Lincoln Defines the American Understanding of Equality
On June 26 in 1857, Abraham Lincoln spoke to an audience in Springfield, Illinois to refute a speech given there two weeks earlier by Stephen Douglas. The speech could be seen as a rehearsal for those he would make the following summer as he debated Douglas while campaigning for the Illinois Senate seat. But it already makes a powerful argument against Douglas’ strategy for handling the sectional divide over slavery.
Denying that slavery was inconsistent with fundamental American principles, Douglas championed “popular sovereignty” as a solution to the confrontation between pro- and anti-slave forces that arose each time a western territory made application for statehood. In his recent speech, he had reaffirmed his confidence in this plan despite the violence that had raged in Kansas prior to the referendum there that was supposed to decide whether that state would be slave or free. He also endorsed the Supreme Court decision, made in March 1857, on the case of Dred Scott, a slave who had been transported by his master into a free state and who contended that he had become free during his residence there. Judge Taney had authored the decision which ruled against Scott, and in it he addressed the attitudes of the Founders regarding slavery, given their principle, articulated in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal. ”
According to Lincoln, Taney’s claim, to which Douglas agreed, was that the famous statement on human equality had been only a rhetorical tactic. Douglas had in fact said in his speech that “they were speaking of British subjects on this continent being equal to British subjects born and residing in Great Britain.” Lincoln identified an obvious problem for pro-slave forces with such an argument: it would mean that many white immigrants to the US were not covered by the declaration of human equality. More important, he emphasized the destructive thrust of an argument that denied human equality as the basis for our system of Constitutional government. What Americans would be celebrating a week hence, on the Fourth of July, was a revolution born of a conviction that the Founders fully embraced: All men are created equal. Although Americans had not been prepared to fully realize the principle in their civic life at the Founding, it was true and implied a fully attainable goal, because its import and application were very specific. The Founders
. . . 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, not for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, (and) 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.