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Lincoln’s Constitutional Argument

May 10, 2016

Abe Lincoln was a lawyer.  He knew the U.S. Constitution, and he knew how to argue in a court of law.  He knew how to frame an argument for debate in a public forum, and he knew how to deliver a speech.  All these elements appear in Lincoln’s Cooper Union address.

Lincoln firmly believed slavery was wrong, and he said so publicly and often.  In his Cooper Union address he said so in no uncertain terms, and he made the case that those who signed the U.S. Constitution also believed it to be wrong.

Lincoln admitted that: “The question of federal control of slavery in the territories seems not to have been directly before the Convention which framed the original Constitution; and hence it is not recorded that the ‘thirty-nine,’ or any of them, while engaged on that instrument, expressed any opinion on that precise question.”  So how did Lincoln prove his point?  He named 20 signers, who, while serving in Congress before, during, or after the Constitution was ratified, voted for legislation that prohibited slavery in U.S. territories.  A 21st individual, the man who presided at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, signed legislation prohibiting slavery in the Northwest Territory in 1789.  This man was none other than George Washington.  Surely President Washington would not have violated the Constitution.

But none of these facts mattered to the U.S. Supreme Court.  In 1857 they had declared that Congress could not ban slavery in the territories.  Now, in 1860 former one-term Congressman Abraham Lincoln forcefully and systematically exposed their error when he spoke at Cooper Union.

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