Although the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass had been fiercely critical of Lincoln, in the years after Lincoln’s death, Douglass often spoke appreciatively of Lincoln. His most extensive consideration of Lincoln comes in his 1876 “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln,” a speech delivered on the occasion of the dedication of the Freedmen’s Monument, the nation’s first statue of the martyred president, paid for by subscriptions raised among the newly freed slaves. What is Douglass’s assessment of Lincoln?

WATCH: Lincoln and Frederick Douglass


Return: Abraham Lincoln and the Constitution