The Lincoln-Douglas Debates Continue: What is Equality?

On October 13, 1858, Abraham Lincoln spoke to the crowd at Quincy, Illinois, about the most divisive controversy of the time. It was a disturbing issue. It was a dangerous issue. They would be better prepared, he noted, to discuss the matter if properly defined.

Reduced to lowest terms, the problem was “no other than the difference between the men who think slavery a wrong and those who do not think it wrong.” This was Lincoln’s sixth debate with incumbent senator and former judge Stephen A. Douglas for the U. S. Senate seat.[1]

How could Americans have held such antagonistic views? It is appalling to us that many citizens then argued forcefully for such a reprehensible practice. It also can be inexplicable, and therefore tempting to dismiss those people as intellectually and morally inferior. Such dismissal would foreclose valuable lessons.

Washed by an ocean of blood, the question would be resolved with constitutional clarity, but that was not known to those listening in Quincy. Only the one issue profoundly split the body politic; on most social, cultural, and civil topics, and despite regional differences, it could be argued that the nation was more united in 1858 than it is now.

We have no one great problem today, but the people seem increasingly antagonistic about many things, manifesting cracks in the moral consensus. Today’s issues also are profoundly disturbing and dangerous in the minds of Americans; the parameters are unclear, and although civil war is not likely, solutions are not evident.

Our troubles might be more diffuse, but they are not lesser in moral and Constitutional significance, and some are uninterrupted since then. Fundamental themes reveal historical continuity. If one assumes human nature as constant within a common ethos, and if one assumes that the motivations of fellow citizens are explicable, a comparison between then and now as reflected in Lincoln’s words sheds light on both eras.

Proponents of current controversies appear in the same relationship to each other as Lincoln and Douglas. Setting aside obvious dissimilarities in the times and focusing on basics, perhaps we can, again, learn from Mr. Lincoln. Perhaps also we can develop a better understanding of how future Americans might in turn judge us.

A corollary to Lincoln’s definition of the dilemma is the distinction between those who believe an ambiguous class of human beings may be defined as substantively inferior—and therefore less than full citizens—and those who think the “all” in “all men are created equal” means “all.”

The future president also struggled with the definition of “equal” by seeking to distinguish between natural rights and political or social rights; he insisted on the former but denied advocating the latter. “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races,” he stated in the first debate at Ottawa and reiterated on several occasions. “My feelings will not admit of this.”[2]

At Quincy: “There is a physical difference between the two which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together on the footing of perfect equality; and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.” He also agreed with Douglas that the black man was not equal to the white, “in many respects, certainly not in color, perhaps not in intellectual and moral endowments.”[3]

But note the qualifiers and the significance of what he did not say. Lincoln is nothing if not precise in words. He “had no purpose” to introduce political or social equality; his “feelings will not admit” of that option at this time. Those formulations, however, preclude neither the premise nor the possibility of equality.

Physical difference will just “probably” prevent peaceful coexistence, but not certainly or inevitably, the position taken by most. He favored white supremacy only “inasmuch as it becomes a necessity,” implying that it was not and might not become necessary. The single attribute in which the black man is “certainly” unequal, says Lincon, is color—a meaningless distinction rather dripping of irony and sarcasm. Meanwhile, inequality in moral or intellectual endowment rates only a “perhaps.” We see herein the genesis of the Great Emancipator’s ensuing evolution on the subject.

Even if he did accept complete equality, Lincoln continued, “we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if, indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill founded, cannot be safely disregarded. We cannot, then, make them equals.”

Stephen A. Douglas (LOC)

And again, in the same address: “In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.” A good lesson for today’s leaders. [4]

This senatorial candidate was speaking to preconceptions of his audience, which every politician must. He was diffusing persistent allegations by his opponents of abolitionism and egalitarianism that would repel voters in droves. The notions of social and political equality among the races were the extreme fringe at the time, an indication of how far we have come.

Here is the key: Regardless of his beliefs, and regardless of justice or judgement—or lack thereof—in the citizenry, Lincoln could not lead where public opinion was not prepared to follow, at least not yet. He could and would, however, work to “mold” them in the right direction.

Lincoln was not convinced that color should make any difference in definitions of equality of any kind. His concerns about coexistence had more to do with the attitudes of his fellow countrymen and with the situational practicality than any personal conviction of racial inferiority. None of this negated equality as a natural, and therefore Constitutional, right.

The Rail Splitter hated slavery and always had. His entire life had been about pulling himself up by the bootstraps, overcoming a hardscrabble, ignorant, dirt grubbing, authoritarian, backcountry existence that he likened to slavery; his father had been a hard task master who held the young man back, and then rented his labor out and kept the proceeds. “I was once a slave,” Lincoln remarked years later, “we were all slaves one time or another,” the only difference being that “white men could make themselves free and the Negroes could not.”[5]

Abraham Lincoln in Monmouth, IL, October 11, 1858, two days before sixth debate with Stephen Douglas. (LOC)

The institution was a monstrous injustice, he thought, depriving our republican example of its just influence in the world. It enabled enemies of freedom to taunt us as hypocrites and friends to doubt our sincerity.

Most seriously, slavery, “forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty, criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”[6]

In Chicago, Lincoln responded to a speech in which Douglas reiterated his unequivocal position that the government was made for the white man. Specifically, the judge equated the “people of America” to English decedents of the founders.

However, countered Lincoln, we have among us, “perhaps half our people who…have come from Europe, German, Irish, French, and Scandinavian…or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things.” They cannot trace their connection to the nation by blood.

When these immigrants look to the Declaration of Independence, “they find that those old men say that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” This is their connection to the founders, the “father of all moral principle.” They may legitimately claim it as “blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh.” It is “the electric cord…that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.”

According to Judge Douglas, Lincoln continued, the Declaration means “you Germans are not connected with it…. Now, I ask you in all soberness if all these things, if indulged in, if ratified, if confirmed and indorsed, if taught to our children, and repeated to them, do not tend to rub out the sentiment of liberty in the country, and to transform this government into a government of some other form.”

Douglas will manage in a later debate to loosely expand his definition of “the people” to include white Europeans, but Lincoln was making a larger point. Arguments about an inferior race are “the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world…. [that] the people were better off for being ridden.” The Judge’s assertion “is the same old serpent that says, You work, and I eat; you toil, and I will enjoy the fruits of it.”

The authors of the Declaration, he continued, “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.” Is there any better definition of American exceptionalism?

“I should like to know,” Lincoln exhorted his audience, “if taking this old Declaration of Independence…and making exceptions to it, where will it stop? If one man says it does not mean a negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man?” At the Springfield debate, he put it this way: “If Judge Douglas and his friends are not willing to stand by [the Declaration], let them come up and amend it. Let them make it read that all men are created equal except Negroes.” [7]

There is, he said at Ottawa, “no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man…. In the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal, and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.”[8]

Lincoln’s conclusion: “Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man, this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position…. Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.” [9]

Color was not the reason for subjugating others in 1858; it was the excuse for it, the excuse for advancing social, economic, and political domination of a self-defined elite. And today, loud and insistent voices still speak for Judge Douglas, maintaining that race is a definitive measure of worth.

But modern devotees of Douglas go further, demanding that government rectify past injustices with present and future injustices. It is only necessary, they say, to selectively reverse the colors of disfavored and advantaged classes and then substitute an infinitely elastic concept of “equity” for the principle of equality. To bring some people up, we must push others down, as determined by those in power and based more on political allegiance than color. Color is again the excuse.

Abraham Lincoln would disagree. Such a practice, “forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty, criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”

The debates continue.

See more on the Lincoln-Douglas Debates in previous posts:

1860 Politics – Lincoln-Douglas Debates Continue: Moral Consensus and Thin Democracy

1860’s Politics: Lincoln-Douglas Debates Continue, Part II: Supreme Court and Choice

1860’s Politics: Lincoln-Douglas Debates Continue, Part III: Self-Government and Political Correctness

[1] Arthur Brooks Lapsley, ed., “Sixth Joint Debate at Quincy, October 13, 1858” in The Complete Papers and Writings of Abraham Lincoln: Constitutional Edition, loc. 9131 of 22720, Kindle. Hereafter cited as Complete Papers.

[2] Complete Papers, “First Joint Debate at Ottawa, August 21, 1858,” loc. 7385, 7396.

[3] Complete Papers, “Sixth Joint Debate at Quincy, loc. 9040; Complete Papers, “First Joint Debate at Ottawa,” loc. 7386.

[4] Complete Papers, “First Joint Debate at Ottawa,” loc. 7386, 7608.

[5] Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2009), 18.

[6] Complete Papers, “First Joint Debate at Ottawa,” loc. 7375; .

[7] Complete Papers, “Speech at Chicago, July 10, 1858,” loc. 6980-7012; Complete Papers, “Speech at Springfield, July 17, 1858,” 7298.

[8] Complete Papers, “First Joint Debate at Ottawa,” loc. 7408.

[9] Complete Papers, “Speech at Chicago,” loc. 7012.

4 Responses to The Lincoln-Douglas Debates Continue: What is Equality?

  1. I wasn’t sure where the author was going until I read the next to last paragraph. I believe that today we are not dealing with equality but rather with one of the bases of Common Civil Law – damages. When a court finds that one’s actions have caused harm to another the damaged party can seek restoration. Clearly the over 200 years of slavery and the next 100 years of Jim Crow damaged African Americans. What is the appropriate way to undo this damage? We have been struggling to answer this question for the last 60 years. Sherman’s answer was providing land but that opportunity was lost when Johnson reversed that policy. The response of the 1960s was to provide additional opportunity to the means of self-advancement – education, jobs, housing, etc. If one looks at statistics and demographics, clearly the lingering damage of slavery and Jim Crow persist. The real question is not if we are all equal under the law, but how do we compensate those who were denied equality.

    1. Both parties to inequities of the past, the abuser and the victim, are beyond punishment or compensation in this life. Any attempt to do so simply creates new classes of abusers and victims, perpetuating the cycle. What we must to is continue advancing the cause of equality for which our ancestors fought and died, as Lincoln says, “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.”

      1. Amen. Thank you for this post. Lincoln was right that “public sentiment is everything.” Sometimes we forget that point in studying history and in considering our current times as well.

  2. Excellent, thought-provoking article. And such a difficult topic to address succinctly…
    As a minor addition: There were four outcomes of the Lincoln/ Douglas Debates:
    1) Judge Douglas “won the battle, but lost the war.” Winning election to the U.S. Senate, Stephen A. Douglas went on to win his Party’s Nomination for President in 1860… but it was a poisoned chalice;
    2) Abraham Lincoln got Stephen Douglas to admit “that he was not necessarily in favor of the practice of slavery; he was primarily concerned with defusing the controversy surrounding slavery” [Smithsonian Magazine SEP 2008 “How Lincoln bested Douglas…” by Fergus M. Bordewich.] For most of the 1850s Judge Douglas “had performed a political high-wire act, striving to please his Northern supporters without alienating Southerners” [Smithsonian Magazine SEP 2008.] It was Senator Douglas who was a driving force behind the Kansas- Nebraska Act of 1854, the passage of which resulted in tearing up the compact of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, expanding the opportunity for slavery to encroach everywhere. Justice Taney then declared the Missouri Compromise, in operation thirty years, “unconstitutional.” Douglas repeated his Debate assertions regarding slavery to a popular magazine; the piece so inflamed the South that copies of the magazine article were made into a pamphlet and distributed widely, with the associated understanding, “THIS makes Stephen Douglas unfit to act on behalf of Southern interests.” And Breckinridge became the nominee of Southern Democrats.
    3) Lincoln “lost the battle, but won the war.” The telegraph only reached Chicago in 1848; and the extensions south and west from the Windy City tended to follow the rail lines, which meant that not every community had its own telegraph office. But horsemen galloped the required distance… and the telegraph allowed copies of the day’s Debate to “hit the wires” almost immediately and be read in New York, Boston, Baltimore, Richmond and Charleston within 48 hours. Thus, “local celebrity” Lincoln was thrust upon the National stage, providing name-recognition that would be crucial only 18 months later;
    4) The Lincoln/ Douglas Debates, conducted on the heels of Bloody Kansas, crystallized the unsavory character of the Institution of Slavery, and forced every member of the audience – attendees in Galesburg, and readers in Charleston – to come to grips with the reality of the Peculiar Institution, and “pick a side.” [Shortly thereafter, in response to the Wide Awake movement that swept the North in 1860, Southerners and Democrats taunted the thousands of marchers: “What are you wide awake to?”] Read the transcripts of the seven Lincoln/ Douglas Debates to find out.

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