Sir, when I returned home in 1858, for the purpose of canvassing Illinois, with a view to a re-election, I had to meet this issue of the "irrepressible conflict." It is true that the Senator from New York had not then made his Rochester speech, and did not for four months afterwards. It is true that he had not given the doctrine that precise name and form; but the principle was in existence, and had been proclaimed by the ablest and the most clear-headed men of the party. I will call your attention, sir, to a single passage from a speech, to show the language in which this doctrine was stated in Illinois before it received the name of the "irrepressible conflict." The Republican party assembled in State convention, in June, 1858, in Illinois, and unanimously adopted Abraham Lincoln as their candidate for United States Senator. Mr. Lincoln appeared before the convention, accepted the nomination, and made a speech - which had been previously written and agreed to in caucus by most of the leaders of the party. I will read a single extract from that speech:
"In my opinion, it [the slavery agitation] will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. 'A house divided against itself cannot stand.' I believe this Government cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the house to fall, but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the States - old as well as new; North as well as South."
Sir, the moment I landed upon the soil of Illinois, at a vast gathering of many thousands of my constituents to welcome me home, I read that passage, and took direct issue with the doctrine contained in it as being revolutionary and treasonable, and inconsistent with the perpetuity of this Republic. That is not merely the individual opinion of Mr. Lincoln; nor is it the individual opinion merely of the Senator from New York, who four months afterwards asserted the same doctrine in different language; but, so far as I know, it is the general opinion of the members of the Abolition or Republican party. They tell the people of the North that unless they rally as one man under a sectional banner, and make war upon the South with a view to the ultimate extinction of slavery, slavery will overrun the whole North and fasten itself upon all the free States. They then tell the South, unless you rally as one man, binding the whole southern people into a sectional party, and establish slavery all over the free States, the inevitable consequence will be that we shall abolish it in the slaveholding States. The same doctrine is held by the Senator from New York in his Rochester speech. He tells us that the States must all become free, or all become slave; that the South, in other words, must conquer and subdue the North, or the North must triumph over the South and drive slavery from within its limits.
Mr. President, in order to show that I have not misinterpreted the position of the Senator from New York, in notifying the South that, if they wish to maintain slavery within their limits, they must also fasten it upon the northern States, I will read an extract from his Rochester speech:
"It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slaveholding nation or entirely a free-labor nation. Either the cotton and rice fields of South Carolina, and the sugar plantations of Louisiana will ultimately be tilled by free labor, and Charleston and New Orleans become marts for legitimate merchandise alone, or else the rye fields and wheat fields of Massachusetts and New York must again be surrendered by their farmers to slave culture and to the production of slaves, and Boston and New York become once more markets for trade in the bodies and souls of men."
Thus, sir, you perceive that the theory of the Republican party is, that there is a conflict between two different systems of institutions in the respective classes of States - not a conflict in the same State, but an irrepressible conflict between the free States and the slave States; and they argue that these two systems of States cannot permanently exist in the same Union; that the sectional warfare must continue to rage and increase with increasing fury until the free States shall surrender, or the slave States shall be subdued. Hence, while they appeal to the passions of our own section, their object is to alarm the people of the other section, and drive them to madness, with the hope that they will invade our rights as an excuse for some of our people to carry on aggressions upon their rights. I appeal to the candor of Senators whether this is not a fair exposition of the tendency of the doctrines proclaimed by the Republican party. The creed of that party is founded upon the theory that, because slavery is not desirable in our States, it is not desirable anywhere; because free labor is a good thing with us, it must be the best thing everywhere. In other words, the creed of their party rests upon the theory that there must be uniformity in the domestic institutions and internal polity of the several States of this Union. There, in my opinion, is the fundamental error upon which their whole system rests. In the Illinois canvass I asserted, and now repeat, that uniformity in the domestic institutions of the different States is neither possible nor desirable. That is the very issue upon which I conducted the canvass at home, and it is the question which I desire to present to the Senate. I repeat that uniformity in domestic institutions of the different States is neither possible nor desirable.
Was such the doctrine of the framers of the Constitution? I wish the country to bear in mind that when the Constitution was adopted the Union consisted of thirteen States, twelve of which were slaveholding States, and one free State. Suppose this doctrine of uniformity on the slavery question had prevailed in the Federal convention, do the gentlemen on that side of the House think that freedom would have triumphed over slavery? Do they imagine that the one free State would have outvoted the twelve slaveholding States, and thus have abolished slavery throughout the land by a constitutional provision? On the contrary, if the test had then been made, if this doctrine of uniformity on the slavery question had then been proclaimed and believed in, with the twelve slaveholding States against one free State, would it not have resulted in a constitutional provision fastening slavery irrevocably upon every inch of American soil, North as well as South? Was it quite fair in those days for the friends of free institutions to claim that the Federal Government must not touch the question, but must leave the people of each State to do as they pleased, until under the operation of that principle they secured the majority, and then wield that majority to abolish slavery in the other States of the Union?
Sir, if uniformity in respect to domestic institutions had been deemed desirable when the Constitution was adopted, there was another mode by which it could have been obtained. The natural mode of obtaining uniformity was to have blotted out the State governments, to have abolished the State Legisilatures, to have conferred upon Congress legislative power over the municipal and domestic concerns of the people of all the States, as well as upon Federal questions affecting the whole Union; and if this doctrine of uniformity had been entertained and favored by the framers of the Constitution, such would have been the result. But, sir, the framers of that instrument knew at that day, as well as we now know, that, in a country broad as this, with so great a variety of climate, of soil, and of production, there must necessarily be a corresponding diversity of institutions and domestic regulations, adapted to the wants and necessities of each locality. The framers of the Constitution knew that the laws and institutions which were well adapted to the mountains and valleys of New England were ill suited to the rice plantations and the cotton fields of the Carolinas. They knew that our liberties depended upon reserving the right to the people of each State to make their own laws and estabish their own institutions, and control them at pleasure, without interference from the Federal Government, or from any other State or Territory, or any foreign country. The Constitution, therefore, was based, and the Union was founded, on the principle of dissimilarity in the domestic institutions and internal polity of the several States. The Union was founded on the theory that each State had peculiar interests, requiring peculiar legislation, and peculiar institutions, different and distinct from every other State. The Union rests on the theory that no two States would be precisely alike in their domestic policy and institutions.
Hence, I assert that this doctrine of uniformity in the domestic institutions of the different States is repugnant to the Constitution, subversive of the principles upon which the Union was based, revolutionary in its character, and leading directly to despotism if it is ever established. Uniformity in local and domestic affairs in a country of great extent is despotiom always. Show me centralism prescribing uniformity from the capital to all of its provinces in their local and domestic concerns, and I will show you a despostism as odious and insufferable as that or Austria or of Naples. Dissimilarity is the principle upon which the Union rests. It is founded on the idea that each State must necessarily require different regulations; that no two States have precisely the same interests, and hence do not need precisely the same laws; and you cannot account for this confederation of States upon any other principle.
The Congressional Globe, The Official Proceedings of Congress, Published by John C. Rives, Washington, D. C.
Thirty-Sixth Congress, 1st Session,
New Series...No. 35, Wednesday, January 25, 1860, pages 553-554.