In August 1855, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to his good friend Joshua Speed who had lived in Springfield but had since returned to his childhood home in Kentucky. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had recently been overturned in Congress by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the nation was somewhat enthralled by the “know nothings” and their quasi-party. Lincoln had been mostly out of politics since his one term in the US Congress ended in March 1849.
In writing to Speed, Lincoln was excited by the political prospects of getting involved in the slavery question again. Speed had been raised on a plantation that had owned slaves and counted himself, as near as anyone might tell, as a straddling friend of both sides of the great divide; not unlike Lincoln’s eventual opponent Stephen Douglas who had engineered the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln was incensed that when Illinois legislature was called to Springfield to debate it, even though it was overwhelmingly in Democrat hands (as Lincoln writes) the Act was not willfully approved. It was instead supported by politics:
Douglas introduced the Nebraska bill in January. In February afterwards, there was a call session of the Illinois Legislature. Of the one hundred members composing the two branches of that body, about seventy were democrats. These latter held a caucus, in which the Nebraska bill was talked of, if not formally discussed. It was thereby discovered that just three, and no more, were in favor of the measure. In a day of two Dougla’s [sic] orders came on to have resolutions passed approving the bill; and they were passed by large majorities! The truth of this is vouched for by a bolting democratic member.
Lincoln’s charge to Joshua Speed was duplicity among not just politicians. “You say if Kansas fairly votes herself a free state, as a Christian you will rather rejoice at it. All decent slaveholders talk that way; and I do not doubt their candor. But they never vote that way.” Everyone says they are for freedom and liberty, but more often than not they act in self-interest, as they see it, alone. For Lincoln, his growing distaste led him in closing to admonish his friend: