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Mr. Lincoln and the Declaration
Harry Jaffa, one of the most distinguished Lincoln scholars, wrote in his pathbreaking Crisis of the House Divided, that President "Lincoln's interpretation of 'all men are created equal' transforms that proposition form a pre-political, negative, minimal, and merely revolutionary norm, a norm which prescribes what civil society ought not to be, into a transcendental affirmation of what it ought to be."3 In New Birth of Freedom, Jaffa wrote: "Lincoln did not appeal to the Declaration of Independence merely because it was our first and foremost founding document. It was, he said, the immortal emblem of man's humanity and the father of all moral principle because it incorporated a rational, nonarbitrary moral and political standard. The equality of man and man was a necessary inference from the inequality of man and beast and of man and God. No one possessed of a civilized conscience can fail to feel this sympathy. The empirical evidence bears Lincoln out."4
In his 1863 Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln embraced the Declaration of Independence as the foundation of the Republic a foundation which had been undermined by the apologists for slavery. We remember that Mr. Lincoln said: "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."5 Echoing Professor Jaffa, Garry Wills wrote in Lincoln at Gettysburg: "The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as a way of correcting the Constitution itself without overthrowing it." Jaffa would argued that the Founders meant what Lincoln said at Gettysburg.
Mr. Lincoln's interpretation breathed new life into both founding documents. Historian Richard N. Current wrote: "Lincoln passionately believed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United of the United States. To him, these documents were not merely historical relics; they embodied fundamental ideals, ideals in the process of realization, ideals that formed the basis for his political thinking."6 That thinking was presented over 11 years, beginning in 1854 and culminating in Mr. Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.
Mr. Lincoln had steeped himself in the history of the Founding. He understood both its politics and its purpose. And he worried that its meaning had been lost on a generation that associated it only with fireworks and celebrations. In the summer of 1858 Mr. Lincoln told a crowd at Lewiston, Illinois: "Now, my countrymen, if you have been taught doctrines conflict with the great landmarks of the Declaration of Independence; if you have listened to suggestions which would take away from its grandeur and mutilate the fair symmetry of its proportions; if you have been inclined to believe that all men are not created equal in those inalienable rights enumerated in our charter of liberty, let me entreat you to come back. Return to the fountain whose waters spring close by the blood of the revolution. Think nothing of me take no thought for the political fate of any man whomsoever but come back to the truths that are in the Declaration of Independence. You may do anything with me you choose, if you will but heed these sacred principles."7
The Chicago Press and Tribune reporter for the event wrote: "I cannot close this letter without giving your readers a passage from Mr. Lincoln's noble and impressive apostrophe to the Declaration of Independence. This was truly one of the finest efforts of public speaking I ever listened to. It gave to his auditors such an insight into the character of the man as ought to carry him into the Senate on a great surge of popular affection." He then quoted Mr. Lincoln, who said the Declaration of Independence:
...was formed by the representatives of American liberty from thirteen States of the confederacy twelve of which were slaveholding communities. We need not discuss the way or the reason of their becoming slaveholding communities. It is sufficient for our purpose that all of them greatly deplored the evil and that they placed a provision in the Constitution which they supposed would gradually remove the disease by cutting off its source. This was the abolition of the slave trade. So general was conviction the public determination to abolish the African slave trade, that the provision which I have referred to as being placed in the Constitution, declared that it should not be abolished prior to the year 1808. A constitutional provision was necessary to prevent the people, through Congress, from putting a stop to the traffic immediately at the close of the war. Now, if slavery had been a good thing, would the Fathers of the Republic have taken a step calculated to diminish its beneficent influences among themselves, and snatch the boon wholly from their posterity? These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: 'We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. [Applause.] Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows. They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity. The erected a beacon to guide their children and their children's children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages. Wise statesmen as they were, they knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants, and so they established these great self-evident truths, that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began so that truth, and justice, and mercy, and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from the land; so that no man would hereafter dare to limit and circumscribe the great principles on which the temple of liberty was being built.8
Mr. Lincoln held July 4, 1776 to be an event of worldwide significance, not because a new nation was founded on the shores of the Atlantic, but because a new nation, the very first of its kind, was founded 'under God,' begotten, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, according to the 'Laws of Nature and of Nature's God,' a nation dedicated, in fact to a religious proposition, a principle of natural theology. Consider again the phrasing: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,' to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This proposition, the great Emancipator proclaimed, is 'the Father of all moral principle' among Americans, the animating spirit of our laws. By reason of this founding principle, Lincoln called his countrymen 'the almost chosen people'; and it was Jefferson himself who proposed that the national seal portray Moses leading the chosen people to the promised land.
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States inaugurated not only the American experiment, but also one of the great economic booms in history. Americans moved West and South, labored North and East to till the soil, build roads, finance banks, invest in new technologies, discover new methods of farming, mining, and manufacture. 'We made the experiment,' Lincoln wrote during the prosperity of 1854. In America 'we proposed to give all a chance.' Now 'the fruit is before us. Look at it think of it. Look at it in its aggregate grandeur, of extent of country and numbers of population of ship and steamboat and rail."9
In 1853, all America basked in the glow of a prosperity Americans took as their just deserts. The period stretching from the inauguration of James Monroe in 1817 through the early 1850s has gone down in American history as the Era of Good Feeling and of Manifest Destiny an era during which, despite the great perils faced by the infant nation at the turn of the century, America had conquered a continent and established her independence of Europe. The new nation had finally settled down.
Then, out of the Great Plains, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 blew in upon American politics with the force of a tornado, sweeping aside, the economic issues paramount in the immediate past. The old Whig Party disintegrated under the pressure of the new politics, and so in all but name did the Old Democracy, the party of Jefferson and Jackson both parties swept aside by the gale force of a single moral issue, or what our pundits today would call a social issue. That issue, the extension of slavery to the territories, led ineluctably to the great national debate over the 'unalienable right to liberty' of the black slave. It was neither the first nor the last, but it was, up to that time, the greatest debate over the first principles of the American Republic.
At first, Americans Democrats and Whigs alike refused to believe that the work and wealth of recent decades, not to mention the pocketbook politics of the era, would be swallowed up in a moral struggle over a single issue. But, in opening all the Western lands to slaveholding, the Kansas-Nebraska Act sponsored by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas shattered the spirit of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had limited slavery to states south of 36 30'. If it were true, as Lincoln would later say, that eventually the nation must be all slave or all free, there could be little doubt in which direction the county was taking.
In the words of historian Gabor Boritt of Gettysburg College, Kansas-Nebraska shook national politics like Jefferson's "firebell in the night."10 So abrupt was the transition from preoccupation with economics and national security ('Manifest Destiny' and 'Western Lands') that Abraham Lincoln, himself one of the most knowledgeable of Whig leaders on tax, tariff, and banking issues, abandoned further discussion of them. After 1854, he became almost mute on economic issues, claiming in the year he stood for President that 'just now [tax, tariff, and financial affairs] cannot even obtain a hearing...for, whether we will or not, the question of slavery is the question, the all-absorbing topic of the day.'"11
Certainly, Kansas-Nebraska shook Mr. Lincoln out of his political lethargy. The high point of his attack on the slave politics of Senator Douglas came when the two men faced off first in Springfield on October 4, 1854 and again in Peoria on October 12 when Mr. Lincoln repeated the arguments he had made in his first speech. Since the second was better reported, it is the Peoria speech which is remembered. Mr. Lincoln said of the new Douglas doctrine:
I think, and shall try to show, that is wrong; wrong in its direct effect, letting slavery into Kansas and Nebraska and wrong in its prospective principle, allowing it to spread to every other part of the wide world, where men can be found inclined to take it.
Biographer Benjamin Thomas wrote: "This high moral note that Lincoln sounded early in his speech re-echoed to the end of it."13 Mr. Lincoln continued to wield the Declaration of Independence as a weapon against the doctrines of Stephen Douglas:
But one great argument in the support of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, is still to come. That argument is "the sacred right of government." It seems our distinguished Senator [Douglas] has found great difficulty in getting his antagonists, even in the Senate to meet him fairly on this argument Some poet has said
For decades the battle over slavery had been stayed by the timely compromises of Whigs and Democrats who foresaw what passions would be loosed when men ceased to struggle for gain and ground and sought instead to live faithfully by the standards Americans had set themselves in the Declaration. Webster and Clay, Calhoun and Douglas, prudently had sought to turn aside the energies of the people into economic growth and westward expansion, to mitigate, even to avoid the supervening moral and religious issues raised by the debate over slavery. The remarkable thing is how successful they were for so long in convincing Americans that slavery could be countenanced if its extent could be limited. Historian Richard N. Current maintained that although Mr. Lincoln had once called the Declaration of Independence 'the white-man's charter of freedom,' he was driven more and more by his own logic to make this charter the black man's as well.15
The insurgent anti-slavery noise would not be silenced. For the muffled murmur throughout the land was the sound of the slave, his tortured breathing rustling the pages of the Declaration of Independence, scaring up from the dry parchment the great truths placed there by Jefferson. Mr. Lincoln wrote Kentuckian George Robertson in August 1855:
Since then we have had thirty six years of experience; and this experience has demonstrated, I think, that there is no peaceful extinction of slavery in prospect for us. The signal failure of Henry Clay, and other good and great men, in 1849, to effect any thing in favor of gradual emancipation in Kentucky, together with a thousand other signs, extinguishes that hope utterly. On the question of liberty, as a principle, we are not what we have been. When we were the political slaves of King George, and wanted to be free, we called the maxim that 'all men are created equal' a self evident truth; but now when we have grown fat, and have lost all dread of being slaves ourselves, we have become so greedy to be masters that we call the same maxim 'a self-evident lie' The fourth of July has not quite dwindled away; it is still a great day for burning fire-crackers!!!
Mr. Lincoln was to turn to the theme three years later in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but first the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court intervened in 1857 and gave meaning to Lincoln's warnings; it declared the U.S., in effect, a slave nation. Dred Scott held that the black slave was not a person under the Constitution, and the property rights of slaveowners were inviolate. In1860, the nation responded by electing President Lincoln, who had proclaimed Dred Scott unbinding as a 'rule of political action' in virtue of the fundamental law of the Declaration and the power of Congress to prohibit slavery in the territories. But for three years before the 1860 election, the American people debated the Supreme Court decision in the case of a supposed slave, Dred Scott. Rendered for the Supreme Court by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the Dred Scott opinion of 1857 declared that the black man could, under the Constitution, never be an American citizen. In a speech on the topic in Springfield on June 25, 1857, Mr. Lincoln spoke directly to the decision's defects:
I have said, in substance, that the Dred Scott decision was, in part; based on assumed historical facts which were not really true; and I ought not to leave the subject without giving some reasons for saying this; I therefore give an instance or two, which I think fully sustain me. Chief Justice Taney, in delivering the opinion of the majority of the Court, insists at great length that negroes were no part of the people who made, or for whom was made, the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution of the United States.
Mr. Lincoln insisted upon the historical inaccuracy as well as the legal deficiency of the Supreme Court's reasoning in the majority opinion. According to the obiter dicta of Chief Justice Taney, the black man was a mere article of merchandise, the Negro was not included in the language of the Declaration, and the black man had no rights which the white man was bound to respect. As Senator Stephen Douglas argued against private citizen Lincoln in the great debates of 1858, the earthly fate of the black man had been fitted by the Supreme Court into the property clause of the American Constitution, where, instead of a person, the black man had become, under a Supreme Court ruling, a mere chattel a living mockery of the inalienable right to liberty.
"Douglas agreed with Taney that the signers of the Declaration of Independence had not meant to include Negroes in their equalitarian pronouncement," wrote Lincoln biographer Benjamin P. Thomas in his 1952 biography. "Under Lincoln's interpretation of that document, said Douglas, complete political and social equality for Negroes, including the right to intermarry with whites, must be the end result. Douglas conceded that the Negro was entitled to certain rights and privileges. But, he asserted, in the manner of some persons of our own time, these must be determined by the white people of each state and territory, according to the Negro's capabilities, instead of being prescribed by a policy of general application such as Lincoln advocated."17
In the Springfield speech Mr. Lincoln said: "There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people, to the idea of an indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races; and Judge Douglas evidently is basing his chief hope, upon the chances of being able to appropriate the benefit of this disgust to himself. If he can, by much drumming and repeating, fasten the odium of that idea upon his adversaries, he thinks he can struggle through the storm. He therefore clings to this hope, as a drowning man to the last plank. He makes an occasion for lugging it in from the opposition to the Dred Scott decision. He finds the Republicans insisting that the Declaration of Independence includes ALL MEN, black as well as white; and forthwith he boldly denies that it includes negroes at all, and proceeds to argue gravely that all who contend it does, do so only because they want to vote, and eat, and sleep, and marry with negroes. He will have it that they cannot be consistent else. Now I protest against that counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. I need not have her for either, I can just leave her alone. In some respects she certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of any one else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others."18
Historian Harry V. Jaffa correctly clarifies Mr. Lincoln's argument in A New Birth of Freedom: "Lincoln makes his obeisance to the dominant conviction of Negro inferiority when he says that the black woman is not his equal 'in some respects.' Here as elsewhere, Lincoln makes this disclaimer as a prologue to the affirmation of the equality of natural rights of all human beings. The equal natural right of black human beings to put into their mouths the bread that their hands have earned is repeated almost as a mantra or incantation throughout Lincoln's speeches in this period."19
Mr. Lincoln knew that not only were blacks equal in economic terms, they were also equal as citizens and had been since the founding of the Republic. Contrary to Taney's recitation of American history, as set forth in his Dred Scott opinion, blacks were truly citizens, at the birth of the Republic in 1789, voting in at least four states, including North Carolina, for and against ratification of the Constitution. Even in 1857, Negroes were still recognized as lawful citizens in several states, despite Taney's ruling in Dred Scott that Negroes were not and could not be American citizens.
The Founders' principles of equality and unalienable rights did not mean that all human beings are or ought to be equal in all respects height, weight, beauty, wealth. They meant instead that no person has to another the relation God has to him: Thus the rights enumerated in the Declaration are God-Given, and hence 'unalienable.' Neither the weight of tradition nor the exigencies of statecraft can rationalize the false claim that the unalienable rights of the Declaration are a gift of the state or of the people. As Professor Harry Jaffa would put it: No man has a natural right to rule over any other man, as God does over man; thus a man may rule over another, his equal, only with his consent.20 And that is why the Declaration is still put at the head of the statutes-at-large of the U.S. Code and described therein as organic law, e.g., fundamental law.21
Mr. Lincoln repeatedly had to deal with opponents hostile to the Declaration and its place in American law. "We can no longer express our admiration for the Declaration of Independence without their petty sneers. And it is thus they are vast bringing that sacred instrument into contempt."22 The conflict over the founding document came to a head in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. In a speech at Chicago, Illinois on July 10, 1858, Mr. Lincoln said: "We do remember, that in the old Declaration of Independence, it is said that 'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.' There is the origin of Popular Sovereignty. [Loud applause]."23 Popularity sovereignty was, of course, the name that Douglas gave to his policy on expansion of slavery to the territories. Mr. Lincoln gave it another meaning.
At his first debate with Senator Douglas at Ottawa on August 21, 1858, Mr. Lincoln concluded his remarks by saying: "Now, having spoken of the Dred Scot decision, one more word and I am done. Henry Clay, my beau ideal of a statesman, the man for whom I fought all my humble life Henry Clay once said of a class of men who would repress all tendencies to liberty and ultimate emancipation, that they must, if they would do this, go back to the era of our Independence, and muzzle the cannon which thunders its annual joyous return; they must blow out the moral lights around us; they must penetrate the human soul, and eradicate there the love of liberty; and then and not till then, could they perpetuate slavery in this country! [Loud cheers.] To my thinking, Judge Douglas is, by his example and vast influence, doing that very thing in this community, [cheers,] when he says that the negro has nothing in the Declaration of Independence. Henry Clay plainly understood the contrary. Judge Douglas is going back to the era of our Revolution, and to the extent of his ability, muzzling the cannon which thunders its annual joyous return. When he invites any people willing to have slavery, to establish it, he is blowing out the moral lights around us. [Cheers.] When he says he 'cares not whether slavery is voted down or voted up,' that it is a sacred right of self government he is in my judgment penetrating the human soul and eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty in this American people. [Enthusiastic and continued applause.] And now I will only say that when, by all these means and appliances, Judge Douglas shall succeed in bringing public sentiment to an exact accordance with his own views when these vast assemblages shall echo back all these sentiments when they shall come to repeat his views and to avow his principles, and to say all that he says on these mighty questions that it needs only the formality of the second Dred Scott decision, which he endorses in advance, to make Slavery alike lawful in all the States old as well as new, North as well as South."24
Speaking at Bloomington on September 4, Mr. Lincoln returned to founding ideals: "And when you have stricken down the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and thereby consigned the negro to hopeless and eternal bondage, are you quite sure that the demon will not turn and rend you? Will not the people then be ready to go down beneath the tread of any tyrant who may wish to rule them?" According to historian Harry V. Jaffa in Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, Mr. "Lincoln insisted, what every political philosopher has always recognized, that there must be some conviction, usually embodied in the form of a story that can be told, comprehended, and taken to heart by all, which produces a sense of community and unites the hearts of those who call themselves fellow citizens. Without that fellow feeling there is no basis for mutual trust, and where there is no trust there can be no freedom. For political self-government involves governing and being governed, and where there is insufficient trust, the idea of making others the trustees, for however limited a time, of our dearest interests does not make sense. And the only possible basis for the unity of a people as heterogeneous in origin as the American people was one which transcended their different origins....But the doctrinal basis of this patriotic history was the universal statement in the Declaration, a statement which must be understood as comprehending the Negro if it were to be understood in a way which would unite white men."26
In his fifth debate with Senator Douglas at Galesburg on October 7, 1858, Mr. Lincoln said: "The Judge has alluded to the Declaration of Independence, and insisted that negroes are not included in that Declaration; and that is a slander upon the framers of that instrument, to suppose that negroes were meant therein; and he asks you: Is it possible to believe that Mr. Jefferson, who penned the immortal paper, could have supposed himself applying the language of that instrument to the negro race, yet held a portion of that race in slavery? Would he not at once have freed them?"27
Lincoln biographer David Donald noted: "Sensing that his audience was on his side, he appeared almost joyful as he rebutted Douglas's charges, most of which, he noted, had 'previously been delivered and put in print.' Douglas had been guilty of slandering the Founding Fathers, for 'the entire records of the world, from the date of the Declaration of Independence up to within three years ago, may be searched in vain for one single affirmation, from one single man, that the negro was not included in the Declaration of Independence.'"28
Mr. Lincoln continued: "I think I may defy Judge Douglas to show that he ever said so, that Washington ever said so, that any President ever said so, that any member of Congress ever said so, or that any living man upon the whole earth ever said so, until the necessities of the present policy of the Democratic party, in regard to slavery, had to invent that affirmation. [Tremendous applause.] And I will remind Judge Douglas and this audience, that while Mr. Jefferson was the owner of slaves, as undoubtedly he was, in speaking upon this very subject, he used the strong language that 'he trembled for his country when he remembered that God was just;' and I will offer the highest premium in my power to Judge Douglas if he will show that he, in all his life, ever uttered a sentiment at all akin to that of Jefferson." Mr. Lincoln was greeted by applause and cries of "Hit him again," and "good,"29
Historian William Lee Miller noted of this debate: "For all the concessions to current prejudice he made, Lincoln insisted continually not only that the 'created equal' in the Declaration included Negroes, but that to hold otherwise, as Douglas did, and to impute such a view to the Founders, was to destroy that great document's meaning for all Americans and all time. At Galesburg he specifically said that thus to exclude the Negro was to prepare the public mind for the nationalizing of slavery, to muzzle the cannon that thunders the Fourth of July's annual joyous return; to blow out the moral lights around us (these phrases borrowed from his youthful hero Henry Clay); and to eradicate the light of reason and the love of liberty."30
Mr. Lincoln returned again and again to Douglas' contention that black Americans were not covered by the Declaration of Independence. At the sixth debate at Quincy, on October 13, 1858, Mr. Lincoln made one of the most controversial and in the context of Illinois politics effective comments of the campaign: "I as well as Judge Douglas am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.' [Cheers, 'That's the doctrine.'] 'I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence the right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas that he is not my equal in many respects, certainly not in color perhaps not in intellectual and moral endowments; but in the right to eat the bread without leave of anybody else which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every other man.'"31
Here, Mr. Lincoln's tactics accommodated the racial language of his constituents but still he used the equalitarian language of the Declaration of Independence to blunt its impact. As historian William Lee Miller observed of Mr. Lincoln: "It is not simply that he was, in the clichι, a 'man of his time'; he was a man of his time, his place, and his role. He was a politician, a mainstream politician, seeking to shape major party victories, and much of the time seeking office himself, in one of the most racially prejudiced perhaps the most prejudiced of Northern states."32
At the same debate, Mr. Lincoln added: "The Judge has taken great exception to my adopting the heretical statement in the Declaration of Independence, that 'all men are created equal,' and he has a great deal to say about negro equality. I want to say that in sometimes alluding to the Declaration of Independence, I have only uttered the sentiments that Henry Clay used to hold. Allow me to occupy your time a moment with what he said. Mr. Clay was at one time called upon in Indiana, and in a way that I suppose was very insulting, to liberate his slaves, and he made a written reply to that application, and one portion of it is in these words:
What is the foundation of this appeal to me in Indiana, to liberate the slaves under my care in Kentucky? It is a general declaration in the act announcing to the world the independence of the thirteen American colonies, that 'men are created equal.' Now, as an abstract principle, there is no doubt of the truth of that declaration, and it is desirable in the original construction of society, and in organized societies, to keep it in view as a great fundamental principle.33
At the seventh and last debate in Alton, Mr. Lincoln quoted from a speech he had made in Springfield on June 26, 1857: "Allow me while upon this subject briefly to present one other extract from a speech of mine, more than a year ago, at Springfield, in discussing this very same question, soon after Judge Douglas took his ground that negroes were not included in the Declaration of Independence:
I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not mean to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all men were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what they did consider all men created equal equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.
Mr. Lincoln added: "There again are the sentiments I have expressed in regard to the Declaration of Independence upon a former occasion sentiments which have been put in print and read wherever anybody cared to know what so humble an individual as myself chose to say in regard to it."34 As historian James M. McPherson has observed: "Lincoln rejected the notion that the rights of liberty and the pursuit of happiness were confined to the white race. He was not the only American to challenge this dogma, of course."35 McPherson noted: "If a national referendum could have been held on these two definitions of liberty Lincoln's inclusive one and Douglas's definition exclusive of all but white men Douglas's position would have won. But Lincoln persisted against the odds, denouncing Douglas's argument as representing a disastrous declension from the faith of the fathers, a declension that if it went much further would extinguish the light of liberty in America."36
In the 1860 presidential campaign, Mr. Lincoln again faced Senator Douglas. The defining moment of the 1860 campaign came before either candidate was chosen. It was Mr. Lincoln's February 27 speech at the Cooper Institute in New York in which Mr. Lincoln reviewed the history of the nation's founding. Mr. Lincoln, having carefully researched the issue, began by analyzing the attitudes of the signers of Constitution toward slavery :
The facts with which I shall deal this evening are mainly old and familiar; nor is there anything new in the general use I shall make of them. If there shall be any novelty, it will be the mode of presenting the facts, and the inferences and observations following that presentation.
Mr. Lincoln's speech was a sensation among New York Republicans and journalists. William Cullen Bryant, who was both, wrote in the New York Evening Post: "We have made room for Mr. Lincoln's speech notwithstanding the pressure of other matters, and our readers will see that it was well worthy of the deep attention with which it was heard. That part of it in which the speaker places the republican party on the very ground occupied by the framers of our constitution and fathers of our republic, strikes us as particularly forcible. In this great controversy the Republicans are the real conservative party. They simply adhere to a policy which had its origin with George Washington of Virginia, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Abraham Baldwin of Georgia, Alexander Hamilton of New York, and other men from other states worthy to be named with them."38 In a word, Mr. Lincoln called for the restoration of the original republic.
The success of the Cooper Institute speech led to other speaking opportunities as Mr. Lincoln traveled through New England over the next ten days. At one point in Hartford on March 5, Mr. Lincoln asked: "Is there any man of the Democratic party, especially the 'Douglas wing,' but will say that in his opinion the Declaration of Independence has no application to the negro? I have asked this question many times during the past three years, and no Democrat has yet denied that this was his belief, though I have asked it always where people are in the habit of answering their speakers when they please. So I assume this to be their belief to-day; and I tell you, you are safe to offer a premium to any many who will show you a Democrat who said so five years ago. I avow I never heard it from any man until I heard it from the lips of Judge Douglas. I had, to be sure, in certain portions of the country, heard men say something to this effect, but they didn't sneak around it with any statement like this. They took the bull by the horns, and said the Declaration of Independence wasn't true! Judge Taney might have first broached the doctrine. Perhaps he did; but I heard it first from Judge Douglas, though it was after Taney's Dred Scott decision. If so, Douglas possibly got it from him. Here's half the people of this nation saying what they would not have said five years ago; taking man from his kind and placing him among the brutes. This is a long strike toward bringing about this feeling of indifference in the minds of the people of this country. One more such stride and the object would be reached."39
Mr. Lincoln was at his most eloquent in New Haven the next day in which he said that on the issue of slavery, "There is nobody that 'don't care.' ALL THE PEOPLE DO CARE! one way or the other."40 He went on to lay a conception of work and liberty very different from that of Taney and Douglas: "I am not ashamed to confess that twenty five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat just what might happen to any poor man's son! I want every man to have the chance and I believe a black man is entitled to it in which he can better his condition when he may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him! That is the true system."41
In 1860 the American people elected a new President at the head of a new party opposed in principle to slavery in the American territories. Although Mr. Lincoln was not present at the 1860 Republican National Convention which nominated him for President, one of the conventions' few controversies set the tone for his presidency. Historian Richard H. Sewell, wrote that a "dramatic threat to bolt the convention forced the delegates to restore to the 1860 platform a full restatement of the egalitarian doctrines of the Declaration of Independence. Yet symbolic though it was, the importance of this incident ought not to be exaggerated. For while the original set of resolutions did not detail Jefferson's catalogue of natural rights, it did at least copy that part of the earlier Philadelphia platform which declared 'That the maintenance of the principles promulgated in the Declaration of Independence and embodied in the Federal Constitution is essential to the preservation of our Republic institutions....'"42
New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley helped devise the Republican platform to make only general reference to the Declaration of Independence and thus avoid undue antagonism of the South. "Here Greeley again ran afoul of that messiah of the abolitionists, Joshua Giddings, who, venerable with age, rose haughtily from his chair and stalked toward the Wigwam door. Greeley had only mentioned Jefferson's great document, and Giddings insisted that the equality clauses be quoted. Catcalls and cheers gave way to orations on the point in dispute, and finally the old man, backed by the Sewardites, was satisfied," wrote Greeley biographer Jeter Allen Isely.43
Historian Richard H. Sewell observed of the convention's affirmation of the Declaration: "Some conservatives may have found Jefferson's language inflammatory, and they may have hoped to sweep it out of sight. Most, however, appear, to have had no strong objections to explicit reaffirmation of the rights of 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' In the end, restoration was ordered by a margin of two to one."44 Giddings, who had served with Mr. Lincoln in Congress, wrote to a congressional friend after the convention about Mr. Lincoln, "I would trust him on the subject of slavery as soon as I would [Salmon P.] Chase or [William H.] Seward. I have been well acquainted with him and think I understand his whole character. I know him to be honest and faithful."45
The Declaration then faded as a political issue for nine months. After he won the November 1860 election, Mr. Lincoln tried to maintain a diplomatic silence on controversial public issues. Mr. Lincoln's pre-inaugural trip from Springfield to Washington was marked by repeated attempts to say as little as possible. A notable exception was President-elect Lincoln's speech in Philadelphia. "Perhaps in no one of the many addresses delivered during his tour was he so visibly moved and affected by his surroundings as when he spoke in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, which he visited on the 22d of February, the anniversary of Washington's birthday," wrote Lincoln's aide and biographers, John G. Nicolay and John Hay.46 President-elect Lincoln said:
I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here in the place where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live. You have kindly suggested to me that in my hands is the task of restoring peace to our distracted country. I can say in return, sir, that all the political sentiments I entertain have been drawn, so far as I have been able to draw them, from the sentiments which originated, and were given to the world, from this hall in which we stand. I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. (Great cheering.) I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here and adopted that Declaration of Independence I have pondered over the toils that were endured by the officers and soldiers of the army, who achieved that independence. (Applause.) I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. (Great applause.) It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. (Cheers.) This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence.
It was a revealing moment in a deliberately unrevealing series of speeches on the way from Springfield to Washington. "Lincoln passionately believed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. To him, these documents were not merely historical relics; they embodied fundamental ideals, ideals in the process of realization, ideals that formed the basis for his political thinking." observed historian Richard N. Current.48 "As Lincoln saw it, the United States was an experiment, a serious attempt to see if the principles of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence would permanently work. Only time would tell whether Americans could govern themselves with full success. The experiment was of vital interest, not only to them but also to the whole 'family of man' for the result would affect the future of self-government throughout the world. If at last the experiment should fail, Lincoln felt, the failure would not be caused by defeat at the hands of some foreign enemy, 'some transatlantic military giant.' No, the danger, if ever came, must come from within, 'must spring up amongst us.'"49
Historian Kenneth M. Stampp wrote: "President-elect Lincoln shared the determination of the 'stiff-backed' Republicans to defend the Union, whatever the cost. Soon after the election he realized that stern measures might eventually be necessary....The President derives his authority from the people, he said, and they had not empowered him to arrange the terms for a dissolution of the Union."50 Stampp continued: "In 1861, however, when contemplating domestic rather than foreign revolution, Lincoln qualified his position. 'The right of revolution,' he now claimed, 'is never a legal right....At most, it is but a moral right, when exercised for a morally justifiable cause. When exercised without such a cause revolution is no right, but simply a wicked exercise of physical power.' Lincoln thus viewed the southern rebellion as established governments have always viewed rebellion, whatever its cause that is, as lacking the moral base required to give it validity. The true issue, he said, was not self-determination but whether 'a democracy a government of the people, by the same people can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes.'"51
Historian James M. McPherson wrote: "Antislavery northerners scoffed at southern claims to be acting in the spirit of the Revolution of 1776 for liberty. Secession, they said, was 'the oddest Revolution that History has yet seen, a Revolution for the greater security of Injustice, and the firmer establishment of Tyranny!' Lincoln agreed. Even before he committed himself in the second year of the Civil War to emancipation as a war aim, Lincoln repeatedly insisted that it was the North, not the South, that fought to preserve the American heritage of liberty. The republic that the founding fathers had established as a bulwark of liberty was a vulnerable experiment in a world bestrode by kings, emperors, czars, and dictators."52
Mr Lincoln "definitely refused to preserve the Union by what in his estimation would have been the real surrender of the principles which had made Americans a distinct and self-respecting nation," wrote Lord Charnwood in his 1917 biography of Mr. Lincoln. "Those principles he found in the Declaration of Independence. Its rhetorical inexactitude gave him no trouble and must not, now that its language is out of fashion, blind us to the fact that the founders of the United States did deliberately aspire to found a commonwealth in which common men and women should count for more than elsewhere, and in which, as we might now phrase it, all authority must defer somewhat to the sentiments of the under dog."53
Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher maintained: "The heart of the matter for Lincoln, however, was the threat that secession posed to democratic government and its core principle, majority rule."54 Historian James McPherson wrote "For Lincoln, it was the Union, not the Confederacy, that was the true heir of the Revolution of 1776. That revolution had established a republic, a democratic government of the people by the people. This republic was a fragile experiment in a world of kings, emperors, tyrants, and theories of aristocracy. If secession were allowed to succeed, it would destroy that experiment. It would set a fatal precedent by which the minority could secede whenever it did not like what the majority stood for, until the United States fragmented into a dozen pitiful, squabbling countries, the laughing stock of the world. The successful establishment of a slaveholding Confederacy would also enshrine the idea of inequality, a contradiction of the ideal of equal natural rights on which the United States was founded. 'This issue embraces more than the fate of these United States,' said Lincoln on another occasion. 'It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy...can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity.' Nor is the struggle 'altogether for today; it is for a vast future....On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men...to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance in the race of life.'"55
How then did President Lincoln resolve the national dispute over the perpetuity of the Union and the authority of the Declaration of Independence and that of the Supreme Court? Historian Kenneth M. Stampp, observed: "The second tradition, which Lincoln upheld with such relentless determination, had evolved only slowly and uncertainly over many years following the American Revolution. Although the Articles of Confederation had explicitly stated that 'the Union shall be perpetual,' the Constitution did not settle that question with such clarity. Nationalists could only infer the Union's perpetuity from certain passages in the document, all of which were subject to more than one interpretation. Even Lincoln seemed to concede that the language of the Constitution was not conclusive. Taking another tack, he argued that perpetuity 'is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper, ever had a provision in its organic law for its termination.'"56
But there was also the extraordinary Supreme Court ruling on slavery, sponsored by Chief Justice Roger Taney. Invoking the precedents of Jefferson and Jackson, President Lincoln argued in his inaugural speech of 1861, 'if the policy of the [national] government...is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court the people will have ceased to be their own rulers.' The Republican Congress, only a year later, moved against the Court and passed the congressional statute of 1862, which effectively reversed part of the Dred Scott decision and prohibited the extension of slavery to all American territories. Then in 1863 came the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1865 and 1868, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, all of which overthrew slavery and the Dred Scott Supreme Court forever.
President Lincoln, acting alone, suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, one of the most fundamental rights of Anglo-Saxon and American constitutional law. Immediately the Supreme Court acted to constrain the president. Confronted as he was in the Merryman case with a writ, issued against him by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Roger B. Taney, the President did not even acknowledge the writ. He totally ignored the Court. The writ thus fell to the ground without effect. To save the Union, the suspension of habeas corpus continued. President Lincoln ignored the writ of the Supreme Court on the constitutional ground that the President of the United States, given an ultimate threat to the life of the Union must interpret his constitutional duty as he, the chief executive, is given to understand it not as the Supreme Court, or its Chief Justice, understands it.
Indeed, President Lincoln insisted he violated no law in suspending habeas corpus, and of course he did not; for the Constitution does provide for suspension of habeas corpus under conditions of insurrection or invasion and it does not explicitly give that power to Congress alone. But to those who argued that he 'might' have violated the Constitution, he did reply that his first sworn obligation as President was to preserve the Union, without which there would be no Constitution, no laws to uphold, no further means to establish justice. 'Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted,' he queried, 'and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?'57
If it might be said that Abraham Lincoln, the circuit court litigator, was the framer of the post-Civil War Constitution, then it may also be said that President Lincoln was his own John Marshall. For in any exegesis of Lincoln's rhetoric one discovers not the temperament of a lawyer but the jurisprudence of a lawgiver. Nor need one accept all of Lincoln, the apologist and evangelist of the Declaration of Independence, to declare certain truths indispensable to the triumph of the idea of the American Republic.
Mr. Lincoln's were the first principles of the American regime laid down by the founders at the birth of the republic on July 4, 1776. For not only Thomas Jefferson, but also James Madison, the father of the Constitution, held the Declaration to be, in their words, "the fundamental act of union."58 That is to say, the Declaration is part of the organic law by which to interpret American constitutional principles and to discover the original intent of the framers. The implications of this fact are too often ignored by constitutional scholars who focus narrowly on the positive law of the great charter of 1787 and its subsequent amendments. Nevertheless, no one can deny that the Declaration was, and is, placed first in the United States Code of Laws (1940) even ahead of the Constitution and described there as 'organic law."
Thus Lincoln was clear and correct when, in 1863, he said 'four score and seven years ago' that is, on July 4, 1776 'our Fathers brought forth a new nation...." (He did not say three score and 14 years ago or 1789.) When Lincoln emphatically called himself a conservative, it was the first principles of the Declaration, our 'ancient faith,' which he sought to conserve, or rather restore in the Constitution of the United States. Accordingly, if it may now be said that the Fourteenth Amendment indirectly incorporated certain of the Bill of Rights, so too must it be affirmed that the first American Congresses, the original intent of the founders, and, moreover, the U.S. Code of Laws certainly incorporated the Declaration of Independence into the "organic law", the Constitution of the United States. At the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery on November 19, Mr. Lincoln said:
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.
So if the Declaration of Independence were the first birth of freedom, the emancipation of the nation's black slaves constituted a second birth. Garry Wills wrote: "When he spoke at the end of the Address, about government 'of the people, by the people, for the people,' he was not just praising 'popular government' as a Transcendentalist's ideal, like Theodore Parker. Rather, like Webster, he was saying that America is a people addressing its great assignment as that was accepted in the Declaration. This people was 'conceived' in 1776, 'brought forth' as an entity whose birth was datable ('four score and seven' years back) and placeable ('on this continent'), something that could receive a 'new birth of freedom.')"60 And he laid the foundation for the Thirteenth Amendment that permanently abolished slavery when ratified 25 months later.
In 1864, almost four score years had gone by since the Constitution's signing, and nearly as many years divided the abject poverty of Thomas Lincoln from the prosperity of his son Abraham, the 'lone Whig star" of Illinois. In twenty years of hard work before 1854, Lincoln had been preoccupied with personal advance in law and politics, during which time he had focused on the great issues of economic nationalism: the tariff, the National Bank, and internal improvements. It is true that he was only one among thousands of apostles of national development and economic growth; but he was utterly devoted to their cause. But after 1854, Mr. Lincoln saw that the crucial issue of the spread of slavery required a new campaign for the Declaration of Independence.
As historian Douglas L. Wilson observed: "Abraham Lincoln had a special affinity for the Declaration of Independence. It be came, in the phrase of John G Nicolay, 'his political chart and inspiration.' Lincoln seems to have come to a belief that the Declaration occupied a place in American politics superior to the Constitution itself, because it not only preceded it in time but also stated grandly and forthrightly the principles that the Constitution sought to implement in practical form. In an undated manuscript he characterized the basic principle of the Declaration as 'Liberty to all' and drew an analogy to the Book of Proverbs, in which this great principle was the 'apple of gold,' the word 'fitly spoken,' whereas the 'Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made,' Lincoln insisted, 'not to conceal, or destroy the apple, but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple not the apple for the picture.'"61
By nature Lincoln was poet, politician, and prophet. Master of language, master of men, master of himself, Mr. Lincoln was temperamentally a judicious man, certainly not inclined to fanaticism. Neither was he a natural candidate for a martyr's crown. But when the mortal issue was joined, Lincoln exposed the counsels of moderation for the well-meaning sophistries they were and eventually crowned the Constitution with the 13th Amendment. Several weeks after President Lincoln's assassination on April 14, 1865, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner eulogized him in Boston: "The inevitable topic to which he returned with most frequency, and to which he clung with all the grasp of his soul, was the practical character of the Declaration of Independence in announcing the liberty and equality of all men. No idle words were there, but substantial truth, binding on the conscience of mankind."62