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Freeport Doctrine


During the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1856, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas proposed the Freeport Doctrine, which held that citizens of territories could ban slavery, despite the 1856 Supreme Court decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford.

While Congress struggled to find a political settlement to the issue of slavery that was dividing the nation during the 1850s, some began looking to the judicial system for a solution. The U.S. Supreme Court joined the fray in 1856 with its decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. Speaking for the majority of the court, Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that Congressional attempts to regulate slavery in U.S. territories were unconstitutional. Taney reasoned that Congress could not deprive white inhabitants of the territories of their Fifth Amendment rights to life, liberty, or property (including their slaves) without due process of law, any more than it could deny citizens of their First Amendment right to free speech. The court's decision was celebrated in the South and condemned in the North. Not surprisingly, the Dred Scott decision did not resolve the nation's slavery problems. If anything, it strengthened the resolve of abolitionists and energized the debate over the extension of slavery in the territories.

In 1858, the rising Republican Party selected Abraham Lincoln, a local lawyer and politician of little renown, to challenge incumbent Democrat Stephen A. Douglas for his seat in the United States Senate. Beginning in August, the two candidates engaged in seven debates across the state of Illinois. The majority of the contests focused on the issue of slavery. During the second debate, held at Freeport, on August 27, Lincoln asked Douglas, "Can the people of a United States territory, in any lawful way, against the wish of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a state constitution?" Douglas, who was an advocate of the principle of popular sovereignty, replied. "…the people have the lawful means to introduce it 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." Douglas's answer, which became known as the Freeport Doctrine, flew in the face of the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision and earned him the enmity of southern Democrats. Two years later, Southerners refused to support Douglas's bid for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. Instead, the party split, paving the way for Abraham Lincoln's election and the ensuing dissolution of the Union.

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