RECAP: “Lincoln, the Founding, and the Challenge of Self-Government,” Colloquium w/ Washington & Lee Prof. Lucas Morel

When, in the first sentence of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln summoned the vision of a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” he very consciously took listeners back not to the ratification of the Constitution, nor to his own issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation just ten months prior, but rather to the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence: not to the body of the republic, as Washington & Lee John K. Boardman, Jr. Professor and Head of Politics Lucas Morel argued, but to its soul. In other words, tasked with securing the liberty of formerly enslaved persons, Lincoln tied this new birth of freedom—the un-finished work of the living—directly to an old principle of freedom inherited from the founding generation.

In a theme that Prof. Morel returned to throughout his talk, Lincoln, at Gettysburg and elsewhere, never sought to find new rights for a new age, due in no small part to the fact that, in his time, arguments for newness often perverted the original idea of American independence. As Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens made clear in his “Cornerstone Speech,” for example, he thought the CSA’s new constitution an improvement upon the 1787 federal charter not only, or even primarily, because it explicitly protected the institution of slavery but also because it summarily rejected any principle of human equality subscribed to at the founding by rooting the Confederacy’s slave society in an intractable theory of white supremacy and racial superiority.

The moral and philosophical, as well as the practical, problems that such political innovation posed for Lincoln were not at all limited to the post-secession United States. “More dangerous because more insidious” to addressing the slavery question in particular was the indifference of Stephen A. Douglas’ notion of popular sovereignty, which would allow whites in the Western territories to decide the fate of slavery without congressional meddling. “I care not,” Douglas declared on the question of extending slavery into Kansas, “whether it is voted down or voted up.” Under Douglas’ logic of popular sovereignty, especially after it was buttressed by the 1857 Dred Scott decision, slavery could—and, for Lincoln, would—become national simply by convincing people not to care if it did. And with this, Lincoln lamented, America would become unrecognizable.

In making his case against Douglas, Lincoln again turned to the 18th century. Per his interpretation of the founding, Prof. Morel explained, slavery was a necessary evil in the states where it existed before the Constitution, a right that could not be undone without constitutional amendment. That said, any argument like Douglas’ that supported the westward expansion of slavery was not only made out of craven self-interest; it was also made in stark opposition to what Lincoln saw as a clear founding-era intention to restrict slavery’s growth as a way of putting the institution on a course toward “ultimate extinction.” The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 proved, for Lincoln, that Congress could meddle in the affairs of the federal territories to stop the spread of slavery; so did the constitutional provision ending the international slave trade in 1808 reflect a commitment to peaceful abolition. With this in mind, Lincoln charged Americans in 1854 with readopting the principles of the Declaration not only to save the union but to keep it forever worthy of saving.

Understanding the degree to which Lincoln’s approach to ending slavery owed a debt to the founding generation—and grappling with the difficult questions and contradictions that arise in the course of doing so—brings us, Prof. Morel noted, to the issue of rule by consent of the governed. If freedom required revolution, independent self-government under a federal constitution required unity, which, in the early decades of the republic, required tragic compromise on the issue of slavery. In Lincoln’s case, this meant reconciling personal wish and executive duty. A government based on equality imposed on its citizens an obligation to abolish slavery for Lincoln; “if slavery is not wrong,” he wrote, “nothing is wrong.” At the same time, though, he understood that the presidency did not confer upon him a right to act on feeling. Emancipation was a righteous, humane cause. But it was likewise one for which humanitarian ends would need just constitutional means. What the founders tasked Lincoln with, Prof. Morel argued in closing, was thus twofold: ensuring that the maxims of a truly free society be enforced and made manifest as fast as circumstances permitted; and ensuring that such a society was an expression of the will of a self-governing American people.