A REMINISCENCE OF LINCOLN
BY JOSEPH MEDILL
Lincoln's Cunning- Questions Put to Douglas at the Freeport Debate
I traveled around with Mr. Lincoln after the Ottawa discussion to Freeport. He addressed three or four meetings during that time, one of them at Galesburg, where he had an immense audience; another at Macomb in McDonough county, where the crowd was comparatively small. As I recollect it we proceeded directly from Macomb to Freeport on the morning of Aug. 27. On the way north on the cars Mr. Lincoln beckoned to me to take a seat beside him—I was sitting a few seats behind him at the time—which I did. He took a half sheet of writing paper out of his pocket and handing it to me said: "I am going to answer Mr. Douglas' questions today in our discussion which he put to me at Ottawa and I intend to ask him a few questions in return, and I jotted them down this morning at the hotel before I left there. I wish you to read them over and tell me what you think of my questions. "I did so, reading one of them several times. After a considerable pause he said: "Well, how do those interrogatories strike you?" I replied: "Mr. Lincoln, I do not like the second question." "What's the objection to it?" Mr. Lincoln asked. I replied: "It opens the door through which Senator Douglas will be enabled to escape from the tight place in which he finds himself on the slavery question in this State since he succeeded in getting the Missouri compromise repealed (which excluded slavery from the territories north of 36° 30', and that included, of course, Kansas and Nebraska) ."
We argued at some further length, but I could make no impression whatever on Mr. Lincoln's mind. He said that he wouldn't change the form of the question, and that he intended "to spear it at Douglas that afternoon. "In due time we arrived at Freeport and there was a great crowd of Lincoln's friends at the depot with a carriage to take him up to his hotel. The town was swarming with people, great numbers coming from all the adjoining counties. I found at the hotel the Republican member of Congress from that district, E. B. Washburne, with whom I was intimately acquainted, and Norman B. Judd, of Chicago, who was chairman of the Republican State Central Committee.
I took each of them aside and related what passed between Lincoln and myself on the cars, and repeated the language of the second question which he intended to propound to Douglas, and both of them said that they feared the ill effects from it, and they would try and persuade Lincoln to leave it out or modify its language. They followed Mr. Lincoln up stairs into his apartments, where he was making his toilet for dinner, as the road had been dusty on the way up, and they spent a considerable time with him. When they came down stairs I saw both of them again, and they informed me that they had argued the impolicy of putting question two to Douglas as strongly as they could, but were not able to change his purpose. Other leaders saw Mr. Lincoln before the debate began and urged him not to give Douglas such an opportunity to get out of the tight place it was believed he was in before the people of Illinois on the slavery question.
Mr. Lincoln opened the discussion in the afternoon, and first replied to Douglas' seven questions put to him at Ottawa, and then said:
“I now proceed to propound to the Judge interrogatories so far as I have framed them. I will bring forward today an installment, only to number four, and reserve the other questions to our next debate."
And thereupon he read his four questions, including the No. 2, to which I have referred. He went on and finished his speech, and Mr. Douglas arose in reply and proceeded to answer the four questions. When he came to No. 2 he realized in his reply my worst fears. He said in substance:
"It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter decide as to the abstract questions whether slavery may or may not go into a Territory under the constitution; a majority of the people thereof have the lawful means to introduce 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. These police regulations can only be established by the local Legislature and if the majority of the people of the Territory 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. If, on the contrary, they are for Slavery, their Legislature will favor its admission and extension. Hence, no matter what the decision of the Supreme Court may be on that abstract question, still the right of the people to make a slave Territory or Free Territory is perfect and complete under the Nebraska bill. I hope Mr. Lincoln deems my answer satisfactory on that point."
That was Senator Douglas' reply to Mr. Lincoln's sharp question, and it so pleased the thousands of Democrats present that they cheered and shouted and kept it up so long it was with difficulty the chairman of the meeting, aided by Mr. Douglas himself, could induce them to stop applauding in order that he might proceed with his speech, while Republicans maintained an absolute silence.
The Democratic papers all over Northern Illinois quoted and applauded Douglas' triumphant reply to Mr. Lincoln's interrogatory.
Two or three days after the election of 1860, learning that the active workers of the Republican party in the State were calling on Mr. Lincoln in Springfield from all Illinois to congratulate him on his triumphant election to the Presidency, I concluded to make the same pilgrimage and went down to the Alton cars with a number of other Chicagoans reaching there in the morning. After breakfast I walked up to the old State House in the public square of the city, where Mr. Lincoln was holding his levee in the office of the Secretary of State.
He bent his head down to my ear and said in low tones, something like this:
"Do you recollect the argument we had on the way up to Freeport two years ago over my question that I was going to ask Judge Douglas about the power of squatters to exclude slavery from territories?" And I replied—that I recollected it very well. "Now," said he, "don't you think I was right in putting that question to him?" I said: "Yes Mr. Lincoln, you were, and we were both right. Douglas' reply to that question undoubtedly hurt him badly for the Presidency but it re-elected him to the Senate at that time as I feared it would."
Lincoln then gave me a broad smile and said—"Now I have won the place that he was playing for." We both laughed and the matter was never again referred to.