BookChat with Lucas Morel, author of Lincoln and the American Founding

I was pleased to spend some time with a recently released book by historian Lucas E. Morel, author of Lincoln and the American Founding, part of the Concise Lincoln Library from Southern Illinois University Press (find out more about it here). Morel is Professor of Politics and Head of the Politics Department at Washington and Lee University.

The book contends that “without the ideals of the American Revolution, Lincoln’s most famous speeches would be unrecognizable….” That means Lincoln himself, as we know him today, would be unrecognizable. That’s huge. Can you speak to that for just a moment?

So many of the ways that Lincoln described American self-government derive from the principles and aspirations of the Declaration of Independence:

  • “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”
  • “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom”
  • “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”
  • “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.”
  • “no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent”
  • “Let us have faith that right makes might”
  • “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”
  • “gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance”
  • “the individual rights of man”

Lucas E. Morel

You mention “human equality, individual liberty, and government by the consent of the governed” as universal principles of the founding. Each of those were, of course, problematic in their own way, particularly as they related to the obvious contradiction of slavery. Did Lincoln successfully clarify those principles in his own time? Have Lincoln’s expansion on those themes stood the test of time?

What brought Lincoln ought of political obscurity and into national prominence (as a Whig-turned-Republican politician) was his ability to clarify or explain what the principles and aspirations of the Declaration of Independence meant in light of the pre-existing institution of slavery. His comments about the founders’ decision not to emancipate immediately upon establishing their independence from Great Britain usually related to explaining their efforts to erect the institutions of self-government on proper principles and trust that their operation over time would lead to the abolition of slavery “as fast as circumstances should permit.” Those circumstances, of course, included the operation of one of those very principles upon which the new American nation was based—namely, government by consent of the governed.  If justice entailed the protection of what all members of a political community possessed in common—their individual rights—, then justice also required that the only legitimate means of securing that end was through the permission of the governed.  This meant that it would take time for everyone to live out in practice the complete implications of the principles of the regime.

Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man (1952), once described the (white) American people as folks who were caught “between what they professed to believe and what they feel they can’t do without.”  Those feelings include prejudices, ignorance, and related human fears and frailties that would necessarily insinuate themselves into the consent that is expressed in the political process.  Given the fallibility, imperfection, habits, and sinfulness (as most of the American founders understood it) of human beings, civil society will never be comprehensively just towards all members of society.  The real question is, has the regime founded itself on principles of right (and not simply self-interested might) as well as constitutional mechanisms and modes of operation that make it more than likely that right will dictate the exercise of political might in pursuit of justice and the common good?

In light of this, how ought we to define Lincoln’s “success” in defending and implementing these just principles by the imperfect society of human beings in which he lived?  He was unwilling to allow white Americans to drift into complacency or indifference regarding the expansion of black slavery into the federal territories.  He therefore was unwilling to allow citizens of 11 states to pretend they were no longer Americans and bound by the constitution and laws they had hitherto lived and prospered under.  When they “seceded,” he treated that collective action as a “gigantic rebellion,” and exercised his powers as commander-in-chief to fulfill his oath of office to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the U.S.”  His presidential actions to defend the union of the American states and the integrity of the Constitution and its laws and elections, along with speeches and public letters that explained these actions in light of his presidential duty under the Constitution and the  principles of the Declaration of Independence, produced a costly but ultimately successful victory by contest of arms—a military contest that necessitated (in his mind) the emancipation of most of the American slaves as a means to win the war.  In short, if you think the preservation of the constitutional union of the American states and the liberation of four million black people on American soil constitutes success, then Lincoln was successful.

Have they “stood the test of time”?  No figure in American history has done a better job of explaining the meaning of American self-government in theory and practice than Lincoln.  No one even comes close.

We often argue today about the Founders’ intentions when it comes to various provisions in the Constitution. Lincoln and his peers must have had those same sorts of discussions, didn’t they?

His 1858 debates with Stephen A. Douglas in their campaign for U.S. Senate (where Douglas was the incumbent) drew national attention to a contest of interpretations of “our revolutionary fathers” (as Douglas called them). Douglas published a Harpers Weekly article in September 1859 that offered an interpretation of the founders counter to Lincoln’s of the previous year. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney appealed to the history of founding era to argue that blacks were believed to be “so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”  His history was incorrect, but his appeal to the founding era, along with Douglas’s and Lincoln’s appeal illustrate the concern that the current generation follow the intentions of their forbears.  Vice President Alexander H. Stephens is an outlier in his explicit rejection of the founders in his infamous Cornerstone Speech of March 21, 1861.  Most if not all the rest of the seceding politicians appealed to the founders to bolster their efforts.  Thus, Lincoln was not alone in attempting to get right with the Founders by looking back to their words and deeds in an effort to keep America on the right path: as he put it in 1854, “to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.”  That could only happen if the country re-adopted the Declaration of Independence and put slavery back “on the course of ultimate extinction.”

You argue that Lincoln effectively repurposed those original intents as he, at different times, laid out his arguments for Union and the abolition of slavery. Was that rhetorical wizardry, solid legal argument, or a little of both? Many Southern politicians even abandoned an attempt to lay claim to some of those same original intents; how did that play into Lincoln’s hands?

Short answer is both: he made meticulous arguments regarding the founders intention to wean the nation off of slavery as they established a new republic based upon universal principles of equality and liberty, e.g., see his Cooper Institute Address of Jan. 1860 and his Peoria Address of Oct. 1854; and he painted these efforts in their best light, e.g., see what he highlights from Jefferson (his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, which Lincoln described as follows: “The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society”) and notice what he avoids mentioning, e.g., that he favored a “diffusion” policy of spreading slavery into the western territories in hopes that slaveowners would be more likely to manumit their slaves if they weren’t so outnumbered by them, as they were in a few of the original states.

Longer answer would add that Lincoln did not view the Founders in general as hypocrites on the slavery question.  As he explained: “We had slavery among us, we could not get our constitution unless we permitted them to remain in slavery, we could not secure the good we did secure if we grasped for more, and having by necessity submitted to that much, it does not destroy the principle that is the charter of our liberties.” In brief, he thought the founders did not think they could free themselves and free their slaves at the same time. However, once they had secured their independence, what did they do collectively with regards to the “domestic” or state institution of slavery? Did their federal constitution indicate a desire to strengthen slavery’s hold on the American people or did the framers attempt to reduce their dependence upon the peculiar institution?

Lincoln answered by observing that the U.S. Constitution, unlike the Articles of Confederation, empowered Congress to ban the importation of slaves in 1808.  “A constitutional provision was necessary to prevent the people, through Congress,” Lincoln noted, “from putting a stop to the traffic immediately at the close of the war.  Now, if slavery had been a good thing, would the Fathers of the Republic have taken a step calculated to diminish its beneficent influences among themselves, and snatch the boon wholly from their posterity?”  If the federal government did not possess the authority to abolish slavery right away, given its legality as a state institution, then the founders attempted to begin its eradication by preventing its continued supply.  In addition, under the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of 1787, the Congress passed an ordinance banning slavery from the Northwest Territory, the only territory owned by the United States at that time.  Taken together, these were early attempts at the national level to prevent both the supply and expansion of slavery on American soil.  The expectation was that slavery would eventually wither on the vine and the nation would peacefully outlive the utility of slavery.  Note that these actions and expectations all occurred prior to the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, which is to say prior to the enormous profitability of plantation-grown cotton as an export and what then became the extraordinary productivity of slave labor in harvesting that cash crop.

To be sure, South Carolina and Georgia were always resistant to national control over slavery in their states, and exercised outsized power as a minority of the American states when the states strove “to form a more perfect union.” Thus to speak of “the founders” when it came to expectations regarding slavery over the long haul is to speak in general terms and not to affirm an opinion held by every significant political player in this tragic drama. This is what produced some of the debates at the convention and eventual compromises over slavery in the Constitution, but what Madison expected would lead to the demise of slavery over time.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address added to the same canon of literature the Founders created with the Declaration of Independence, in particular. What similarities do you see between the two as pieces of rhetoric?

Without the Declaration, the Gettysburg Address would have nothing for Lincoln to draw upon to explain the meaning of the war (from the perspective of unionists) and the “new birth of freedom” he intends to produce in 1863, the Year of Jubilee insofar as it was the year that Lincoln emancipated 3-4 million black people from rebel-held territory. Rhetorically, they both appeal to principles of right to justify the use of military force on behalf of a people determined to rule themselves as a constitutional people. (Although southern seceders claimed to be acting in accordance with their revolutionary fathers by seceding or separating from a regime they considered unjust, they actually rejected the Founders’ understanding of self-government.  Republics require good winners and good losers.  Secessionists acted like bad losers by not abiding by their Constitution and a lawfully conducted election in which they participated.). Moreover, both close with an exhortation to duty, which entails an appeal to arms.  George Washington was in the field of battle on July 4th, but had it read to his assembled soldiers on July 9th.

What limits the comparison is the nature of each document, with one an actual speech and the other a statement of political ideals, grievances, and intentions on behalf of a beleaguered people.  One was a presidential speech, the other was a legislative resolution.

Lincoln and Washington are often coupled together in the American imagination as the two greatest presidents. Aside from that very general label, though, what similarities existed between the two?

Chapter 1 of Lincoln and the American Founding shows what Lincoln drew from Washington. In particular, his example of courage and manliness, devotion to the union of American states, moral animus against slavery, and kindly paternal attitude towards the American citizenry.

And here are a few short-answer questions:

What was your favorite source you worked with while writing the book?

The online Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler, which helped me find quotations quicker than thumbing through my own hardcopy set of those 8 volumes. Truth be told, my well-worn edition of the 1946 volume of His Speeches and Writings by Roy P. Basler (which preceded the 8-volume set just mentioned), was the most convenient and readily referenced source; in that book, I knew where on the page certain quotations were!

Who, among the book’s cast of characters, did you come to appreciate better?

Its dramatis personae is quite small, given the focus on Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, and assorted other folks (not to mention the Declaration of Independence, to which I devote the longest chapter of the book). Lincoln, of course!

What’s a favorite sentence or passage you wrote?

“New Jersey senators demonstrated how to be good losers. Lincoln would soon explain in his First Inaugural Address how he intended to be a good winner.” Americans today would do well to profit from this historical example.

What modern location do you like to visit that is associated with events in the book?

The Lincoln Memorial and the Gettysburg Battlefield never get old.

What’s a question people haven’t asked you about this project that you wish they would?

Please tell us more about Stephen A. Douglas and why Lincoln thought he, rather than the most stalwart defender of slavery, was the greatest obstacle to perpetuating an American republic “worthy of the saving.” Why did Lincoln call Douglas’s popular sovereignty policy “insidious” and equated it with any effort by Jefferson Davis to expand slavery in the United States?

2 Responses to BookChat with Lucas Morel, author of Lincoln and the American Founding

  1. This is a very well articulated history lesson by Lucas Morel in my opinion. I appreciate that he explores the nuances of history from the point of view of those who lived it. Our republic is not perfect, nor were our founders. But I still can appreciate both.

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