While the Lincoln Douglas debates are important because they grappled with the slavery question, they are of ongoing importance because the two statesmen debated the boundaries of liberty in a self-governing society. The lessons we learn from Lincoln are enduring, teaching us in an age of increasing ignorance what it means to be a free people capable of self-government. Lincoln’s lessons continue to apply as peace and progress displace the protection of liberty as government’s purpose, andas we the people favor the expedient rather than the just. Early in his career Lincoln vows, “If elected I shall consider the whole people… I shall be governed by their will…”, (Lincoln 57); however, Douglas afforded the people the most direct opportunity to decide upon the slavery question. Nevertheless, Lincoln best understood self-government as he understood that the people must be taught to honor freedom in order to sustain it. Only Lincoln regards the limits on majority rule that make the practice of freedom possible, whereas Douglas understands self-government as the unlimited will of the majority; furthermore, Lincoln, unlike Douglas, recognized that there were two pillars of the American founding, and understood that the right to self-government was derived from and dependent upon the principle of equal inalienable rights.
Section I: The Compromise of 1850 and the Ongoing Dilemma of Slavery
Our struggle for popular government is riddled with compromises and concessions. The historical events leading up to the Lincoln/Douglas debates grappled with a dilemma: whether to allow Congress to decide to restrict slavery to where it existed, or whether to allow the people to decide upon the question democratically. In Lincoln’s time, as in ours, many debated whether the founding fathers rejected or supported slavery. Despite their dedication to freedom did they relent their duty to apply their own principles in emancipating their slaves? Or worse, as some argued, did they regard African slaves as less than full persons incapable and undeserving of freedom? The very first attempt to place chattel slavery on the path to extinction was in the Declaration of Independence, and was overruled in order to ensure unity. The first draft of the Declaration, including the phrase “He (The king of Britain) has waged a cruel war against human nature itself…” (Rough Draft of the Declaration) was altered to avoid a principled stance against slavery. In the year 1787 the Northwest Ordinance was passed permitting Congress to declare that the Northwestern states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin became a territory in which slavery should never be permitted. Through the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 the word slave was omitted; however, the three-fifths clause was added surrendering representation of slaves to their masters and considering them less than men, as was Article IV, Section II, providing a provision later purposed as a fugitive slave clause. In 1803, upon the purchase of the Louisiana territory from France, several slave states were carved and the territories were admitted without controversy as slaves already therein resided. The later attempt of Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state was resisted by northern representatives of congress. At last, in 1820, a Missouri Compromise was agreed upon which would concede to Missouri the opportunity to enter as a slave state, so long as within the remaining territory North of 36 degrees and 30 minutes slavery should never be permitted. As more territory was acquired from Mexico, Congress agreed upon five separate bills which formed the Compromise of 1850: California would be admitted as a free state, the slave trade would be banned in the nation’s capital, Texas would be granted the money to pay her war debts, the Utah and New Mexico territory would be granted the opportunity to decide whether slavery be admitted within their borders, and a more stringent fugitive slave law was enacted. By the time of the acceptance of the Compromise of 1850 it had become evident that the question of slavery was woven into the fabric of American self government. Each major confrontation raised this fundamental problem: was slavery to be overruled by a distant power because of a moral principle, or did the democratic process have the authority to choose a moral wrong rejecting the principle of equal natural rights from which self-government derived its power.
A national debate ensued about what the Compromise of 1850 stood for. Douglas argued that the Compromise of 1850 endorsed the use of referenda to decide the slavery question in new territories, and endorsed this principle as one that ought to apply to all territories alike because he saw that it assured both unity throughout the nation and freedom of the people to decide their own fundamental laws. The Compromise of 1850 attempted to place the moral question of slavery to the side. Whigs and Democrats alike acquiesced the compromise measures in order to settle the turmoil that prevented the union from pursuing manifest destiny, each interest accepting concessions against their organizing principles. Henry Clay’s resolutions read, “It being desirable, for the peace, concord, and harmony of the Union of these States, to settle and adjust amicably all existing questions of controversy between them arising out of the institution of slavery…” (Clay). According to the legislation, the compromise was fashioned as a settlement for the sake of “peace, concord, and harmony”; however, Douglas would later adopt one compromise measure, popular sovereignty, as a universal tenet of freedom. The resolution from which Douglas derived the principle of popular sovereignty reads, “it is inexpedient for Congress to provide by law either for its introduction into, or exclusion from, any part of the said territory; and that appropriate territorial governments ought to be established by Congress in all of the said territory… without adoption of any restriction or condition on the subject of slavery” (Clay). Although popular sovereignty was but one concession of the compromise, Douglas saw in it a great opportunity to put the agitation of the slavery question to rest. In 1854 writing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Douglas declared the prior Missouri Compromise “inoperative and void” as “being inconsistent with the principle of non-intervention by Congress with slaves in the States and Territories” (Douglas). Douglas saw in popular sovereignty an appeal to American independence to provide the unity necessary if the regime wished to achieve prosperity. Thereby, Douglas was able to introduce a new maxim of justice among the people, and a new mode of prudence among partisans and representatives. Popular sovereignty appeared just because it favored neither abolitionists nor slaveholders, the intemperate minorities who sought to mold the territories to their will. In addition, it appeared peaceful because it tempered the passions that raged among partisans. Moreover, it appeared prudent, favoring the measures of expediency necessary to pursue manifest destiny and its promise of infinite prosperity. Through Douglas’ interpretation of the Compromise of 1850, he aimed to introduce a mode of legislating the slavery question that afforded the people the freedom to choose.
In the wake of Douglas’ work were political events that entailed consequences for the Whig party and colored the way in which the people would understand the founding principles. Thus, Lincoln began to argue that popular sovereignty could not be considered a principle established by the Compromise of 1850, nor did the compromise supercede prior legislation as Douglas argued. Lincoln begins his Peoria Speech by harkening to the spirit of American compromise. He states:
These (Northwest) territories, together with the states themselves, constituted all the country over which the confederacy then claimed any sort of jurisdiction. We were then living under the Articles of Confederation, which were superseded by the Constitution several years afterwards. The question of ceding these territories to the general government was set on foot. Mr. Jefferson… conceived the idea of taking that occasion to prevent slavery ever going into the north-western territory. (Lincoln 284)
Lincoln first sought to prove that at the time of our founding it was conceded that Congress had the power to prevent the spread of slavery into new territories. He then states:
But now new light breaks upon us.- Now Congress declares this ought never to have been; and the like of it, must never be again.- The sacred right of self-government is grossly violated by it! We even find some men, who drew their first breath, and every other breath of their lives, under this very restriction, now live in dread of absolute suffocation, if they should be restricted in the “sacred right” of taking slaves to Nebraska. That perfect liberty they sigh for- the liberty of making slaves of other people- Jefferson never thought of… (Lincoln 285)
Lincoln argued that popular sovereignty was a renegotiation of a founding principle: freedom turned perfect freedom. Perfect liberty was freedom without restraint. This licentious interpretation would allow men to do anything with their freedom, including forfeit the natural equal rights of others, without restraint. Lincoln saw that perfect liberty was inconsistent with the founding, favoring one pillar, self-government, at the danger of the other, the equal inalienable rights of all. In distinguishing liberty from perfect liberty, Lincoln displays the Democratic party as the aggressor favoring reinterpretation, and the Republicans the party fighting for preservation. Lincoln prophesies that the reinterpretation of this principle not only destroys the achievements of the past, but has detrimental effects for the future. Because the right of self-government is derivative of the equal inalienable rights of all, the pillar of self-government would collapse if inalienable rights were not recognized and protected.
Section II: A New Maxim- Douglas’ Assertion of Popular Sovereignty
Douglas understood popular sovereignty as the principle upon which republican government depended; further, it was not only a right of the people, but it was the only system of government diverse enough for American localities. In his speech upon his return to Chicago, Douglas states:
If there is any one principle dearer and more sacred than all others in free governments, it is that which asserts the exclusive right of a free people to form and adopt their own fundamental law, and to manage and regulate their own internal affairs and domestic institutions. (Douglas, Chicago 1858)
Douglas believed that if the people of the states were to submit their right to decide upon the slavery question they must submit the right to decide all other questions. If the people could not be entrusted with the opportunity to regulate slavery, then they could not reserve the power to regulate anything. Douglas saw Congressional interference regarding slavery as a trespass of the promise to exercise the right to self-government. Because the regulation of slavery was not explicitly enumerated within the powers of Congress, it must be ceded to the states. Both the Constitution and the principles which backed that Constitution ought to permit the states to regulate their own affairs. Douglas thereby placed emphasis on one pillar of freedom, self-government, while dismissing the second essential pillar, the preservation of natural rights.
Lincoln argues that popular sovereignty was not the true principle upon which the republic was founded; further, self-government, if not ordered by some higher principle, destroys freedom. In Lincoln’s speech on the Repeal of the Missouri Compromise, he speaks of the “declared indifference” regarding slavery as a “covert real zeal for the spread of slavery”. He states:
I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world- enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites- causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty- criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest. (Lincoln 291)
When Lincoln states that this declared indifference is a covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, he does not suspect an active conspiracy. This is likewise true regarding the claim he makes in his Peoria address. However, Lincoln believed that slavery was the product of consequences, and endorsing the principle of popular sovereignty created consequences friendly to the expansion of slavery. He continues “I do not blame the southern people…” because he believed that, being born amid the institution, they had become softened to accept slavery as just. The regard in which slavery is held, and the extent to which the people honored the inalienable rights of the Declaration of Independence, would either limit or unleash slavery within the United States of America. Lincoln believed that declared indifference was in truth a “covert real zeal” for the expansion of slavery because it produced the same result as endorsement of slavery. This indifference to the second pillar of the American founding, that all men have certain equal natural rights, removed all objection to the question of slavery. Lincoln disdained declared indifference because it reared those in the free states to “care not” if men wished to become despots, thus insulating slavery from public sentiment. Lincoln abhorred that this indifference led good men to dismiss the challenge to defend the pillar of the founding upon which self-government was contingent. Lincoln, unlike Douglas, understood that in a regime bereft an objective basis for morality, there could be no true democracy. The second pillar of the founding, that all men had certain equal rights, was the reason self-government was just. To Lincoln slavery was the tacit acceptance of despotism among a free people, and a failure to apply the principles of the Declaration in defense against the ambition of tyrants.
Douglas argued that Lincoln attempted to settle the slavery question with national policy contrary to that of a majority of the country, and such policy would undermine self government. As Congress continued to regulate their affairs, and assume powers over the localities in which the people lived, the love of freedom and the regard for self-government would decay. Douglas understood that placing the slavery question in Congress was an immediate danger, akin to the cause of the American revolution. He states:
It is no answer to this argument to say that slavery is an evil, and hence should not be tolerated. You must allow the people to decide for themselves whether it is a good or an evil… Whenever you put a limitation upon the right of any people to decide what laws they want, you have destroyed the fundamental principle of self-government. (Douglas)
Prohibiting slavery in the territories would effectually deprive citizens of freedom. Douglas believed that popular sovereignty was noble because it entrusted the people with the power they naturally deserved, and it was useful because “the laws and domestic institutions which would suit the granite hills of New Hampshire would be totally unfit for the rice plantations of South Carolina…” (Douglas). Douglas appealed to the sense of the people. Each day within their own localities the people managed their own affairs. If this practice applied to the governing the self, why ought this practice not apply to the governance of a large republic? In Douglas’ estimate, keeping the slavery question confined to small and homogeneous localities avoided the danger that a national conversation on the subject would incite. Lincoln, on the other hand, believed that self-government only went so far. And Lincoln, rather than Douglas, endeavored to allow the people to “decide for themselves” while providing for the unity of the nation, so long as their decision honored both pillars of the American founding. This implied that they be faithful to the principle of self-government, but recognize that the preservation of equal natural rights was the reason for which the right to self-government existed.
Lincoln’s response was that the uniform preservation of natural rights would not be upheld by the individual governments of the states, and that preservation was “the sheet anchor of American republicanism”. Self-government did not vindicate transgression against natural rights because natural rights were prior to self-government. Lincoln claims:
The doctrine of self government is right- absolutely and eternally right- but it has no just application, as here attempted. Or perhaps I should rather say that whether it has such just application depends upon whether a negro is not or is a man. If he is not a man, why in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him. But if the negro is a man, is it not to that extent, a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self government- that is despotism. (Lincoln)
Lincoln’s commitment to end slavery was thus based on more than the particular evil of the question at hand. His devotion was rooted in his conviction that slavery was the embodiment of a greater evil: a belief irreconcilable with the core principle upon which our regime rests, namely, the principle that no man may govern another without his consent. Later measures to ensure the observance of popular sovereignty would go much further: they would ensure that no one man could not object to one man’s ruling another without his consent. Without adherence to the core principle of American democracy, and without a check on those who wished to become despots in their own right, American self-government would fail. Our regime, bereft honor and observance of those limits on despotism that “clears the path for all- gives hope to all- and, by consequence, enterprize and industry to all” (Lincoln 513) could not provide the basis for sustained prosperity nor could it promise freedom for posterity. Lincoln understood the incongruence in the measures taken to ensure popular sovereignty and the founding principles in a way that others of his time did not. This understanding is what prompted Lincoln to view the question of whether slavery would expand as synonymous with the question of whether “a class of men… (would) blow out all the moral lights around us; that they must pervert the human soul, and eradicate the human soul and love of liberty” (Debates 77). Lincoln understood that the preservation of natural rights was the underpinning of self-government; if the people ceased to recognize that men were endowed with certain inalienable rights, they would likewise cease to recognize that each man had the right to rule himself and consent to those that governed him.
Section III: Douglas’ Teaching Tending Away from The Declaration
Not only did Lincoln believe that the direction in which the nation was tending undermined the most sacred pillar of the founding, but he believed that the measures necessary to ensure popular sovereignty stretched the Constitution that preserved the Declaration. In Lincoln’s A House Divided speech he makes two claims that become widely criticized by Douglas’ pro-popular sovereignty coalition: one, that the American Republic has become divided and is tending in the direction of submitting to slavery, and two, that that very tendency is the product of preconcert. In the Lincoln Douglas debates, Douglas attacks Lincoln’s first claim in stating that he is inciting revolution, and his second stating that he is advocating nonadherence to the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision. Despite Lincoln’s making a claim about pro-slavery conspiracy with little evidence, he can be vindicated by providing that what he truly understood to be the conspiracy was the softening of the American mind with lullaby arguments for a “care-not” policy . It was in this “House Divided” speech that Lincoln would warn the country that slavery would not die off quietly as proponents of the Missouri Compromise might have hoped. Lincoln gave the American people an ultimatum because he understood that Douglas’ Kansas-Nebraska Act had transformed the question of slavery. He began to understand that compromise can delay the inevitable for only so long, thus he propelled himself back onto the national stage.
Section IV: Self Government and the Role of the Courts
Lincoln understood that the Court’s decision in Dred Scott, alongside the Kansas-Nebraska act, ensured that slavery would engulf the territories; for, the nation would become inclined to believe that it was unconstitutional to deprive masters of their slaves or from settling anywhere they pleased with those slaves. According to Taney’s decision slaves were private property protected by the Constitution, and the Missouri Compromise infringed on this constitutionally protected, substantive property right. In the first of the debates at Ottawa (Debates 74), Lincoln warned of a subsequent case (Lemon v. New York) which would, because of this previous rationale, rule that states had no power to prohibit slavery within their borders because such laws would infringe on slave owners’ constitutional property rights. Through the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, proslavery forces used the elected branches of the federal government to enact a law fundamentally inconsistent with the principle of liberty. But further, they used the courts to constitutionalize certain aspects of that choice and thus attempted to remove those aspects from the national conversation entirely. Specifically, they used the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott to constitutionalize the notion that slaves were property, all but ensuring that a territory’s choice of being slave or free would develop in a proslavery direction. What Lincoln most feared was the right the Supreme court granted slave owners in transporting their slaves as mere property. If slaves were to be considered property in all states, then no territory nor state was free from being forced to permit slavery traveling through and potentially settling, despite their own principles regarding the justice or injustice of slavery. Lincoln understood that Douglas’ popular sovereignty rendered the sheetrock of American republicanism vulnerable and the Supreme Court was beginning to chip away at it.
Douglas claimed that Lincoln was attempting to undermine the Constitutional authority of the Supreme Court; however, Lincoln, due to his correct reading of the Constitution and his observance of the councils of history, disagreed with a fundamental premise of the Dred Scott decision that the Judges granted without dispute: that slaves were not human, and therefore property. Lincoln understood that throughout the American founding slaves were considered, if not men, different from ordinary property. This was the purpose of the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, and this was the reason for the omission of the word slave: the founders hoped that because of the measures that they had prepared, slavery would gradually diminish, and they did not want to place anything in the Constitution to slow its disintegration. Lincoln recognized the Dred Scott decision as a judicial aggrandizement to grant the institution of slavery immunity by declaring the right to hold slaves constitutional. Lincoln refused to accept the granted premise that slaves were simply property, understanding that the founders believed slavery to be an evil which violated the principles of the Declaration of Independence. The Supreme Court attempted to insulate slavery from future democratic choice, and Douglas, claiming the mantle of self-government, prepared the people to accept this trespass on American principle.
Lincoln was aware that policymaking, especially by judges, succeeds only to the extent that citizens permit it; thus, Lincoln devoted himself to educating public sentiment in the opposite direction that Douglas had. In his speeches, Lincoln describes proslavery forces and government initiatives such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act working hand in hand to educate and mold the public not to care whether slavery was voted up or voted down. This molding of public sentiment is precisely what Lincoln warned of years before in his Lyceum address. He states:
It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up among us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passions, as others have so done before them… Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress… What! Think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?- Never! Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. (Lincoln 83)
Very early in his life Lincoln understood that “we ourselves must be (destruction’s) author and its finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide” (Lincoln 77). Lincoln equivocates the losing of liberty to the death of the nation. Lincoln is today understood as the Alexander of his time, but Lincoln viewed Douglas as the true Alexander. He constantly reminded his audience that Douglas was more politically prominent. But what is more, Lincoln understood that Douglas, through ordering the passion of the people, aimed to subvert our understanding of Constitutional government and marginalize the Declaration of Independence rendering its principles partisan. He remarks, “And when he shall have succeeded in bringing public sentiment to an exact accordance with his own- when this vast assemblage goes back with these sentiments instilled into them, then it needs only the formality of a Dred Scott decision, which he is in favor of, to make slavery alike lawful in all the states” (Debates 77). Lincoln knew that the proponents of slavery could only succeed in imposing unjust policies if the public was lulled into indifference with palliations and lullaby arguments, and thus his aim became the education of the people for their own defense. Lincoln proved the great preserver, only because he was able to move public sentiment, whereas Douglas was the towering genius.
Whereas Lincoln can be considered “that towering genius”, he in fact did not attempt to alter the regime out of ambition, as Douglas did, but rather returned to first principles in order to give rise to “a new birth of freedom”; further, Lincoln’s success is a tribute to the strength of the founding rather than its weakness. Because the nation was tending toward the dissolution of the most essential of the two pillars of the founding, Lincoln understood that if one pillar fell, the whole house, and “the last best hope” for freedom, would also collapse. Lincoln understood that there could be no popular sovereignty if the principle of equal natural rights was not upheld. Popular elections would cease to exist where equality ceased being honored. Only because men were endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights did consent become necessary to rule others. Throughout his political life Lincoln endeavored to educate the people of the congruence between popular government and equality through piety, history, and reason, as well as honor and dishonor. When the war came, Lincoln set to binding the nation’s wounds and maintaining the Constitution at all costs. Douglas, on the other hand, endeavored to alter the spirit of the founding through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and endorsed altering the letter of the Constitution through the Dred Scott decision. The principles of the American founding reign true today only because Lincoln was able to reeducate the public to honor freedom rather than expand it at the most vulnerable period in our nation’s history.
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Lincoln, Abraham, and Roy P. Basler. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Cleveland: World Pub., 1946. Print.
Lincoln, Abraham, Stephen A. Douglas, and Harold Holzer. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.
“Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence | Teaching American History.” Teaching American History. Web. 14 Aug. 2016.