Lincoln, Equality, and the Declaration of Independence

I’ve recently completed two books on the American past, both of which, albeit for different reasons, argue for the enduring importance of the Declaration of Independence for our nation’s political life and the safeguarding of American freedom. The first, by the libertarian Timothy Sandefur (who critiqued part of the draft of Loathing Lincoln), is entitled The Conscience of the Constitution: the Declaration of Independence and the Right to Liberty. Sandefur’s argument is that the Declaration’s focus was liberty, not democracy, and that Americans have forgotten, to their great detriment and the diminishment of their freedom, this basic fact. As Timothy put it in a recent post, Jefferson’s idea of all men being created equal is the most important truth in American history:

“The fundamental principle—the sheet anchor of our republic, as Lincoln called it—is the self-evident truth that all men are created equal. No person has any inherent right to control the life of another. Instead, we are all humans, as much in charge of our own lives as our neighbors are of theirs. Or, as Jefferson put it in his last letter, none of us is born with saddles on our backs, and none is born with spurs on. That means that we’re all basically free, and nobody else has a right to take away that freedom unless they prove some good reason. This basic presumption in favor of freedom—that freedom is our birthright, and not just a privilege that the ruler gives to us, and not to be taken away without some justification—was the greatest innovation of the founding fathers.”

The second book I finished reading a few days ago, the political philosopher Danielle Allen’s newly published Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. She laments that so few Americans ever read through the entire Declaration and her book is in part an effort at persuading us of the need to do so. Allen’s basic contention is that “we cannot have freedom without equality” (page 21) and to that end she endeavors to show – with some success, I think – that the ideal of equality as well as liberty was at the heart of the Declaration of Independence. In her view, there were/are “five facets” of equality (page 268-269):

  1. Equality as being “equal as powers” to other countries, especially Great Britain, or “freedom from domination.”
  2. “Equality of Opportunity” as having “access to the to the tool of government”
  3. Equality as “finding what each member of the community can contribute to the collective supply of knowledge, for the sake of maximizing the community’s knowledge capacities.”
  4. Equality as “equality of agency, achieved through reciprocal responsiveness.”
  5. Equality as “equal ownership share,” or “equality as co-creation, where many people participate equally in creating a world together.”

I’ll readily grant that the concept of equality (and liberty, too, I think) is, to borrow a term from the philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards, persistently elusive. Still, both Sandefur’s and Allen’s books caused me to think about what Abraham Lincoln and his opponents thought about the Declaration of Independence and the related notion of equality. As I wrote in the conclusion to Loathing Lincoln (page 332-333):

“Most Americans consider Abraham Lincoln one of the greatest presidents in the history of the United States. But in Lincoln’s lifetime and since, numerous Americans have vilified the sixteenth president. Immediately after the 1860 election, rather than remain under his influence and authority, seven states seceded from the Union, followed by four more states after Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter. He was the first president to die at the hands of an assassin—a murderer who won accolades from many in the defeated Confederate States. And the hatred for Lincoln that commenced even before his presidency began has persisted, with tactical adaptations to changing circumstances, into the twenty-first century. In 1858, when he concluded his debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln himself anticipated the essential nature of the fight that would continue over his name:

That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their own labor; or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.

 Lincoln was more right than he could have possibly known at the time. To a large extent the struggle over Lincoln’s image has always been rooted in contesting visions of America, one envisioning freedom and equality for all, the other envisioning freedom and equality for some, with subordination to authority, or their so-called natural superiors, for the rest. With few exceptions loathing for Lincoln has meant loathing for an expanded notion of freedom and equality joined in direct opposition to the idea . . . that the Civil War was fought over such notions or that the federal government should play any role in maintaining a link between these two American ideals. Abraham Lincoln’s enemies have always tried to define who he was, but in their loathing for the president, they have more often than not defined themselves.”

 I’ve included the hyperlinks to the excerpts below from some of Lincoln’s and his opponents commentary on the Declaration. Please take the time to read through these and I think you’ll see why Lincoln contains such ongoing relevance to who we are – and who we might still become – as a people.

Abraham Lincoln at Peoria, Illinois, October 16, 1854

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. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that “all men are created equal → ;” and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.

Judge Douglas frequently, with bitter irony and sarcasm, paraphrases our argument by saying “The white people of Nebraska are good enough to govern themselves, but they are not good enough to govern a few miserable negroes!!”

Well I doubt not that the people of Nebraska are, and will continue to be as good as the average of people elsewhere. I do not say the contrary. What I do say is, that no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent. I say this is the leading principle—the sheet anchor of American republicanism. Our Declaration of Independence says:

“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.”

I have quoted so much at this time merely to show that according to our ancient faith, the just powers of governments are derived from the consent of the governed. Now the relation of masters and slaves is, PRO TANTO, a total violation of this principle. The master not only governs the slave without his consent; but he governs him by a set of rules altogether different from those which he prescribes for himself. Allow ALL the governed an equal voice in the government, and that, and that only is self government.

Let it not be said I am contending for the establishment of political and social equality between the whites and blacks. I have already said the contrary. I am not now combating the argument of NECESSITY, arising from the fact that the blacks are already amongst us; but I am combating what is set up as MORAL argument for allowing them to be taken where they have never yet been—arguing against the EXTENSION of a bad thing, which where it already exists, we must of necessity, manage as we best can.

Little by little, but steadily as man’s march to the grave, we have been giving up the OLD for the NEW faith. Near eighty years ago we began by declaring that all men are ← created equal; but now from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for SOME men to enslave OTHERS is a “sacred right of self-government.” These principles can not stand together. They are as opposite as God and mammon; and whoever holds to the one, must despise the other. When Pettit, in connection with his support of the Nebraska bill, called the Declaration of Independence “a self-evident lie” he only did what consistency and candor require all other Nebraska men to do. Of the forty odd Nebraska Senators who sat present and heard him, no one rebuked him. Nor am I apprized that any Nebraska newspaper, or any Nebraska orator, in the whole nation, has ever yet rebuked him. If this had been said among Marion’s men, Southerners though they were, what would have become of the man who said it? If this had been said to the men who captured Andre, the man who said it, would probably have been hung sooner than Andre was. If it had been said in old Independence Hall, seventy-eight years ago, the very door-keeper would have throttled the man, and thrust him into the street.

Let no one be deceived. The spirit of seventy-six and the spirit of Nebraska, are utter antagonisms; and the former is being rapidly displaced by the latter.

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Abraham Lincoln to Hon: Geo. Robertson Springfield, Ills.
Lexington, Ky. Aug. 15. 1855

My dear Sir: The volume you left for me has been received. I am really grateful for the honor of your kind remembrance, as well as for the book. The partial reading I have already given it, has afforded me much of both pleasure and instruction. It was new to me that the exact question which led to the Missouri compromise,  had arisen before it arose in regard to Missouri; and that you had taken so prominent a part in it. Your short, but able and patriotic speech upon that occasion, has not been improved upon since, by those holding the same views; and, with all the lights you then had, the views you took appear to me as very reasonable.

You are not a friend of slavery in the abstract. In that speech you spoke of “the peaceful extinction of slavery” and used other expressions indicating your belief that the thing was, at some time, to have an end[.] 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!!!

That spirit which desired the peaceful extinction of slavery, has itself become extinct, with the occasion, and the men of the Revolution. Under the impulse of that occasion, nearly half the states adopted systems of emancipation at once; and it is a significant fact, that not a single state has done the like since. So far as peaceful, voluntary emancipation is concerned, the condition of the negro slave in America, scarcely less terrible to the contemplation of a free mind, is now as fixed, and hopeless of change for the better, as that of the lost souls of the finally impenitent. The Autocrat of all the Russias will resign his crown, and proclaim his subjects free republicans sooner than will our American masters voluntarily give up their slaves.

Our political problem now is “Can we, as a nation, continue together permanently—forever—half slave, and half free?” The problem is too mighty for me. May God, in his mercy, superintend the solution. Your much obliged friend, and humble servant

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Abraham Lincoln to Joshua Speed, August 24, 1855

I am a whig; but others say there are no whigs, and that I am an abolitionist. When I was at Washington I voted for the Wilmot Proviso as good as forty times, and I never heard of any one attempting to unwhig me for that. I now do no more than oppose the extension of slavery.

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal  .” We now practically read it “all men are ← created equal → except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are ← created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.

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Abraham Lincoln on the Dred Scott Decision, 1857

Chief Justice Taney, in his opinion in the Dred Scott case, admits that the language of the Declaration is broad enough to include the whole human family, but he and Judge Douglas argue that the authors of that instrument did not intend to include negroes, by the fact that they did not at once, actually place them on an equality with the whites. Now this grave argument comes to just nothing at all, by the other fact, that they did not at once, or ever afterwards, actually place all white people on an equality with one or another. And this is the staple argument of both the Chief Justice and the Senator, for doing this obvious violence to the plain unmistakable language of the Declaration. I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects 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 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. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere. The assertion that “all men are ← created equal → ” was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, nor for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism. They knew the proneness of prosperity to breed tyrants, and they meant when such should re-appear in this fair land and commence their vocation they should find left for them at least one hard nut to crack.

I have now briefly expressed my view of the meaning and objects of that part of the Declaration of Independence which declares that “all men are← created equal → .”

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Abraham Lincoln to Messrs. Henry L. Pierce, & others. Springfield, Ills.
Gentlemen April 6. 1859

The democracy of to-day hold the liberty of one man to be absolutely nothing, when in conflict with another man’s right of property. Republicans, on the contrary, are for both the man and the dollar; but in cases of conflict, the man before the dollar.

I remember once being much amused at seeing two partially intoxicated men engage in a fight with their great-coats on, which fight, after a long, and rather harmless contest, ended in each having fought himself out of his own coat, and into that of the other. If the two leading parties of this day are really identical with the two in the days of Jefferson and Adams, they have performed about the same feat as the two drunken men.

But soberly, it is now no child’s play to save the principles of Jefferson from total overthrow in this nation.

One would start with great confidence that he could convince any sane child that the simpler propositions of Euclid are true; but, nevertheless, he would fail, utterly, with one who should deny the definitions and axioms. The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society. And yet they are denied, and evaded, with no small show of success. One dashingly calls them “glittering generalities”; another bluntly calls them “self evident lies”; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only to “superior races.”

These expressions, differing in form, are identical in object and effect—the supplanting the principles of free government, and restoring those of classification, caste, and legitimacy. They would delight a convocation of crowned heads, plotting against the people. They are the van-guard—the miners, and sappers—of returning despotism. We must repulse them, or they will subjugate us.

This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.

All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyrany and oppression.

Your obedient Servant A. LINCOLN—

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Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863

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AND NOW FOR LINCOLN’S OPPONENTS:

William Harper, 1837

There seems to be something in this subject which blunts the perceptions, and darkens and confuses the understandings and moral feelings of men. Tell them that, of necessity, in even- civilized society, there must be an infinite variety of conditions and employments, from the most eminent and intellectual, to the most servile and laborious ; that the negro race, from their temperament and capacity, are peculiarly suited to the situation which they occupy, and not less happy in it than any corresponding class to be found in the world; prove incontestably that no scheme of emancipation could be carried into effect without the most intolerable mischiefs and calamities to both master and slave, or without probably throwing a large and fertile portion of the earth’s surface out of the pale of civilization—and you have done nothing. They reply, that whatever may be the consequence, you are bound to do right; that man has a right to himself, and man cannot have property in man ; that if the negro race be naturally inferior in mind and character, they are not less entitled to the rights of humanity; that if they are happy in their condition, it affords but the stronger evidence of their degradation, and renders them still more objects of commiseration. They repeat, as the fundamental maxim of our civil policy, that all men are born free and equal, and quote from our Declaration of Independence, “that men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

It is not the first time that I have had occasion to observe that men may repeat with the utmost confidence, some maxim or sentimental phrase, as self-evident or admitted truth, which is either palpably false, or to which, upon examination, it will be found that they attach no definite idea. Notwithstanding our respect for the important document which declared our independence, yet if any thing be found in it, and especially in what may be regarded rather as its ornament than its substance—false, sophistical or unmeaning, that respect should not screen it from the freest examination.

All men are born free and equal. Is it not palpably nearer the truth to say that no man was ever born free, and that no two men were ever born equal! Man is born in a state of the most helpless dependence on others. He continues subject to the absolute control of others, and remains without many of the civil and all of the political privileges of his society, until the period which the laws have fixed as that at which he is supposed to have attained the maturity of his faculties. Then inequality is further developed, and becomes infinite in every society, and under whatever form of government. Wealth and poverty, fame or obscurity, strength or weakness, knowledge or ignorance, ease or labor, power or subjection, mark the endless diversity in the condition of men.

But we have not arrived at the profundity of the maxim. This inequality is, in a great measure, the result of abuses in the institutions of society. They do not speak of what exists, but of what ought to exist. Every one should be left at liberty to obtain all the advantages of society which he can compass, by the free exertion of his faculties, unimpeded by civil restraints. It may be said that this would not remedy the evils of society which are complained of. The inequalities to which I have referred, with the misery resulting from them, would exist in fact under the freest and most popular form of government that man could devise. But what is the foundation of the bold dogma so confidently announced? Females are human and rational beings. They may be found of better faculties, and better qualified to exercise political privileges, and to attain the distinctions of society, than many men; yet who complains of the order of society by which they are excluded from them? For I do not speak of the few who would desecrate them; do violence to the nature which their Creator has impressed upon them; drag them from the position which they necessarily occupy for the existence of civilized society, and in which they constitute its blessing and ornament—the only position which they have ever occupied in any human society—to place them in a situation in which they would be alike miserable and degraded. Low as we descend in combating the theories of presumptuous dogmatists, it cannot be necessary to stoop to this. A youth of eighteen may have powers which cast into the shade those of any of his more advanced cotemporaries. He may be capable of serving or saving his country, and if not permitted to do so now, the occasion may have been lost forever. But he can exercise no political privilege, or aspire to any political distinction. It is said that, of necessity, society must exclude from some civil and political privileges those who are unfitted to exercise them, by infirmity, unsuitableness of character, or defect of discretion; that of necessity there must be some general rule on the subject, and that any rule which can be devised will operate with hardship and injustice on individuals. This is all that can be said, and all that need be said. It is saying, in other words that the privileges in question are no matter of natural rights, but to be settled by convention, as the good and safety of society may require. If society should disfranchise individuals convicted of infamous crimes, would this be an invasion of natural right? Yet this would not be justified on the score of their moral guilt, but that the good of society required or would be promoted by it. We admit the existence of a moral law, binding on societies as on individuals. Society must act in good faith. No man, or body of men, has a right to inflict pain or privation on others, unless with a view, after full and impartial deliberation, to prevent a greater evil. If this deliberation be had, and the decision made in good faith, there can be no imputation of moral guilt. Has any politician contended that the very existence of governments in which there are orders privileged by law, constitutes a violation of morality ; that their continuance is a crime, which men are bound to put an end to, without any consideration of the good or evil to result from the change ? Yet this is the natural inference from the dogma of the natural equality of men as applied to our institution of Slavery—an equality not to be invaded without injustice and wrong, and requiring to be restored instantly, unqualifiedly, and without reference to consequences…

Man is born to subjection. Not only during infancy is he dependent, and under the control of others; at all ages, it is the very bias of his nature, that the strong and the wise should control the weak and the ignorant…

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John C. Calhoun, Speech on the Oregon Bill, 1848

If we trace it back, we shall find the proposition differently expressed in the Declaration of Independence. That asserts that “all men are created equal.” The form of expression, though less dangerous, is not less erroneous. All men are not created. According to the Bible, only two, a man and a woman, ever were, and of these one was pronounced subordinate to the other. All others have come into the world by being born, and in no sense, as I have shown, either free or equal. But this form of expression being less striking and popular, has given way to the present, and under the authority of a document put forth on so great an occasion, and leading to such important consequences, has spread far and wide, and fixed itself deeply in the public mind. It was inserted in our Declaration of Independence without any necessity. It made no necessary part of our justification in separating from the parent country, and declaring ourselves independent. Breach of our chartered privileges, and lawless encroachment on our acknowledged and well-established rights by the parent country, were the real causes, and of themselves sufficient, without resorting to any other, to justify the step. Nor had it any weight in constructing the governments which were substituted in the place of the colonial. They were formed of the old materials and on practical and well-established principles, borrowed for the most part from our own experience and that of the country from which we sprang.

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George Fitzhugh, “Cannibals All,” 1856

We agree with Mr. Jefferson, that all men have natural and inalienable rights. To violate or disregard such rights, is to oppose the designs and plans of Providence, and cannot “come to good.” The order and subordination observable in the physical, animal and human world, show that some are formed for higher, others for lower stations—the few to command, the many to obey. We conclude that about nineteen out of every twenty individuals have “a natural and inalienable right” to be taken care of and protected; to have guardians, trustees, husbands, or masters; in other words, they have a natural and inalienable right to be slaves. The one in twenty are as clearly born or educated, or some way fitted for command and liberty. Not to make them rulers or masters, is as great a violation of natural right, as not to make slaves of the mass. A very little individuality is useful and necessary to society,—much of it begets discord, chaos and anarchy…

Set your miscalled free laborers actually free, by giving them enough property or capital to live on, and then call on us at the South to free our negroes. At present, you Abolitionists know our negro slaves are much the freer of the two; and it would be a great advance towards freeing your laborers, to give them guardians, bound, like our masters, to take care of them, and entitled, in consideration thereof, to the proceeds of their labor…

We do not agree with the authors of the Declaration of Independence, that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The women, the children, the negroes, and but few of the non-property holders were consulted, or consented to the Revolution, or the governments that ensued from its success. As to these, the new governments were self-elected despotisms, and the governing class self-elected despots. Those governments originated in force, and have been continued by force. All governments must originate in force, and be continued by force. The very term, government, implies that it is carried on against the consent of the governed. Fathers do not derive their authority, as heads of families, from the consent of wife and children, nor do they govern their families by their consent. They never take the vote of the family as to the labors to be performed, the moneys to be expended, or as to anything else. Masters dare not take the vote of slaves, as to their government. If they did, constant holiday, dissipation and extravagance would be the result…

They are all governments of force, not of consent. Even in our North, the women, children, and free negroes, constitute four-fifths of the population; and they are all governed without their consent. … The widows and free negroes begin to vote in some of those States, and they will have to let all colors and sexes and ages vote soon, or give up the glorious principles of human equality and universal emancipation.

The experiment which they will make, we fear, is absurd in theory, and the symptoms of approaching anarchy and agrarianism among them, leave no doubt that its practical operation will be no better than its theory. Anti-rentism, “vote-myself-a-farm” ism, and all the other isms, are but the spattering drops that precede a social deluge…

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Alexander Stephens, “Cornerstone Speech,” March 1861

But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other — though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is 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. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind — from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics; their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just — but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

Contracts, Political Commitments, and Freedom

In 1867, Lysander Spooner, a hero to many of today’s critics of Abraham Lincoln and one of the sixteenth president’s most vociferous postwar detractors, defended [white] southerners against the charge that they were traitors in the recently concluded Civil War, in part because they had not actually consented to the Constitution. “The number who actually consented to the Constitution of the United States, at the first, was very small,” Spooner reasoned. Consequently, “the adoption of the Constitution was the merest farce and imposture, binding upon nobody. The women, children, and blacks, of course, were not asked to give their consent. . . . Furthermore, those who originally agreed to the Constitution, could therefore bind nobody that should come after them. They could contract for nobody but themselves.” (emphasis mine)

I was recently alerted to an additional, or potential, deficiency in Spooner’s argument (for more see Loathing Lincoln, pp. 72-75) when reading the philosopher Annette Baier’s landmark 1986 essay, Trust and Antitrust.” In that piece, and with great wit, Baier observed the following:

The great moral theorists in our tradition not only are all men, they are mostly men who had minimal dealings with (and so were then minimally influenced by) women. With a few significant exceptions (Hume, Hegel, J.S. Mill, Sidgwick, maybe Bradley) they are a collection of gays, clerics, misogynists, and puritan bachelors. It should not surprise us, then, that particularly in the modern period they managed to relegate to the mental background the web of trust tying most moral agents to one another, and to focus their philosophical attention so single-mindedly on cool distant relations between more or less free and equal adult strangers, say, the members of an all male club, with membership rules and rules for breaking for dealing with rule breakers and where the form of cooperation was restricted to ensuring that each member could read his Times in peace and have no one step on his gouty toes. Explicitly assumed or recognized obligations toward others with the same obligations and the same power to see justice done to rule breakers then are seen as the moral norm.

Now, I want to be clear that I am not saying that Spooner fits all the characteristics Baier enumerated or that his works cannot be read with benefit.  But she reminded me of one of the limitations of our political tradition and of the unhappy consequences if Spooner’s views were ever implemented. Spooner, who never married and rejected “social contract theory,” believed that those who originally agreed to the Constitution, could thereby bind nobody that should come after them. They could contract for nobody but themselves. They had no more [*5] natural right or power to make political contracts, binding upon succeeding generations, than they had to make marriage or business contracts binding upon them.” The implication of such a stance, it seems to me, would be that Americans, in order to truly be “free,” would have to revisit fundamental matters of political consent, or rewrite their entire Constitution, on a relatively frequent basis.

But imagine how destabilizing, not to mention exhausting, this would be in practical terms. As the political theorist Stephen Holmes put it, “An inherited constitution can institutionalize as well as stabilize democracy. It is not only, and not essentially, a hedge against arbitrary government. For instance, it also designs and erects those institutions that render rulers accountable. Because it is relatively hard to change, a constitution can disencumber the present generation. Thus, it cannot plausibly be characterized as an oppressive force, an autocratic attempt by the past to enthrall the future. Precommitment [to previous a Constitution] is justified because it does not enslave but rather enfranchises future generations.” If we are continually revisiting basic political commitments we would be living in a nightmare world of endless political argument and/or legal disputation. And really, who would have the time for such controversy? The wealthiest Americans, I would imagine. And who might benefit? Lawyers, perhaps?

Corey Robin (full disclosure: Corey is a friend of mine) has written about what he thinks such a society – “neoliberal,” he calls it – might look like (and for the purposes of this post I wonder if this might apply as well to a world where we are constantly renegotiating previous generational commitments or using private companies to fulfill their “contracts” to us):

In the neoliberal utopia, all of us are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time keeping track of each and every facet of our economic [and political?] lives. That, in fact, is the openly declared goal: once we are made more cognizant of our money, where it comes from and where it goes, neoliberals believe we’ll be more responsible in spending and investing it. Of course, rich people have accountants, lawyers, personal assistants, and others to do this for them, so the argument doesn’t apply to them, but that’s another story for another day.

The dream is that we’d all have our gazillion individual accounts—one for retirement, one for sickness, one for unemployment, one for the kids, and so on, each connected to our employment, so that we understand that everything good in life depends upon our boss (and not the government)—and every day we’d check in to see how they’re doing, what needs attending to, what can be better invested elsewhere. It’s as if, in the neoliberal dream, we’re all retirees in Boca, with nothing better to do than to check in with our broker, except of course that we’re not. Indeed, if Republicans (and some Democrats) had their way, we’d never retire at all.

In real (or at least our preferred) life, we do have other, better things to do. We have books to read, children to raise, friends to meet, loved ones to care for, amusements to enjoy, drinks to drink, walks to take, webs to surf, couches to lie on, games to play, movies to see, protests to make, movements to build, marches to march, and more. Most days, we don’t have time to do any of that. We’re working way too many hours for too little pay, and in the remaining few hours (minutes) we have, after the kids are asleep, the dishes are washed, and the laundry is done, we have to haggle with insurance companies about doctor’s bills, deal with school officials needing forms signed, and more.

What’s so astounding about Romney’s [private unemployment accounts] proposal—and the neoliberal worldview more generally—is that it would just add to this immense, and incredibly shitty, hassle of everyday life. One more account to keep track of, one more bell to answer. Why would anyone want to live like that? I sure as hell don’t know, but I think that’s the goal of the neoliberals: not just so that we’re more responsible with our money, but also so that we’re more consumed by it: so that we don’t have time for anything else. Especially anything, like politics, that would upset the social order as it is.

As a result, I don’t think that Spooner was correct about consent, for both theoretical and practical reasons. The “stateless society” he and his modern-day compatriots envision would be powerless, as Holmes explains, “to overcome anarchy” or “to correct the unbearable maldistributions of private power.” To quote Abraham Lincoln, “Have we no tendency to the latter condition?”

 

Walker Percy, Science, and Stoicism in America: Are We Lost in the Cosmos?

Walker Percy WeekendI’ve posted, or posted links, about the fun I had at the Walker Percy Weekend in St. Francisville, Louisiana, especially the nice people and the fabulous “bourbon tour” on Saturday evening.

photo (1)Today, however, I’d like to write  a little something about the panels I attended on Saturday morning and afternoon. The morning panel included Micah Mattix (Professor at Houston Baptist University), Peter Lawler (Professor at Berry College), and Leslie Marsh (Professor at University of British Columbia and founder of the Michael Oakeshott Association). The title of the panel’s topic was “Lost in the Cosmos: Is Science Enough Without Religion?” Mattix was the moderator and used Percy’s underappreciated book, Lost in the Cosmos, to begin the discussion. From there Lawler and Marsh gave their answer to the question, which was decidedly in the negative. Lawler, at least in my view, talked significantly more than Marsh. I think my friend Larry Arnhart, a political philosopher who has debated Lawler in the past (Larry was not at the conference), has characterized accurately Lawler’s views here. For what it is worth, I think Larry has the better of the argument by far. Added to this, there was some talk – negative –  of “scientism” by the panel, a term of opprobrium that was/is never very well defined. It seemed to me that the panelists and most of the audience were Christians (I met and sat next to a kind and interesting Pastor of a Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge who shared my interest in Wendell Berry), and what worries them, I think, is that “science” is going into places where it should not tread (e.g. Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA argument). In other words, it is intellectually imperialistic. This is a strange argument to make, considering that Christians believe that all aspects of life are to be explained by Christianity/Jesus. People who oppose “scientism” should remind themselves that sauce for the goose, in short, is sauce for the gander. Scientists have the right and the duty to try and explain the world and they should not shy away from that project because it makes people, or their religious beliefs, uncomfortable. Moreover,  there have been significant developments in how we understand human beings since Percy’s death in 1990 (e.g. mapping of the human genome; startling developments in neuroscience; the excellent work of primatologists) which lead me to believe that Percy’s theory of man might be somewhat “dated.” Still, this does not mean that Percy is not worth reading, for his humour, his trenchant observations about human beings, his critique of American society, including science and religion, and his fine storytelling skills.

The afternoon panel was entitled “Will Percy’s World: Stoicism and the Southern Aristocracy.” I was particularly interested in this panel simply because I came to Walker Percy’s writings through his Uncle Will’s book, Lanterns on the Levee. I had heard of Walker before encountering Lanterns, but dived right in to his novels after reading it. There was much in Will Percy I did not care for (his racism, his patrician outlook, to name just two), but I found, and still find his Stoicism attractive. Just a sampling of gems from his memoir, the last two of which had direct relevance to the panel:

“good cooking is one of the few things that make life bearable.” (page 10)

“But I was learning not so much how lonely I could be as how lonely everybody could be.” (page 27)

“After Fascism and Communism and Capitalism and Socialism are over and forgotten as completely as slavery and the Old South, that same headstrong human heart will be clamoring for the old things it wept for in Eden – love and a chance to be noble, laughter and a chance to adore something, someone, something, somewhere.” (page 34)

“Calling to mind with gratitude those to whom we are indebted on our journey is not only a sort of piety, but one of the few pleasures that endure without loss of luster to the end.” (page 49)

“I’m unhappily convinced that our exteriors have increased in importance while our interiors have deteriorated.” (page 62)

“To be at once intellectual honest and religious is a rack on which many have perished and on which I writhed dumbly, for I knew even then there were certain things which, like overwhelming physical pain, you must fight out alone, at the bottom of your own dark well, beyond ministration of assuagement or word of advice, incommunicado and leper-lonely.” (page 79)

“Peace to them, and endless gratitude.” (page 95 – on his teachers at Sewanee)

“Not satisfied with knowing they were as good as anyone else, they came to believe they were better than anyone else. Always a fatal delusion. They should have remembered hubris from their Greek.” (page 120 – on antebellum “Southern leaders”)

“Not science but the Christian sects are causing the death of religion.” (page 315)

“I suppose crises occurred, problems pressed, decisions had to be made, those four shining years [at Sewanee], but for me only one altered the sunlight. Once a month I would ride ten miles down the wretched mountain road to Winchester, go to confession, hear mass, and take communion. I had been thinking, I had never stopped thinking. I was determined to be honest if it killed me. So I knelt in the little Winchester church examining my conscience and preparing for confession. How it came about did not seem sudden or dramatic or anything but sad. As I started to the confessional I knew there was no use going, no priest could absolve me, no church could direct my life or my judgment, what most believed I could not believe. . . . It was over and forever. I rode back to the leafy mountain mournful and unregretful, knowing thenceforth I should breathe a starker and a colder air, with no place to go when I was tired.” (page 95 – on losing his faith in God at Sewanee)

The two panelists (no moderator this time) were Emily Erwin Jones (Archivist, Delta State) and Ralph Wood (Professor at Baylor University). Jones gave a nice talk on growing up in Greenville, Mississippi, where Will Percy lived (and Walker Percy grew up after his father’s suicide), and on some collections at Delta State related to the town. Still, the star of the show, so to speak, was Wood, who contrasted Will Percy’s “tragic” view of life (see quotes above) with Walker Percy’s “comic” outlook (see Wood’s “Introduction to Walker Percy” here.) Wood was an interesting speaker, well-organized, with copious readings from both Will and Walker Percy’s books. Being a professor at Baylor and having read some of Wood’s works, I was unsurprised by his criticism of Will Percy, nor do I think they were entirely unfair. Still, as I noted above, there are problems with Walker Percy’s thought as well, and I thought that there needed to be more recognition of such shortcomings.

Perhaps a more critical examination of Walker Percy’s works will be in the offing in the future. I certainly hope so. After all, Walker Percy’s best friend was Shelby Foote, a confirmed atheist, if I’m not mistaken, and one who told Percy upon his conversion to Catholicism that “he was in full intellectual retreat.”  It is enough to say at this point that I thoroughly enjoyed my time in St. Francisville and have been reflecting on it ever since leaving and driving home to Texas. It reminded me of the joy I had in reading and rereading Percy’s books and the reason I named my dog, a beautiful, energetic dachshund, now deceased, Walker.

“Walker Percy Weekend” and Updates

Sorry I haven’t posted anything in a few days, but Susan and I traveled to St. Francisville, Louisiana last weekend for the first annual (I can’t imagine there won’t be more) “Walker Percy Festival.” Organized by Rod Dreher, a writer/blogger at The American Conservative magazine, we had a great time eating crawfish, catfish, grilled oysters, sampling some craft beers, and drinking bourbon on a “bourbon tour” of front porches, yet at the same time learning more about Percy (a favorite writer of mine when I was in my thirties and one to whom I still occasionally reread today) and the charming, hospitable town of St. Francisville.  I’ll have more on this festival later in the week.

I have no updates – yet – on when my Virtual Book Signing will be posted online, nor do I know the date of my “Red, White, and Blue,” Interview. Suffice it to say, that you’ll know when I know.

Dealing with Darwin (and Lincoln)

George Orwell once said that “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Sadly, Orwell’s exhortation to freedom has been all too often violated in our nation’s past and reading David N. Livingstone’s excellent book, Dealing with Darwin: Place, Politics, and Rhetoric in Religious Arguments with Evolution (2014) provides confirmation of this abridgment of liberty. Livingstone’s work is based upon his 2014 Gifford Lectures and investigates “how religious communities dealt with Darwin and . . . the role played by what I call place, politics, and rhetoric in public encounters with one of the greatest scientific theories of our time” (preface). His key argument, it seems to me, is that “place, politics, and rhetoric were decisive in how the encounter was conducted and how evolution was judged in . . . different venues” (page 26).

The venue I am most interested in here is, of course, the United States. The fourth chapter of Dealing with Darwin, “Columbia, Woodrow, and the Legacy of the Lost Cause” details the firing of James  Woodrow (the Uncle of future president Woodrow Wilson) “from the professorship he had held for over a quarter of a century at the Southern Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, on account of his views on Darwin’s theory of evolution” (page 117). Woodrow’s “sin”? He thought Darwin was more or less right and it cost him his job.

Now, what interests me here, and be patient dear reader, because this does have relevance to Lincoln, I assure you, is that Woodrow’s case was not only about evolution, but also related to questions regarding race and (white) southern culture. Woodrow’s opponents were biblical literalists and Livingstone shows that “Darwin’s theory challenged [Robert] Dabney’s cozy cosmos head-on” (page 145), it “challenged the foundation of scripture, slavery, sound science, and social stratification on which southern civilization rested” (page 149). This is the same Robert Dabney, of course, who viewed the Civil War as a theological war between the North and South, with the virtuous, white, Christian South attempting to fend off the allegedly godless, mongrel, atheistic North (Yankees). “The Bible was thus appealed to as a means of resisting a host of perceived Yankee evils – radical democracy, emancipation [Lincoln!], higher criticism, and modern science. These were seen as subversive of what was taken to be a biblically sanctioned southern culture and as promoting godless notions of human equality” (page 156).

It is important to note the word emancipation in that  sentence, because in the late nineteenth century it was Lincoln that Americans most associated with the freeing of the slaves. In my research  for Loathing Lincoln I found that Lincoln’s critics were also Darwin’s critics (I think for the most part this is still true and is in need of more investigation). For example, in the 1920s, Lincoln critic Joseph Eggleston, the president of Hampden-Sydney College (where Robert Dabney had taught) worried about the influence of Darwin in Richmond, Virginia’s, churches, and lamented to one correspondent over the way William Jennings Bryan was treated in the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee.

I think this points toward an explanation, at least in the former states of the Confederacy,  of why some white southerners abhorred Lincoln: they equated him with modernism and they believed, as with their fear of Darwin’s theory of evolution, that to venerate Lincoln in any way was to denigrate their beloved white South. So, as I wrote in my book (page 117-118 and based on the work of historian Fred Arthur Bailey):

“No less than primary and secondary schools, higher education in the South also reflected the influence of Lost Cause advocates. In 1911 an especially conspicuous example of southern suppression of pro-Lincoln views occurred when University of Florida professor Enoch Marvin Banks published an article entitled “A Semi-Centennial View of Secession.” Banks argued that, among other things, prior to the war Lincoln and the Republican Party did not want to interfere with slavery in the South and only did so later because of the onset of war. More controversially, Banks claimed that “the Northern position on the subject” of slavery was “in harmony with dictates of an advancing civilization.” Sadly, Banks wrote, “the tragedy of the South’s past, and the tragedy of her present . . . [is] that he does not yet fully realize” this fact. To make matters worse, Banks concluded by favorably comparing Lincoln’s political philosophy with that of Jefferson Davis, which demonstrated the problems, or enemies, that groups such as the UDC rightly believed they faced:

 Viewing the great civil conflict . . . in the light of a broad historical philosophy, we are led irresistibly to the conclusion that the North was relatively in the right, while the South was relatively in the wrong. Lincoln for the North became the champion of the principle of national integrity and declared the time ripe for vindication of its validity; Davis for the South became the champion of the principle of particularism exprest [sic] in State sovereignty and declared the time ripe for its vindication. The one advocated a principle of political organization in harmony with the age in which he lived and in accord with the teachings of history; the other advocated a principle out of harmony with his age and discredited by the history of Europe during the past thousand years. The one was a statesman of the highest order . . . the other was a statesman of a distinctly inferior order in comparison, since the cause which he championed with so much ability, heroism and devotion ran counter to the true course of political and social progress.

Banks was eventually pressured to resign from the University of Florida for such opinions, and he died a few short months later, in November 1911.”

Thus, in the former states of the Confederacy, at the very least in some instances, southerners were not at liberty to hear uncomfortable truths about Darwin or Lincoln, and thus intellectual freedom in the region was diminished.

 

 

Jefferson Davis Holiday in Alabama

The Wall Street Journal reported today that all “state offices will be closed Monday” in Alabama in order to celebrate the birthday of Jefferson Davis, the executive of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.

One member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy is quoted in the piece as saying that “People are afraid of Southern history because it is a flash point, a symbol of racism and hate. But it’s not. There’s just a lack of understanding, knee-jerk reaction and fear by people screaming political correctness. This is who I am and who my family was.”

At the risk of engaging in a “knee-jerk reaction,” I’d like to make a few points in response and in regard to the idea of celebrating Jefferson Davis’s birthday more broadly. I think that the UDC member quoted here is conflating “Southern history” with white Southern history. Remember, in large swaths of the Confederacy, the majority of the inhabitants of various states (e.g. slaves) wanted the Confederacy to lose. The slaves did not want Davis and his cohorts to successfully establish a slaveholding republic that permanently enshrined slavery as natural and right. Added to this, throughout the Confederacy there were large numbers of whites opposed to the idea of secession, the break-up of the Union, and later fought in the Union Army.

Now, I happen to agree with the UDC member that there is a lack of understanding about Davis, especially what he stood for. To be specific, as James Huston shows in his book Calculating the Value of the Union, Davis believed that one set of human beings should be able to be able to own another set of human beings and take them virtually anywhere (except the free states) they wish in the United States. To wit:

“All property is best managed where Governments least interfere, and the practice of our Government has been generally founded on that principle. . . . What is there in the character of that property [slaves] which excludes it from the general benefit of the principles applied to all other property.”

Or, consider this from Davis, in an address to the Confederate Congress in 1861:

“As soon, how ever, as the Northern States that prohibited African slavery within their limits had reached a number sufficient to give their representation a controlling voice in the Congress, a persistent and organized system of hostile measures against the rights of the owners of slaves in the Southern States was inaugurated and gradually extended. A continuous series of measures was devised and prosecuted for the purpose of rendering insecure the tenure of property in slaves. Fanatical organizations, supplied with money by voluntary subscriptions, were assiduously engaged in exciting amongst the slaves a spirit of discontent and revolt; means were furnished for their escape from their owners, and agents secretly employed to entice them to abscond; the constitutional provision for their rendition to their owners was first evaded, then openly denounced as a violation of conscientious obligation and religious duty; men were taught that it was a merit to elude, disobey, and violently oppose the execution of the laws enacted to secure the performance of the promise contained in the constitutional compact; owners of slaves were mobbed and even murdered in open day solely for applying to a magistrate for the arrest of a fugitive slave; the dogmas of these voluntary organizations soon obtained control of the Legislatures of many of the Northern States, and laws were passed providing for the punishment, by ruinous fines and long-continued imprisonment in jails and penitentiaries, of citizens of the Southern States who should dare to ask aid of the officers of the law for the recovery of their property. Emboldened by success, the theater of agitation and aggression against the clearly expressed constitutional rights of the Southern States was transferred to the Congress; Senators and Representatives were sent to the common councils of the nation, whose chief title to this distinction consisted in the display of a spirit of ultra fanaticism, and whose business was not “to promote the general welfare or insure domestic tranquillity,” but to awaken the bitterest hatred against the citizens of sister States by violent denunciation of their institutions; the transaction of public affairs was impeded by repeated efforts to usurp powers not delegated by the Constitution, for the purpose of impairing the security of property in slaves, and reducing those States which held slaves to a condition of inferiority. Finally a great party was organized for the purpose of obtaining the administration of the Government, with the avowed object of using its power for the total exclusion of the slave States from all participation in the benefits of the public domain acquired by all the States in common, whether by conquest or purchase; of surrounding them entirely by States in which slavery should be prohibited; of thus rendering the property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless, and thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars. This party, thus organized, succeeded in the month of November last in the election of its candidate for the Presidency of the United States.

In the meantime, under the mild and genial climate of the Southern States and the increasing care and attention for the wellbeing and comfort of the laboring class, dictated alike by interest and humanity, the African slaves had augmented in number from about 600,000, at the date of the adoption of the constitutional compact, to upward of 4,000,000. In moral and social condition they had been elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers, and supplied not only with bodily comforts but with careful religious instruction. Under the supervision of a superior race their labor had been so directed as not only to allow a gradual and marked amelioration of their own condition, but to convert hundreds of thousands of square miles of the wilderness into cultivated lands covered with a prosperous people; towns and cities had sprung into existence, and had rapidly increased in wealth and population under the social system of the South; the white population of the Southern slaveholding States had augmented from about 1,250,000 at the date of the adoption of the Constitution to more than 8,500,000 in 1860; and the productions of the South in cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco, for the full development and continuance of which the labor of African slaves was and is indispensable, had swollen to an amount which formed nearly three-fourths of the exports of the whole United States and had become absolutely necessary to the wants of civilized man. With interests of such overwhelming magnitude imperiled, the people of the Southern States were driven by the conduct of the North to the adoption of some course of action to avert the danger with which they were openly menaced.”

Contrast this with a statement of Abraham Lincoln’s from 1860:

“Look at the magnitude of this subject! One sixth of our population, in round numbers—not quite one sixth, and yet more than a seventh,—about one sixth of the whole population of the United States are slaves! The owners of these slaves consider them property. The effect upon the minds of the owners is that of property, and nothing else—it induces them to insist upon all that will favorably affect its value as property, to demand laws and institutions and a public policy that shall increase and secure its value, and make it durable, lasting and universal. The effect on the minds of the owners is to persuade them that there is no wrong in it. The slaveholder does not like to be considered a mean fellow, for holding that species of property, and hence he has to struggle within himself and sets about arguing himself into the belief that Slavery is right. The property influences his mind. The dissenting minister, who argued some theological point with one of the established church, was always met by the reply, “I can’t see it so.” He opened the Bible, and pointed him to a passage, but the orthodox minister replied, “I can’t see it so.” Then he showed him a single word—“Can you see that?” “Yes, I see it,” was the reply. The dissenter laid a guinea over the word and asked, “Do you see it now?” [Great laughter.] So here. Whether the owners of this species of property do really see it as it is, it is not for me to say, but if they do, they see it as it is through 2,000,000,000 of dollars, and that is a pretty thick coating. [Laughter.] Certain it is, that they do not see it as we see it. Certain it is, that this two thousand million of dollars, invested in this species of property, all so concentrated that the mind can grasp it at once—this immense pecuniary interest, has its influence upon their minds.

But here in Connecticut and at the North Slavery does not exist, and we see it through no such medium. To us it appears natural to think that slaves are human beings; men, not property; that some of the things, at least, stated about men in the Declaration of Independence apply to them as well as to us. [Applause.] I say, we think, most of us, that this Charter of Freedom applies to the slave as well as to ourselves, that the class of arguments put forward to batter down that idea, are also calculated to break down the very idea of a free government, even for white men, and to undermine the very foundations of free society. [Continued applause.] We think Slavery a great moral wrong, and while we do not claim the right to touch it where it exists, we wish to treat it as a wrong in the Territories, where our votes will reach it. We think that a respect for ourselves, a regard for future generations and for the God that made us, require that we put down this wrong where our votes will properly reach it. We think that species of labor an injury to free white men—in short, we think Slavery a great moral, social and political evil, tolerable only because, and so far as its actual existence makes it necessary to tolerate it, and that beyond that, it ought to be treated as a wrong.

Now these two ideas, the property idea that Slavery is right, and the idea that it is wrong, come into collision, and do actually produce that irrepressible conflict which Mr. Seward has been so roundly abused for mentioning. The two ideas conflict, and must conflict.

Again, in its political aspect, does anything in any way endanger the perpetuity of this Union but that single thing, Slavery? Many of our adversaries are anxious to claim that they are specially devoted to the Union, and take pains to charge upon us hostility to the Union. Now we claim that we are the only true Union men, and we put to them this one proposition: What ever endangered this Union, save and except Slavery? Did any other thing ever cause a moment’s fear? All men must agree that this thing alone has ever endangered the perpetuity of the Union. But if it was threatened by any other influence, would not all men say that the best thing that could be done, if we could not or ought not to destroy it, would be at least to keep it from growing any larger? Can any man believe that the way to save the Union is to extend and increase the only thing that threatens the Union, and to suffer it to grow bigger and bigger? [Great applause.]

Whenever this question shall be settled, it must be settled on some philosophical basis. No policy that does not rest upon some philosophical public opinion can be permanently maintained. And hence, there are but two policies in regard to Slavery that can be at all maintained. The first, based on the property view that Slavery is right, conforms to that idea throughout, and demands that we shall do everything for it that we ought to do if it were right. We must sweep away all opposition, for opposition to the right is wrong; we must agree that Slavery is right, and we must adopt the idea that property has persuaded the owner to believe—that Slavery is morally right and socially elevating. This gives a philosophical basis for a permanent policy of encouragement.

The other policy is one that squares with the idea that Slavery is wrong, and it consists in doing everything that we ought to do if it is wrong. Now, I don’t wish to be misunderstood, nor to leave a gap down to be misrepresented, even. I don’t mean that we ought to attack it where it exists. To me it seems that if we were to form a government anew, in view of the actual presence of Slavery we should find it necessary to frame just such a government as our fathers did; giving to the slaveholder the entire control where the system was established, while we possessed the power to restrain it from going outside those limits. [Applause.] From the necessities of the case we should be compelled to form just such a government as our blessed fathers gave us; and, surely, if they have so made it, that adds another reason why we should let Slavery alone where it exists.

If I saw a venomous snake crawling in the road, any man would say I might seize the nearest stick and kill it; but if I found that snake in bed with my children, that would be another question. [Laughter.] I might hurt the children more than the snake, and it might bite them. [Applause.] Much more, if I found it in bed with my neighbor’s children, and I had bound myself by a solemn compact not to meddle with his children under any circumstances, it would become me to let that particular mode of getting rid of the gentleman alone. [Great laughter.] But if there was a bed newly made up, to which the children were to be taken, and it was proposed to take a batch of young snakes and put them there with them, I take it no man would say there was any question how I ought to decide! [Prolonged applause and cheers.]

That is just the case! The new Territories are the newly made bed to which our children are to go, and it lies with the nation to say whether they shall have snakes mixed up with them or not. It does not seem as if there could be much hesitation what our policy should be! [Applause.]

Now I have spoken of a policy based on the idea that Slavery is wrong, and a policy based upon the idea that it is right. But an effort has been made for a policy that shall treat it as neither right or wrong. It is based upon utter indifference. Its leading advocate has said “I don’t care whether it be voted up or down.” [Laughter.] “It is merely a matter of dollars and cents.” “The Almighty has drawn a line across this continent, on one side of which all soil must forever be cultivated by slave labor, and on the other by free;” “when the struggle is between the white man and the negro, I am for the white man; when it is between the negro and the crocodile, I am for the negro.” Its central idea is indifference. It holds that it makes no more difference to us whether the Territories become free or slave States, than whether my neighbor stocks his farm with horned cattle or puts it into tobacco. All recognize this policy, the plausible sugar-coated name of which is “popular sovereignty.” [Laughter.]”

By all means, let us study the life and career of Jefferson Davis. As I said in my book, Loathing Lincoln:

“in 2010, the Texas State Board of Education started requiring schoolchildren in the Lone Star State to read the inaugural addresses of both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Such a requirement makes perfect pedagogical sense if the purpose is to expose students to stances taken by important historical actors and their divergent interpretation of events. But it is another thing entirely if Davis and the cause he advocated—the perpetuation of inhuman bondage—is characterized instead as resistance to centralized government in the name of states’ rights and placed on the same moral plane as Lincoln’s desire to abolish the pernicious institution of slavery, ensure that all men enjoy the fruits of their labors, and preserve the Union from its foes.”

So, let us not honor him Jefferson Davis with holidays, nor give credence to the idea that “Southern history” equates solely with the Confederacy. Instead, may I offer a suggestion? Because Davis believed that there was property in man, and his Republican opponents did not, I propose that Alabama replace their holiday celebrating Jefferson Davis’s birthday with one that celebrates Lincoln’s, or, even better, Frederick Douglass’. What do you think?