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Abraham Lincoln at Indianapolis

Lewis E. Lehrman

Abraham Lincoln's longtime Illinois rival, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, repeatedly said that "the Declaration of Independence did not apply to black Americans when it stated Aall men are created equal." Lincoln took strong exception to the position B as he did when spoke in Indianapolis on September 19, 1859.

"Five years ago no living man expressed the opinion that the negro had no share in the Declaration of Independence," Lincoln told the crowd gathered at the Masonic Hall. "But within that space Douglas had got his entire party, almost without exception, to join in saying that the negro has no share in the Declaration," said Lincoln, who had arrived in Indianapolis after a speaking campaign for Ohio Republicans.

Many of the themes Lincoln cited in this speech had first been developed when Lincoln and Douglas spoke in Peoria, Illinois on October 16, 1854. Lincoln, who in 1849 had been effectively retired from politics, had been reengaged by passage that May of Kansas-Nebraska Act, a congressional statue that repealed the restriction on slavery in the northern part of the Louisiana Purchase. During Senate debate over the legislation, Senator John Pettit of Indiana had argued in favor of introducing slavery into Kansas. Referring to the phrase in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal," the Indiana senator had declared that the principle "is nothing more to me than a self-evident lie" rather than the "self-evident truth" maintained by Thomas Jefferson.

Such statements defaming the Declaration infuriated the antislavery Lincoln. At Peoria, Lincoln had said: "Near eighty years ago we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for SOME men to enslave OTHERS is a sacred right of self-government. These principles can not stand together. They are as opposite as God and mammon; and whoever holds to the one, must despise the other. When [Indiana Senator John] Pettit, in connection with his support of the Nebraska bill, called the Declaration of Independence a self-evident lie= he only did what consistency and candor require all other Nebraska men to do."

Lincoln was appalled that supporters of the Kansas-Nebraska legislation did not object: "Of the forty odd Nebraska Senators who sat present and heard him, no one rebuked him. Nor am I apprized that any Nebraska newspaper, or any Nebraska orator, in the whole nation, has ever yet rebuked him." Pettit had stated: "The negro in Africa and the free born American are not created equal...it is utterly false that men are, either mentally, morally, physically, or politically, created equal."

Lincoln thought Pettit=s words an assault on the Declaration of Independence, a libel against the founding act of the nation: "If this had been said among [South Carolina Continental Army officer Francis] Marion's men, Southerners though they were, what would have become of the man who said it? If this had been said to the men who captured [British spy John] Andre, the man who said it, would probably have been hung sooner than Andre was. If it had been said in old Independence Hall, seventy-eight years ago, the very door-keeper would have throttled the man, and thrust him into the street."

No one throttled Pettit although the coalition opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska legislation swept him out of office that fall. Lincoln himself unsuccessfully sought election to the U.S. Senate but he was be denied that post in 1855 - and again in 1858. Pettit would go on to be chief justice of the Kansas territorial courts. Lincoln would go on to win the presidency in 1860 and he would make one final Indianapolis visit on February 11, 1861, a day before his birthday.

On his arrival in the city on the way to his inauguration, Lincoln made some brief remarks from the rear of his train. He addressed the forces of secession in the South by saying: "When the people rise in masses in behalf of the Union and the liberties of their country, truly may it be said, 'The gates of hell shall not prevail against them.' He told the Hoosiers assembled to hear him: AIt is your business to rise up and preserve the Union and liberty, for yourselves, and not for me." Americans did rise up, and preserve the Union - and the inalienable right to liberty enunciated in the Declaration of Independence.

Lewis E. Lehrman is author of Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point.

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