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    Lincoln Frames the Pivotal "Freeport Doctrine" Question of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates

    Abraham Lincoln: A Highly Important, Seminal 1858 Political Letter, Ex: Malcolm Forbes, Jr. Collection.
    Autograph Letter Signed, as candidate for U.S. Senator from Illinois, to Henry Asbury, Springfield, Illinois, July 31, 1858. 2 pp., with Henry Asbury note on integral third page. 7.75" x 9.75".

    "You shall have hard work to get him [Douglas] directly to the point whether a territorial Legislature has or has not the power to exclude slavery, but if you succeed in bringing him to it... he will instantly take ground that slavery can not actually exist in the territories, unless the people desire it, and so give it protective territorial legislation."

    While Lincoln was campaigning to unseat Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, Quincy attorney Henry Asbury wrote on July 28, urging him to pin the Senator down on slavery. Three days later (on the same day he agreed to the terms for the Lincoln Douglas debates), Lincoln answered by laying out what soon became known as the "Freeport Question."

    Springfield, July 31, 1858
    Henry Asbury, Esq
    My dear Sir

    Yours of the 28th is received. The points you propose to press upon Douglas, he will be very hard to get up to. But I think you labor under a mistake when you say no one cares how he answers. This implies that it is equal with him whether he is injured here or at the South. That is a mistake. He cares nothing for the South - he knows he is already dead there. He only leans Southward now to keep the Buchanan party from growing in Illinois. You shall have hard work to get him directly to the point whether a territorial Legislature has or has not the power to exclude slavery. But if you succeed in bringing him to it, though he will be compelled to say it possesses no such power; he will instantly take ground that slavery can not actually exist in the territories, unless the people desire it, and so give it protective territorial legislation. If this offends the South he will let it offend them; as at all events he means to hold on to his chances in Illinois. You will soon learn by the papers that both the Judge and myself, are to be in Quincy on the 13th of October, when & where I expect the pleasure of seeing you.
    Yours very truly
    A. Lincoln

    Lincoln's willingness to risk damaging his own 1858 Senatorial campaign in order to limit Douglas' 1860 presidential prospects was prescient. Douglas took the bait, supporting the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision while retaining his own Popular Sovereignty doctrine. Illinois was by no means abolitionist, but fear of political degradation and economic competition caused many to oppose the spread of slavery into western lands. On the other hand, the Buchanan administration and the southern wing of the Democratic Party celebrated Dred Scott precisely because it allowed the popular vote to operate in only one direction, declaring any move to curtail slavery's expansion as unconstitutional. Douglas' response, dubbed the Freeport Doctrine, claimed to take no "moral position" on slavery and indifference to its existence wherever the population supported it. As Lincoln predicted, it was widely recognized as a de facto repudiation of Dred Scott, and doomed Douglas' chances to appeal to a southern electorate in the 1860 presidential election.

    Lincoln, Asbury, Jonas and the Seeds of Lincoln's 1860 Presidential Campaign

    Asbury and his law partner Abraham Jonas (who had already become Lincoln's closest Jewish friend) went on to help with local arrangements for the sixth Lincoln-Douglas debate, in Quincy, on October 13, 1858. Two months later, prominent New York publisher and would be Republican king-maker Horace Greeley visited Quincy and met with local leaders in Jonas and Asbury's law office. When the question of potential presidential candidates came up, Asbury suggested Abraham Lincoln. After an awkward silence, Jonas reportedly remarked, "Gentlemen, there may be more in Asbury's suggestion than any of us now think."

    The final page of this letter bears an Autograph Statement Henry Asbury added and signed in July 1883, discussing the origin of Lincoln's letter.

    July 1883
    The main Question I had urged Mr Lincoln to put to Judge Douglas - as may be perceived from his letter to me, was the Question 2 at Freeport "Can the people of a United States territory in any lawful way against the wish of any citizen of the United States exclude Slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a state constitution."
    The judge answered that they could, and went on to state how, but the answer I think lapped over and went further than Mr Lincoln expected it would, when he answered my letter of the 31 of July. I have always thought that the Judge's answer whilst it probably secured his reelection to the Senate laid the foundation of his defeat for the Presidency. Whilst on the other hand it made a large factor in securing to Mr Lincoln his own nomination & Election in 1860. Henry Asbury

    Historic Background

    In the spring of 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820, allowing Douglas' idea of Popular Sovereignty to allow slavery to spread beyond the Mason-Dixon line. Supporters unrealistically argued that the Act would put an end to Congressional agitation on the subject by allowing each territory to decide for itself whether it wanted to permit slavery or not. Instead, thousands of pro- and anti-slavery settlers set out for war in "Bleeding Kansas." The resulting turmoil divided both the Democratic and Whig parties and helped create the Republican Party.

    Abraham Lincoln came out of virtual political retirement to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act. (Asbury's law partner Abraham Jonas chaired one Whig party meeting, and invited Lincoln to speak against Stephen Douglas and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.) On October 16, 1854, at Peoria, Illinois, after Senator Douglas gathered and spoke to a large audience, Lincoln called the crowd back two hours later, and responded with his most comprehensive moral, legal, and economic arguments against slavery.

    Then, in March, 1857, the Supreme Court decided in Dred Scott v. Sanford that Congress had no constitutional power to prohibit slaveowners from taking slaves into the territories. 's majority opinion stated that black people "are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word 'citizens' in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States." Taney cited state and local laws to argue that, from the time of the drafting of the Constitution in 1787, a "perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery." The court went on to strike down the Missouri Compromise, which they claimed exceeded Congress' powers under the Constitution. (Only Justices and dissented, pointing out flaws in the majority's historical arguments, noting legal precedent and showing that at the time of the Constitution's creation some black people had already been citizens.)

    Republicans, including Lincoln, immediately called out the conflict between popular sovereignty and the Dred Scott decision. On June 26, 1857, for example, he blasted the inconsistency of Douglas' suggestion to revoke territorial rights for Mormon Utah, calling that "additional proof of what was very plain from the beginning, that that doctrine was a mere deceitful pretense for the benefit of slavery."

    In 1858, when he began his campaign for Douglas' seat in the U.S. Senate, Lincoln was virtually unknown outside of Sangamon County. Lincoln's reputation grew as he doggedly pursued Douglas around the state; wherever Douglas would speak, Lincoln would rebut him the next day. This stalking soon earned Lincoln his own following. On June 16, 1858-less than two months before our letter-Lincoln won the Republican nomination to oppose Douglas. On July 24, Lincoln wrote to Douglas and suggested they "divide time, and address the same audiences." Douglas, who could no longer ignore Lincoln, replied on July 30, proposing that they meet at a "prominent point" in each of the remaining seven Congressional Districts (both had recently spoken in Chicago and Springfield) and specified locations and dates. One candidate would speak for one hour, the other would respond for ninety minutes, and the first would conclude for thirty minutes, alternating who spoke first at each successive debate.

    Lincoln agreed to Douglas' terms the following day-the same day he penned this letter to Henry Asbury.

    Lincoln and Douglas met in their first joint debate at Ottawa, Illinois, on August 21, 1858. Douglas (falsely) charged that Lincoln had been present when the new Republican party wrote its radical abolitionist platform in 1854. Lincoln, while not responding point by point to Douglas' "seven interrogatories," argued for the need to stop the spread of slavery, but denied that he was trying to "abolitionize" the Whig and Democratic parties.

    The tactics that Lincoln develops in his correspondence with Asbury have particular bearing on the second debate, on August 27, 1858, at Freeport, Illinois.

    After returning to answer Douglas' questions from the prior debate, Lincoln countered with four questions of his own. His precise phrasing of the second question, developed in this letter, elicited a sufficiently explicit and unequivocal response from Douglas that it soon became known as "The Freeport Doctrine": the "little giant" took no "moral position" on slavery and claimed to be indifferent to its existence wherever the population supported it.

    The crucial exchange constituting the Freeport Question and Douglas' response
    u Lincoln /u : "Can the people of a United States Territory, in any lawful way, against the wish of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution?"
    u Douglas /u : "I answer emphatically, as Mr. Lincoln has heard me answer a hundred times from every stump in Illinois... It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter devise as to the abstract question whether slavery may or may not go into a territory under the constitution, the people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it as they please, for the reason that slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere unless it is supported by local police regulations. Those police regulations can only be established by the local legislature, and if the people are opposed to slavery they will elect representatives to that body who will by unfriendly legislation effectually prevent the introduction of it into their midst."

    The importance of Douglas' Freeport Doctrine was recognized by both sides. The Republican Chicago Daily Press and Tribune insisted that although Douglas had supported the entire Dred Scott decision in speeches throughout the state, "yet when pinned down with a direct question, before a Free Soil audience, he flies in the face of that portion of the decision which conflicts with his old humbug of Squatter Sovereignty." The Washington Union, a Democratic newspaper and organ of the Buchanan administration, charged that what Douglas did at Freeport was to "boldly and unblushingly repudiate the Dred Scott decision."

    In October, the St. Louis Daily Evening News reported, "Ever since Douglas proclaimed, at Freeport, the unconstitutional and revolutionary doctrine that the people of a Territory may, prior to the formation of a State Constitution and a State organization, exclude Slavery from the Territory... it has been apparent to every reflecting mind that nothing could prevent an Abolition 'reign of terror' in Kansas, and in whatever other Territory Slaveholders might lucklessly enter with their Slaves. Sure enough, we find the Freeport doctrine of Douglas readily seized upon in Kansas, and preparation made to drive every Slave and Slaveholder from that Territory."

    The Senatorial election actually was one referendum on the efficacy of popular votes. Lincoln's Republicans received 50%, while Douglas' Democrats received 47%, but only the vote of the Illinois State legislature actually counted in choosing a U.S. Senator, and there Douglass prevailed 54 to 46.

    Outside of his state, though, Douglas had already angered southern voters by opposing the pro-slavery Lecompton constitution of Kansas. In the wake of Douglas' Freeport assertions, Southerners demanded further Congressional action to protect and foster the expansion of slavery in the territories. Throughout 1859, Southern Whigs taunted their opponents as willing to sell out to "Douglas and his Freeport doctrine."

    Republican and Democratic newspapers reprinted Douglas' Freeport Doctrine before the Democratic Convention in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1860. Southern "fire-eaters" insisted on an explicitly proslavery platform that included territorial protections. Northern Democrats refused. Unwilling to accept Douglass, 50 Southern delegates walked out. The remaining delegates adjourned after deadlocking on 57 ballots. Six weeks later, the Democrats reconvened in Baltimore. After more moderate delegates from Louisiana and Alabama were seated, the bulk of the southern delegates walked out again, allowing Douglas to eventually be nominated. The departed southern Democrats held a third Democratic convention, nominating pro-slavery Kentuckian John Breckenridge as their candidate.

    Henry Asbury (1810-1896) was born in Kentucky and moved to Quincy, Illinois, on the Mississippi River, in 1834. He was a founding member of the first Masonic lodge in Illinois, granted a charter by the Kentucky Lodge (then led by Abraham Jonas). Asbury read and practiced law under Orville Hickman Browning, and was elected as a justice of the peace in 1836. He formed a law partnership with Edward Baker, who later moved to California. In 1849, President Zachary Taylor appointed Asbury as register of the federal land office in Quincy. In 1855, Asbury and Abraham Jonas became law partners. Like Lincoln, the partners were originally Whigs but became founders of the Republican Party in Illinois. Jonas and Asbury aided with local arrangements for the sixth Lincoln-Douglas debate, held in Quincy on October 13, 1858. Asbury served as a provost marshal in Quincy in 1864. In 1886, Asbury and his wife moved to Chicago, where he died a decade later.

    Abraham Jonas (1801-1864) was born in England and immigrated to Ohio in 1819, to join his brother Joseph, who had been the first Jewish inhabitant of Cincinnati. "Abe" Jonas married Lucia Orah (Lucy) Seixas, the daughter of America's first native-born rabbi. After she died in 1825, Jonas moved to the frontier town Williamstown, Kentucky. He opened a general store, was elected to the state legislature, married Louisa Block in 1829, organized a Masonic Lodge and was elected grand master of masons in Kentucky. In 1836, they moved to Adams County, Illinois. He operated a store and studied law in Orville H. Browning's office. In 1842, he was elected to the Illinois General Assembly. Jonas and Lincoln met, likely while attending court in Springfield around then. In 1843, Jonas was admitted to the bar, and he served as postmaster of Quincy from 1849 to 1853 and again, appointed by Lincoln, from 1861 until his death. The S. & E. Jonas hardware store was on the ground floor, the offices of Jonas and Asbury on the second floor, and the Congregation B'nai Abraham synagogue on the third.

    Letters from Lincoln regarding the Lincoln-Douglas Debates are exceedingly rare. This one, planning a key campaign strategy, and framing the debate over slavery, is especially desirable. Outstanding condition as shown, with almost invisible reinforcement along the left edge where the pages are joined. Typical minor age browning/soiling along original fold lines on the blank outside page.




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