By Richard Brookhiser

The first half of the Cooper Union Address was a response to a speech by Stephen Douglas. Campaigning for a fellow Democrat in Ohio in September 1859, Douglas had said, “our fathers, when they framed the government under which we live, under-stood this question just as well, and even better, than we do now.” “This question” was whether the federal government could restrict the expansion of slavery into the territories. Douglas argued that federal control would violate the principle of self-government; each territory’s inhabitants should decide for themselves whether to allow slavery or not. Lincoln at Cooper Union agreed with Douglas that “our fathers” knew best what America’s founding principles were, but he proposed to show that they agreed with him—that the federal government could, and should, limit slavery’s expansion.

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