February 11, 2024
On February 12, 1809, Nancy Hanks Lincoln gave birth to her second child, a son: Abraham.
Abraham Lincoln grew up to become the nation’s sixteenth president, leading the country from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865, a little over a month into his second term. He piloted the country through the Civil War, preserving the concept of American democracy. It was a system that had never been fully realized but that he still saw as “the last, best hope of earth” to prove that people could govern themselves.
“Four score and seven years ago,” he told an audience at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in November 1863, “our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Lincoln dated the founding of the nation from the Declaration of Independence rather than the Constitution, the document enslavers preferred because of that document’s protection of property. In the Declaration, the Founders wrote that they held certain “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….”
But in Lincoln’s day, fabulously wealthy enslavers had gained control over the government and had begun to argue that the Founders had gotten their worldview terribly wrong. They insisted that their system of human enslavement, which had enabled them to amass fortunes previously unimaginable, was the right one. Most men were dull drudges who must be led by their betters for their own good, southern leaders said. As South Carolina senator and enslaver James Henry Hammond put it, “I repudiate, as ridiculously absurd, that much-lauded but nowhere accredited dogma of Mr. Jefferson, that ‘all men are born equal.’”
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln, then a candidate for the Senate, warned that arguments limiting American equality to white men were the same arguments “that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world…. Turn in whatever way you will—whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent.” Either people—men, in his day—were equal, or they were not. Lincoln went on, “I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it…where will it stop?”
Lincoln had thought deeply about the logic of equality. In his 1860 campaign biography, he permitted the biographer to identify six books that had influenced him. One was a book published in 1817 and wildly popular in the Midwest in the 1830s: Capt. Riley’s Narrative. The book was written by James Riley, and the full title of the book was “An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce, Wrecked on the Western Coast of Africa, in the Month of August, 1815, With the Sufferings of Her Surviving Officers and Crew, Who Were Enslaved by the Wandering Arabs on the Great African Desart [sic], or Zahahrah.” The story was exactly what the title indicated: the tale of white men enslaved in Africa.
In the 1850s, on a fragment of paper, Lincoln figured out the logic of a world that permitted the law to sort people into different places in a hierarchy, applying the reasoning he heard around him. “If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B.—why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?” Lincoln wrote. “You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own. You do not mean color exactly?—You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own. But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.”
Lincoln saw clearly that if we give up the principle of equality before the law, we have given up the whole game. We have admitted the principle that people are unequal and that some people are better than others. Once we have replaced the principle of equality with the idea that humans are unequal, we have granted approval to the idea of rulers and ruled. At that point, all any of us can do is to hope that no one in power decides that we belong in one of the lesser groups.
In 1863, Lincoln reminded his audience at Gettysburg that the Founders had created a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” but it was no longer clear whether “any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” During the Civil War, the people of the United States were defending that principle against those who were trying to create a new nation based, as the Confederacy’s vice president Alexander Stephens said, “upon the great truth” that men were not, in fact, created equal, that the “great physical, philosophical, and moral truth” was that there was a “superior race.”
In the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln called for Americans to understand what was at stake, and to “highly resolve…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
[Photo of Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner, November 8, 1863]