On February 11, The Union League Legacy Foundation held its annual Lincoln Day celebration. The following is taken from the keynote speech by Professor Lucas Morel, PhD. “Lincoln, the Founding and an America Worth Saving.”
Lincoln believed that during his fractious times, looking back to the Founding could provide guidance on how to perpetuate American self-government. He did this most famously in his Gettysburg Address. That speech begins at the nation’s beginning: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” If you do the math, you find that he takes his audience back not to the Constitution, but to the . . . Declaration of Independence. Not to the body but to the soul of the nation. If America stood for anything, it was liberty and equality. Lincoln goes on to explain that the Civil War was a test of America’s purpose: as he put it, “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”
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In the midst of a fight for the very survival of the United States—a civil war—, Lincoln thought the nation would benefit from looking to its past. Americans needed a reminder of why preserving their Union was so important. So Lincoln sought to clarify what was at stake. With Americans shooting not at an external foe but at each other, it’s safe to say there was some confusion about the meaning of America. They were no longer united in their understanding of why the nation existed—what were its highest aims and purposes. So Lincoln wanted Americans to recommit themselves, to dedicatethemselves, to the task that remained: to honor the dead who fought at Gettysburg on behalf of the Union, by joining and supporting that fight. It was a fight to defend a certain political way of life, what Lincoln called “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Recall that Lincoln delivered his short speech in the Year of Jubilee, the year of emancipation. Union soldiers and sailors were now charged by the president to protect the freedom of over 3 million, newly emancipated black people. What Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom” was tied directly to the old, original birth of freedom, our first emancipation proclamation, the Declaration of Independence. Its principle that “all men are created equal” described all human beings. So at Gettysburg, Lincoln did not announce a new principle of freedom, but affirmed an old one—what he argued was its original one. He never sought to discover new rights for a new age; or for that matter, he never spoke of a “living constitution,” one where a visionary few would discern what would benefit the many. Instead Lincoln spoke of “the unfinished work” to which the living could dedicate themselves. In this way, they could honor the men who fought at Gettysburg—those “who gave their lives that that nation might live.”
At Gettysburg, Lincoln did not announce a new principle of freedom, but affirmed an old one–what he argued was its original one.
This was no Civil War epiphany of Lincoln’s. In February 1861, en route to his first inauguration as president, he stopped in Trenton, New Jersey, and told the state senate: “I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made.” I suspect many today would think that this is rather controversial. After all, weren’t the founders—at least some of them, even the most famous of them—slave owners? Why would Lincoln want to lean on that generation, long dead and gone, for political guidance in his day and age?
Our temptation today is to think that everything new is by definition improved, better than what’s old, what we used to call “the tried and true.” But in Lincoln’s time, there were some Americans arguing for something new, an improvement over the American founders. Consider Alexander Stephens of Georgia, a former Whig colleague of Lincoln’s during Lincoln’s sole term in Congress. As the Vice President of the Confederate States of America, Stephens argued that their Constitution was a better one than the old one Lincoln was trying to preserve. It was better not simply because it protected slavery by mentioning it explicitly, where the original constitution did so implicitly. There were plenty of people, plenty of regimes throughout human history, that practiced slavery. Alexander Stephens argued that the Confederacy was the first to base its slave society on white supremacy.
Unlike the American founders, who Stephens acknowledges believed that “the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically,” the Confederate government was “founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” He added, “This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” The American founders, in his mind, saw slavery as “an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but . . . somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away.” Stephens argued that the anti-slavery principles of the Founding “were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races.” He called this “an error” and “a sandy foundation,” unlike the new and improved constitution he helped write for the Southern Confederacy.
Nevertheless, in the decade leading up to the Civil War, Lincoln’s main political target was not slave-owning southerners, but complacent white northerners, like his Illinois rival Senator Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln criticized Douglas’s “popular sovereignty” policy because of its neutrality—its moral indifference—on the slave question, and its insistence that whites at the local level—whether in the states or federal territories—reserved the right to decide the question without interference from Congress. In other words, the future of slavery or freedom in the United States, under this policy of local “popular sovereignty,” would not be determined, ironically enough, by the vast majority of American citizens, but by a very small majority of settlers who went to live in the western territories.
This indicated to Lincoln, that the most urgent threat to the expansion of freedom in the United States, was the temptation of white northerners to become indifferent to the plight of blacks in the federal territories. What made Douglas’s “don’t care” policy about slavery in the territories, so insidious, was that for slavery to become national, it did not require a full-throated defense of the peculiar institution. Rather, simply promote indifference or tolerance on the part of free-state whites, towards the enslavement of blacks in the territories. Eventually those slave territories would become additional slave states of the American union.
This is why “looking back” was no exercise in nostalgia or some abstract consideration by Lincoln. It couldn’t have been more relevant to the developing crisis the nation faced in the 1850s. Lincoln’s trip down memory lane was a contested one. Stephen Douglas, the most prominent Democrat of the 1850s, claimed he knew better what the Founders thought about the question of slavery, and claimed his policy proposal aligned more closely with the Founders’ hopes for the new republic. In Lincoln’s mind, the future of freedom and the eventual demise of slavery depended on whose interpretation of the Founders was correct and could help unite a divided country.
Lincoln argued that in the beginning, at the founding of the United States, slavery was viewed and treated as a “necessary evil.” But it had become in the South, to quote South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, “a positive good.” It was also true at the beginning, that where slavery already existed in the states, Congress had no authority over the matter because of the federal nature of the U.S. Constitution. It was considered a “domestic institution,” governed only by state authority. Government powers, since the beginning of the United States, were divided between the state governments and national government. And slavery, as it existed prior to the formation of the United States, remained a state institution, and therefore could not be abolished by Congress, short of a constitutional amendment.
Given the greater population growth in the free states than in the slaveholding states, this meant that the spread of slavery or freedom in America would be decided by the votes of northern whites, who according to Lincoln could use federal authority to ban slavery in the only area they had jurisdiction over internal affairs—the federal territories. Territory owned by all the citizens, could be regulated by those same citizens, and that meant Congress. However, tempted by Stephen Douglas’s popular sovereignty, slavery’s fate might be determined not by moral right but by mere self-interest—meaning those who could profit by taking black slaves into the territories. If free-state whites agreed with Douglas that Congress did not have authority to regulate the domestic affairs of the territories, then his “declared indifference” would actually represent, in Lincoln’s words, “covert real zeal for the spread of slavery.” And so Lincoln was at pains to tie the future security of the rights of whites, to the present in-security of the rights of blacks. Those same white Americans would have to decide if what happened to a people that did not look like them—black slaves in the South potentially being taken into federal territory—had anything to do with the kind of country in which they wanted to live. For Lincoln, the necessary connection could be found in the thinking of the American founders.
Lucas Morel is a professor at Washington and Lee University.
This article was first published in Lincoln Lore, the periodical of Friends of the Lincoln Collection of Indiana. The full essay can be viewed here.