He took as his text a phrase uttered by Senator Douglas in the late Ohio campaign—“Our fathers, when they framed the government under which we live, understood this question just as well, and even better than we do now.” Lincoln defined “this question,” with a lawyer’s exactness, thus:
Does the proper division of local from Federal authority, or anything in the Constitution, forbid our Federal Government to control as to slavery in our Federal Territories? Upon this Senator Douglas holds the affirmative, and the Republicans the negative. This affirmation and denial form an issue, and this issue—this question—is precisely what the text declares our fathers understood “better than we.”
From this “precise and agreed starting-point” Lincoln next traced with minute historical analysis the action of “our fathers” in framing “the government under which we live,” by their votes and declarations in the Congresses which preceded the Constitution and in the Congresses following which proposed its twelve amendments and enacted various Territorial prohibitions. His conclusions were irresistibly convincing.
The sum of the whole is [said he] that of our thirty-nine fathers who framed the original Constitution, twenty-one—a clear majority of the whole—certainly understood that no proper division of local from Federal authority, nor any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control as to slavery in the Federal Territories; while all the rest probably had the same understanding. Such unquestionably was the understanding of our fathers who framed the original Constitution; and the text affirms that they understood the question “better than we".... It is surely safe to assume that the thirty-nine framers of the original Constitution and the seventy-six members of the Congress which framed the amendments thereto, taken together, do certainly include those who may be fairly called “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live.” And so assuming, I defy any man to show that any one of them ever, in his whole life, declared that in his understanding any proper division of local from Federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control as to slavery in the Federal Territories. I go