Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 5. Segment 6
A Little Giant and a Big Debate

Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois See It Now - Stephen A. Douglas is known as the "Little Giant." He is just over five feet tall, but so full of energy he is called a ''steam engine in breeches.'' He has made his fortune in land speculation and in that new enterprise: railroads. He can see that railroads are the future and that they will someday stretch from coast to coast. If the dreamed-of transcontinental railroad takes the route from Chicago to San Francisco, through the Indian territory west of Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota, Douglas's property will become even more valuable. And there is a way he can have his railroad. He can write a bill for Congress that will do away with the Missouri Compromise and open the Indian territory to slavery. Then he will have the South's votes and his railroad, too.

Douglas's bill divides the western territory into two regions: Kansas and Nebraska (they are much bigger than today's states) See It Now - A Map of Kansas and Nebraska. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 is repealed; the ban on slavery is ended. Instead it is left up to the free residents of each territory to decide whether or not to introduce slavery Check The Source - The Kansas-Nebraska Act. It is called "popular sovereignty," but not all are pleased by it Check The Source - "Appeal of Democrats". This is what an Illinois lawyer and politician, renowned for his honesty, has to say Hear It Now - Illinois Lawyer: "It is wrong, wrong in its effect, letting slavery into Kansas and Nebraska-and wrong in principle, allowing it to spread to every other part of the world, where men can be found inclined to take it Check The Source - "The Crime Against Kansas"."

The Missouri Compromise has kept the peace between North and South for thirty-four years. It is revered by most Americans. Now it seems clear that Southern slaveowners want to make the whole nation accept slavery. They want to throw out the compromise. The abolitionists are appalled. A torrent of fiery speeches and sermons denounce the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Many Northerners who haven't really liked the abolitionists—because they seem like extremists—now join their ranks. An Illinois lawyer, whose name is Abraham Lincoln, is chosen in 1858 by the newly formed Republican party to run against Douglas for the U.S. Senate. He says that slavery is more than a moral problem—the very nation is in danger. And then he delivers these remarkable words Hear It Now - Abraham Lincoln: "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.... It will become all one thing, or all the other."

Abraham Lincoln is different from most of those who oppose slavery. He is without malice. He doesn't hate the slave owners. Human nature being what it is, he says, southern whites are doing what northern whites would do if they were in their place. That, however, doesn't excuse slavery. He thinks it wrong and says so: "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."

Stephen Douglas is an important man. People pay attention when he speaks. It is a big piece of luck for Lincoln. Because he is Douglas's opponent, he can't be ignored. Lincoln and Douglas climb on a train and debate at train stops across Illinois See It Now - The Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Douglas talks of popular sovereignty, the right of people to govern themselves. Lincoln goes to the heart of the matter. He says Hear It Now - Abraham Lincoln, "We began by declaring that 'all men are created equal'; but now we have run down to the other declaration, that for some men to enslave others is a 'sacred right of government.' These principles cannot stand together Check The Source - A Lincoln Douglas Debate."

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