Abe's pigeon quote -- Was "popular sovereignty" a sham?

Copyright © 2007 by Hugo S. Cunningham
Lincoln's text is in the public domain.

first posted 2007/0905 minor update 2008/1116

"as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death"
    -- Abraham Lincoln, ridiculing Sen. Stephen Douglas's "Freeport doctrine" promise (aka "popular sovereignty") that, despite pro-slavery Federal judges and laws favored by Douglas's party, legislatures in new pre-Statehood "territories" could successfully ignore Federal demands to support slavery.
Lincoln's rebuttal, 6th Lincoln-Douglas debate, Quincy Illinois, 13 Oct 1858
As of 2007/09, the Lincoln Home National Historical Site had posted transcripts of the seven Lincoln-Dougles debates, eg:
Added 20070905
Douglas enunciated the "popular sovereignty" doctrine at the second Lincoln-Douglas debate, Freeport Illinois, 27 August 1858.

Sixth Debate with Stephen A. Douglas,

at Quincy, Illinois

October 13, 1858




Judge Douglas also makes the declaration that I say the Democrats are bound by the Dred Scott decision, while the Republicans are not. In the sense in which he argues, I never said it; but I will tell you what I have said and what I do not hesitate to repeat today. I have said that, as the Democrats believe that decision to be correct, and that the extension of slavery is affirmed in the National Constitution, they are bound to support it as such; and I will tell you here that General Jackson once said each man was bound to support the Constitution "as he understood it." Now, Judge Douglas understands the Constitution according to the Dred Scott decision, and he is bound to support it as he understands it. I understand it another way, and therefore I am bound to support it in the way in which I understand it. And as Judge Douglas believes that decision to be correct, I will remake that argument if I have time to do so. Let me talk to some gentleman down there among you who looks me in the face. We will say you are a member of the Territorial Legislature, and like Judge Douglas, you believe that the right to take and hold slaves there is a Constitutional right. The first thing you do, is to swear you will support the Constitution and all rights guarantied therein; that you will, whenever your neighbor needs your legislation to support his Constitutional rights, not withhold that legislation. If you withhold that necessary legislation for the support of the Constitution and Constitutional rights, do you not commit perjury? I ask every sensible man, if that is not so? That is undoubtedly just so, say what you please. Now, that is precisely what Judge Douglas says, that this is a Constitutional right. Does the Judge mean to say that the Territorial Legislature in legislating may, by withholding necessary laws, or by passing unfriendly laws, nullify that Constitutional right? Does he mean to say that? Does he mean to ignore the proposition so long and well established in law, that what you cannot do directly, you cannot do indirectly? Does he mean that? The truth about the matter is this: Judge Douglas has sung paens to his "Popular Sovereignty" doctrine until his Supreme Court, co-operating with him, has squatted his Squatter Sovereignty out. But he will keep up this species of humbuggery about Squatter Sovereignty. He has at last invented this sort of do-nothing Sovereignty-that the people may exclude slavery by a sort of "Sovereignty" that is exercised by doing nothing at all. Is not that running his Popular Sovereignty down awfully? Has it not got down as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death? But at last, when it is brought to the test of close reasoning, there is not even that thin decoction of it left. It is a presumption impossible in the domain of thought. It is precisely no other than the putting of that most unphilosophical proposition, that two bodies can occupy the same space at the same time. The Dred Scott decision covers the whole ground, and while it occupies it, there is no room even for the shadow of a starved pigeon to occupy the same ground.

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