Lincoln’s (and the Founding Fathers’) Moral Opposition to Slavery

Footrace political cartoon lithograph, 1860 (Library of Congress)

Throughout his political career, Abraham Lincoln consistently denied claims of being an abolitionist as well as denouncing the establishment of “political and social equality between the whites and the blacks” (30) but rallied the cry for the restriction of slavery in new states and territories while letting it be in places it was already established. Lincoln was steadfast in his views on slavery but his arguments against it developed throughout his career. By the 1860s, he had a full arsenal to use against the perpetuation of slavery, primarily concerning the obvious moral issue of one man enslaving another as well as the denial of the founding principles of America by those who wish to preserve slavery.

In his speech given in Peoria, Illinois in 1854, Lincoln attested that blacks are men and therefore have the right to govern themselves as individuals. Thus, when a white man governs himself plus another man he exceeds the limits of self-government and becomes a despot. The clincher of his argument regarding self-government is this: “no man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent” (32). He supported this claim by using one of the most famous phrases in American history – “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable 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” (32). The relationship between slave and master was in violation of this basic principle of the United States and was therefore immoral and in direct disparity with the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln further pushed the importance of adhering to the country’s founding principles by repeating the founding fathers’ only supporting argument for slavery: it was for necessity only.

He delved further into the hypocrisy in the fundamental arguments for slavery in a fragment written in the late 1850s. He addressed three prongs of the pro-slavery argument and turned their own logic against them. The logical fallacy of the color argument was that whites could enslave blacks so therefore someone, perhaps another white person, with a lighter skintone could enslave white people. The second point was based on the assumption whites were more intelligent than blacks and due to this superior intelligence, whites could enslave blacks – but then a person who was more intelligent than a white person could enslave them by the same method. Finally, pro-slavery arguments contended that if it was in your interest, then you could enslave someone. Again, Lincoln took this logic and turned it against the pro-slavery faction and said that if another man “can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you” (42). Here, Lincoln emphasized that institution of slavery was potentially harmful to all and that if the slaveholders truly believed that they could have their slaves due to superiority in color or intelligence or because it was in their interest, then someone else someone else who was superior to them, according to their own terms, could enslave them as well. Lincoln’s destruction of these principles seemed to denounce white supremacy, yet in 1858 at the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate he said “I am not…in favor of bringing about…the social and political equality of the white and black races…while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race” (57).

Lincoln and Douglas, November 3, 1903. Creator: Jaspard, J. M. (Chicago Historical Society)

Lincoln continued to place the utmost importance on the principles and decisions of the founding fathers. At the seventh Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858, he argued that the founders prohibited the spread of slavery into new territories and banned the slave trade in 1808 because they believed “that it was in the course of ultimate extinction” (59). In his speech at the Cooper Union in February of 1860, he referenced the Constitution and its lack of the word “slavery” as well as the restriction of establishing slavery where it had not been before in order to counter the pro-slavery side’s claim that the Republicans made slavery the hot issue by trying to restrict it and “[discarding] the old policy of the fathers” (73).

Lincoln kept the basic stance of being anti-slavery, but his reasoning evolved. By the time of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, he believed that slavery was not only morally wrong but that it also undermined the core American belief that “all men are created equal” (32), including blacks, despite his inherent racism. By the end of the decade, he criticized the reasons for which slaveholders defended the right to own slaves by demonstrating the way those reasons could be used to enslave the slaveholders by others who were deemed more superior according to the holders’ own defense. By the year of his Presidential nomination, he had mastered the use of the common principles shared among all Americans – the ones declared in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence – as evidence supporting the Republican cause and the freezing of slavery in the states where it already existed and was deemed, just as the founding fathers did, a necessity.

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