Speech Against the Kansas-Nebraska Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1848, Abraham Lincoln dropped out of politics. However, when Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas co-sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska Act with Southern Democratic senators, and it passed, Lincoln felt he could no longer remain quiet. During the fall of 1854, he made three speeches against the Act, with the definitive one being made in Peoria, Illinois. Lincoln spoke out not only against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but also against the institution of slavery. Lincoln believed that slavery could not be justified. In addition, he thought the Act went against the true beliefs of the Founding Fathers, and the pattern of Congressional action since that time. He accused Douglas of misreading history and sought to have the Act repealed as a first step toward ending slavery.

Summary Overview

In 1848, Abraham Lincoln dropped out of politics. However, when Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas co-sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska Act with Southern Democratic senators, and it passed, Lincoln felt he could no longer remain quiet. During the fall of 1854, he made three speeches against the Act, with the definitive one being made in Peoria, Illinois. Lincoln spoke out not only against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but also against the institution of slavery. Lincoln believed that slavery could not be justified. In addition, he thought the Act went against the true beliefs of the Founding Fathers, and the pattern of Congressional action since that time. He accused Douglas of misreading history and sought to have the Act repealed as a first step toward ending slavery.

Defining Moment

With the passage of the Compromise of 1850, many people hoped that the issue of slavery in the territories of the United States had been settled. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 did not allow slavery in the sections of the Louisiana Purchase still in territorial status. The Compromise of 1850 allowed the people who would settle the territories gained from Mexico to choose whether or not to allow slavery. The Southern Democrats, with Northern allies, sought to increase the areas open to slavery. Thus in 1854 a bill was introduced, and ultimately passed, which would do away with the Missouri Compromise’s prohibition against slavery north of the northern border of Arkansas, with the exception of Missouri. This caused the abolitionists and their political allies to organize to push back against the expansion of slavery. During the summer of 1854, political rallies in Wisconsin and Michigan began to organize a political movement, which in 1856 would formally become the Republican Party. In Illinois, Lincoln responded to the Kansas-Nebraska Act (introduced as the Nebraska Bill) by seeking to support Whig candidates against the dominate Democratic Party. He did this by speaking on their behalf. His speeches were so well received that he traveled statewide speaking against slavery and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, often on the same platform as Senator Douglas.

Many, on both sides of the issue, said that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was of little consequence because the type of agriculture allowed by the climate would not permit benefit from slave labor. However, Lincoln focused on the issue of morality. He believed that slavery was not ethical. While Lincoln did not look at the issue of the equality of racial and ethnic groups the same way people do in the twenty-first century, Lincoln did believe that people of all races had the right to personal freedom. There was no foundation, economic or social, which would justify slavery to Lincoln. This three-hour speech, to interested members of the general public, was given while he was trying to influence voters during the campaign for membership in the Illinois legislature and for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Author Biography

Living from February 12, 1809 to April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was born into a family of modest means, going on to become the leader of his country. His parents, Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln left their home in Kentucky because of disputes over land ownership, moving first to Indiana and then to Illinois. After his mother’s death, his step-mother encouraged him to become fully literate, and Lincoln applied himself to this as well as to earning a living, first as a laborer and then as a small businessman. After serving in the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War, Lincoln began to study law. While in the state General Assembly, and completing his legal training, he met Mary Todd, later marrying her.

As a Whig, he served not only in the General Assembly but also for one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. His anti-slavery views were well known and while in Congress he tried, but failed, to get legislation passed limiting slavery. When the national Whig party remained ambivalent on slavery and began to fade, Lincoln dropped out of politics, focusing on his legal career. As a businessman and a lawyer, Lincoln developed the skill to communicate with people at all levels of society.

In the early 1850s, the Democratic Party was dominant in the South and fairly strong elsewhere, but with some splits over slavery. Stephen Douglas, a Democratic senator from Illinois, tried to maintain unity in his party and the nation, by sponsoring the Compromise of 1850 and then the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which allowed the possibility of slavery in what would become those states. This was too much for Lincoln, who responded with a series of speeches against the Act in the fall of 1854, marking him as a leader in this cause. In 1858 Lincoln ran against Douglas for the senate, and although he lost, he became a nationally-known figure in the new Republican Party. This gave him the foundation for the Republican nomination for president in 1860, a race he won. As the South seceded, Lincoln tried to reach out to them, but was rejected because of his strong anti-slavery views. After just over four hard years in the White House, Lincoln was assassinated by a Southern sympathizer before he could implement his plans for reunifying the nation.

Document Analysis

Speaking in Peoria on October 16th, 1854, Abraham Lincoln presented his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act through a history lesson, with a political analysis of the trends which had taken place. In addition, Lincoln responded to some of the arguments for allowing the slavery option within Kansas and Nebraska. Lincoln proceeded to address the morality of slavery and the implications of the views of the proponents of slavery which included looking at slaves as only property, not as human beings. Finally, Lincoln gave his thoughts on what the present and future implications of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the underlying philosophy, were having and would have on the United States, as opposed to what had been the trends in the United States prior to 1854. In his closing remarks, Lincoln spoke to some of the points which Douglas had been making regarding the law and its impact on the nation. This speech was an ambitious attempt to speak to virtually all the issues. Since Lincoln spoke for three hours, he was able to cover quite a bit.

Lincoln began by making it clear that he was focusing on the spread of slavery, rather than on slavery already in place. However, some of his arguments did apply to the South as well as to any westward spread of slavery. Examining the historical portions of the speech, Lincoln began with the Articles of Confederation and journeyed to 1854. Lincoln lifted up Thomas Jefferson as the key leader in the opening phases of the nation and in the move to limit slavery. Since Jefferson was a southern slave owner, Lincoln believed Jefferson would not have been on the liberal end of the pro-slavery/anti-slavery spectrum. For Lincoln, Jefferson was the key to understanding the intent of the Founding Fathers. The transition from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution was a transition from a weak, consultative national council to a unified nation with a true central government. The fact that Jefferson, as the period under the Articles of Confederation drew to a close, pushed the states to relinquish claims to vast tracts of land in the west was important. It was important in that as part of this, Jefferson sponsored the Northwest Territory Ordinance in 1787 (reaffirmed by Congress in 1789) which included a provision that slavery would be excluded from this area, an area which included land which previously had been claimed by the slave state of Virginia. Lincoln saw this as the first step by the nation to limit slavery. He pointed to the fact that as president, Jefferson signed the law stopping the importation of slaves from Africa, which was passed in early 1807, even though it could not go into effect until 1808.

Lincoln then went on to outline what he, and many others, saw as a continual movement by the national government to, as much as possible, limit the expansion of slavery outside the southern territories of the United States east of the Mississippi River. He discussed the Louisiana Purchase, an area which had slavery under French rule prior to the 1803 purchase by the United States. Accepting that as a given. Lincoln saw the Missouri Compromise of 1820 as step to limit slavery by allowing Missouri to be a slave state, but after that only allowing states composed of territory south of the main part of the southern border of Missouri to come into the Union as slave states.

Toward the end of the speech, Lincoln listed several laws which had been passed by Congress to limit the slave trade and the participation of Americans in the international slave trade. Chronologically, the last event mentioned by Lincoln was the Compromise of 1850. As was the general sentiment at the time, Lincoln saw this as another attempt to settle the issue of slavery. He listed the various aspects of the bills passed as part of the Compromise. For Lincoln, it was another successful attempt to limit slavery, as the borders of the slave state of Texas were pushed much farther east than Texas had claimed, California was a free state, and the area south of the line drawn by the Missouri Compromise (basically the territory of New Mexico) was given the choice of being free or slave. On the other side, the territory of Utah also had the freedom to choose free or slave, but since the founders of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) had generally been against slavery, few people thought it would ever vote to endorse slavery. However, it was this last point, Utah being free to choose, which was used by Douglas and others to push for a change to the Missouri Compromise. They argued that since Utah Territory was essentially north of the line drawn in the Missouri Compromise, it was necessary to allow Kansas and Nebraska to also have a choice regarding slavery, so that the political possibilities in the various territories would be the same. Lincoln rejected this, saying that if Congress had intended to repeal the Missouri Compromise with the Compromise of 1850, they would have included that in the law.

Using several arguments, Lincoln totally rejected the idea that allowing Utah the right to vote on slavery mandated such a possibility in Kansas or Nebraska. Among these argument was that he did not accept the allegation that the majority of people in the United States wanted the Missouri Compromise repealed. In the first instance, he stated, allowing Utah to vote on slavery was part of a package, with California as a free state, and decreasing the area claimed by Texas as payment. As regarded Kansas and Nebraska, referring to allowing a vote, Lincoln said, “If you wish the thing again, pay again.” Continuing with political arguments, Lincoln not only saw the Act as giving away free territory to slave owners and Southern leaders, but also resulting in increased unjust conditions within the Congress. Those advocating the Kansas-Nebraska Act pushed the idea of self-government. However for Lincoln, the fact that the slaveholding states had approximately twenty extra representatives as a result of counting three-fifths of each slave toward the number needed for a House seat, rather than just counting the number of free people. If Kansas or Nebraska came in as a slave state, Lincoln saw this as giving them extra power, just as the South had in the then current system of government.

Many who tried to sit on the fence on this issue believed that Kansas and Nebraska were not suited for slave plantations, and therefore in the end it would not be an issue. Lincoln presented the fact that more than “one-fourth of all the slaves in the nation” were north of the line drawn by the Missouri Compromise. He informed the people that in the counties of Missouri which bordered on what would become Kansas or Nebraska, there were proportionately more slaves per white person than in most parts of the state. Thus Lincoln did not believe that climate would prohibit slavery moving into this region. In addition, looking to the second decade of the nineteenth century, when slavery was permitted in the Missouri territory and restricted in the Illinois territory, the number of slaves increased substantially in Missouri, while decreasing to almost none in Illinois. To Lincoln, this affirmed that the legality of slavery encouraged slave owners to move into new areas with their slaves. Economically, Lincoln saw the territories which would become states as places where “poor people go to and better their condition.” This would not be possible, according to Lincoln, if slavery were allowed in the territories.

Obviously, Lincoln believed all of the other arguments were of value. They did answer some of the reasons why Stephen Douglas, and other supporters of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, said they had worked to pass the bill. However, for Lincoln there was another, even more important reason to oppose the Act. This had to do with the institution of slavery itself. It was true that while Lincoln opposed slavery, he had no idea what to do with the African Americans if they were set free. While he had previously given some assistance to those who wanted to send them back to Africa, Lincoln recognized that if they sent the ex-slaves there, “they would perish in the next ten days” after landing. On the other hand, to give them freedom in the United States would, in Lincoln’s mind, result in the white population keeping the former slaves “among us as underlings.” This also was unacceptable, as was full equality if the thousands of slaves were freed. This was why Lincoln focused on keeping slavery from spreading. However, even with this problem of what would happen if all the slaves were freed, Lincoln still advocated an end to the institution. Using Douglas’ argument for self-government, Lincoln raised how self-government worked for slaves. Lincoln affirmed, “The doctrine of self government is right–absolutely and eternally right.” Thus, Lincoln stated the key issue in the debate over self-government; that it “depends upon whether a negro is not or is a man. If he is not a man, why in that case… But if the negro is a man, is it not to that extent, a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself?” In Lincoln’s mind, for whites to govern blacks, without their consent, was “despotism.” Continuing, Lincoln stated “if the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal;’ and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.” This was what is at the heart of Lincoln’s argument against slavery and its extension into new territories.

Lincoln closed with an attack against Douglas for not understanding “that the negro is a human.” Throughout the speech, Lincoln asserted that while some saw slaves as property no different from livestock or various products, this was not the case. Lincoln accepted the charge leveled at him by Douglas that he was being somewhat inconsistent by not pushing for the end of slavery in the Southern states as well as in the territories. However, Lincoln did not see ending slavery where it was entrenched as the issue for that day. He believed the time for addressing that lay in the future. What Lincoln was addressing was the proposition that the area where slavery was allowed should not be extended. Lincoln’s answer was a strong no, it should not be extended, and that the Kansas-Nebraska Act had been a bad piece of legislation and would be seen as a bad, contentious law, which would only increase civil strife between the North and the South.

Essential Themes

Lincoln was a man of his time and also ahead of his time. His uncertainty regarding the future if all the slaves were freed demonstrated the limitations of his era. However, even if he was not able to fully envision an immediately transformed society, Lincoln did understand the need for change. Although he acknowledged that slavery had been a part of the nation since its inception, Lincoln understood that it was always totally at odds with the principles upon which the nation had been founded. He thought that the words of the Declaration of Independence applied to all people, not just white men. The mantra of “self-government,” which had been used by many supporters of opening the Midwest to slavery, was a contradiction in terms, in Lincoln’s understanding, if it did not apply to all “humans.” As he said, “Allow ALL the governed an equal voice in the government, and that, and that only is self government.” His thesis was that from the time of the Founding Fathers the acceptance of slavery had been declining by all except the slave owners of the South. With the success the Southern Democrats had in gaining support for and passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln believed it was time to take steps to insure that any further attempts to spread slavery would be stopped. In the decade before the Civil War, this speech and his ideas were strong forces in the development of the Republican Party. These ideas, published widely in the North, helped focus the thoughts of average citizens on the issue of slavery.

This speech, followed four years later by his “House Divided Speech,” and his debates with Stephen Douglas as they ran against each other for the Senate, were the main reasons that the South believed they could not remain in the Union with Lincoln as president. His view of the world was so foreign to the slave owners that they did not believe they could remain in the same country. This was the first in a chain of speeches and actions which ignited one of the greatest periods of transformation within the nation. The core of the lengthy speech is quite simple. Expanding the area where slavery could be practiced was bad. Everything possible should be done to stop its spread, just as Lincoln believed had been happening since the Northwest Territory Ordinance. The next step was to abolish slavery everywhere in the United States. As Lincoln stated, regarding the need to end slavery, “Let north and south–let all Americans–let all lovers of liberty everywhere–join in the great and good work. If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.”

  • Monroe, R. D. The Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Rise of the Republican Party, 1854–56. DeKalb: Northern Illinois U – Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project, 2000. Web 4 Oct 2013
  • National Park Service. Peoria Speech, October 16, 1854. Washington: Department of the Interior, 2013. Web. 30 Sept 2013.
  • Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1954. Print.
Additional Reading
  • American Experience. Shifting Political Landscape. Boston: WGBH for the Public Broadcasting System, 2010. Web. 4 Oct 2013.
  • C-SPAN. American Presidents: Life Portraits: Abraham Lincoln. Washington: National Cable Satellite Corporation, 2012. Web. 4 Oct 2013.
  • Dirck, Brian R. Lincoln and Davis: Imagining America, 1809–1865. Lawrence: U of Kansas P, 2001. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. New York: Norton, 2010. Print.
  • Jaffa, Harry V. A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. Print.
  • Winkle, Kenneth J. The Young Eagle: The Rise of Abraham Lincoln. Dallas: Taylor, 2001. Print.
  • Wunder, John R. and Joann M. Ross. The Nebraska-Kansas Act of 1854. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2008. Print.
Categories: History Content