Abraham Lincoln was the most thoughtful and eloquent of American presidents, in some ways the philosopher-poet of the American political order. His prudent and principled leadership allowed for both the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery. As Lucas Morel capably shows, Lincoln drew on the wisdom of the American Founding in opposing slavery and working for its gradual abolition. He stated his political Golden Rule in a note he wrote to himself in 1858: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” This remarkable affirmation transforms the equality clause of the Declaration of Independence into a positive moral obligation. In doing so, as Morel writes, Lincoln “avoided not only the moral neutrality (and white supremacy) of [Stephen] Douglas’s popular sovereignty,” which proclaimed that each new state and territory was free to vote slavery up or down, “but also the moral absolutism of abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison” who would tear down the Constitution itself in a fevered effort to abolish slavery overnight. Lincoln, in contrast, was a constitutionalist who knew that the Constitution’s valuable “frame of silver” must ultimately be informed by the “apple of gold” which is the Declaration of Independence’s recognition that “all men are created equal.” Without this affirmation of a common humanity bequeathed to us by God and nature, the moral foundations of a free society are sure to wither.
This essay is part of RealClearPublicAffairs’s 1776 Series, which explains the major themes that define the American mind.
Abraham Lincoln believed that the success of American self-government required the right ideas and the right institutions. He thought that the right ideas were found in the Declaration of Independence—specifically, human equality, individual rights, government by consent of the governed, and the right of revolution. A corollary to these bedrock principles was “the right to rise,” which Lincoln described as the duty “to improve one’s condition.” These ideas of the Declaration were so fundamental that Lincoln referred to “the principles of Jefferson” as “the definitions and axioms of free society” and “the father of all moral principle” in the American people.
Lincoln thought prudence, not hypocrisy, explained why the founding generation did not free its slaves.
The right political ideas required the right political institutions to make them a reality. Lincoln believed that the chief institutions were the federal constitution, which had formed “a more perfect union” between the states that had secured their independence from Great Britain, and strict adherence to the rule of law. The Constitution, however, contained compromises with slavery—the wrong institution for a people intending to be free. The citizens of the American states thought that maintaining their union was essential to preserving their independence, and therefore accommodated an institution that antedated American independence. As Lincoln put it, “We had slaves among us, we could not get our Constitution unless we permitted them to remain in slavery.” He concluded that “we could not secure the good we did secure if we grasped for more.” Lincoln thought prudence, not hypocrisy, explained why the founding generation did not free its slaves.
That said, Lincoln thought that the viability of the American experiment required putting slavery “on the course of ultimate extinction.” Given that six of the original thirteen states abolished slavery in the early decades of the republic, Lincoln discerned an antislavery impulse in the formative years of the United States. The Declaration’s principles were working their way through the individual states. Moreover, Congress acted to prevent the flow of slaves into the U.S. while also banning the introduction of slavery into the Northwest Territory. As Lincoln saw it, “Having thus prevented its extension and cut off the supply, the Fathers of the Republic believed Slavery must soon disappear.” Only when the American people became divided over the future of slavery in their midst did Lincoln fear for the survival of what he considered “the last best, hope of earth.” He devoted his political career to persuading Americans that the truths of the Declaration provided the surest foundation for the long-term enjoyment of their rights, which required the eventual, and he hoped peaceful, abolition of slavery under the Constitution.
He devoted his political career to persuading Americans that the truths of the Declaration provided the surest foundation for the long-term enjoyment of their rights, which required the eventual, and he hoped peaceful, abolition of slavery under the Constitution.
But the battle for public opinion would be long and difficult. Lincoln’s chief rival, Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of the state of Illinois, also claimed the mantle of the Founders for his policies. Douglas championed what he called “popular sovereignty,” a policy of congressional non-interference with slavery in the territories and states. “I go for maintaining the confederation of the sovereign States under the Constitution, as our fathers made it,” Douglas pronounced, “leaving each State at liberty to manage its own affairs and own internal institutions.” Illinois had decided not to enslave blacks but did not permit them to vote. Douglas was proud of his state’s decision but equally supportive of other states in their exclusive right to regulate the actions of what he called “inferior races,” whether it meant allowing black people to vote up North or enslaving them down South. He thought that his approach played well on either side of the Mason-Dixon line, and would be the ticket to retaining his Senate seat in his campaign against Lincoln in 1858, and especially when they campaigned before a national audience for the presidency in 1860. In reply, Lincoln charted a course for the American people that avoided not only the moral neutrality (and white supremacy) of Douglas’s popular sovereignty, but also the moral absolutism of abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison.
The abolitionist editor of The Liberator, Garrison called for immediate, mass emancipation with inflammatory rhetoric that targeted the apathy of white northerners. “I have need to be all on fire,” he explained, “for I have mountains of ice about me to melt.” In addition to condemning southern slaveholders, he harangued northern citizens, whom he claimed were enabling southern slaveholding by upholding a constitution that compromised with slavery. He put the point plainly on the masthead of his newspaper, which declared, “No Union with Slaveholders.” He deplored the Constitution, with its requirement that fugitive slaves be returned to their legal masters. “The crime of oppression is national,” he intoned, “the south is only the agent in this guilty traffic.” One Fourth of July, he even burned a copy of the Constitution, punctuating the moment with the cry, “So perish all compromises with tyranny.”
Extracts from Garrison’s writings show his disdain for popular consent as a necessary means of securing political justice. In 1832, Garrison called the Constitution “the most bloody and heaven-daring arrangement ever made by men” and “an unblushing and monstrous coalition to do evil that good might come.” In 1838, he helped establish a Non-Resistance Society, which proclaimed, “We cannot acknowledge allegiance to any human government.” In 1845, he said “the American Union” was “conceived in sin, and brought forth in iniquity.” In his most infamous formulation, Garrison called the Constitution a “covenant with death,” an “agreement with hell,” a “refuge of lies,” and concluded that it was “a mighty obstacle in the way of universal freedom and equality.” Clearly, Garrison was no constitutionalist! Beholden only to his conscience before God, he gave short shrift to the consent of the governed that makes government legitimate, and, in America’s case, brought the Union, the United States, into existence.
Garrison preached equality for all but at the expense of government by consent. Douglas enshrined majority rule but at the expense of human equality. Lincoln believed that justice required both.
Garrison preached equality for all but at the expense of government by consent. Douglas enshrined majority rule but at the expense of human equality. Lincoln believed that justice required both. As much as any abolitionist, Lincoln believed in human equality, once stating that “the ‘equality of man’ principle which actuated our forefathers in the establishment of the government is right; and that slavery, being directly opposed to this, is morally wrong.” For Lincoln, the “central idea” of his political thought and action was the equality principle found in the Declaration of Independence, a principle he believed included blacks as well as whites. In 1858, he formulated a kind of political Golden Rule to express the fundamental implication of the Declaration’s equality principle: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.”
Lincoln believed that whites needed to find security for their own rights in something more fundamental than race; according to the Declaration, it was founded upon one’s humanity. Understood as the nation’s first emancipation proclamation, the Declaration of Independence appealed to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” in its attempt to justify liberation from British rule. This appeal to nature, and subsequent reference to human equality and individual rights endowed by a Creator, indicated a basis for self-government that broke with tradition and the divine right of kings while still appealing to a Creator God and natural justice.
Lincoln believed that whites needed to find security for their own rights in something more fundamental than race; according to the Declaration, it was founded upon one’s humanity.
Lincoln was also committed to government by consent, as manifested in the Constitution and in obedience to the rule of law. He believed that “no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent,” and called it “the leading principle—the sheet anchor of American republicanism.” Consent became a practical concern for Lincoln after his election to the presidency. Between his election and inauguration, citizens of seven slaveholding states decided that a Republican president would not protect their interests; they therefore claimed the right to secede from the United States. In response, Lincoln explained the necessity of accepting election outcomes—the concrete expression of consent—regardless of who won or lost. To thrive, republics required good losers as well as good winners.
Lincoln highlighted an instructive example of obedience to the law as he traveled to the White House for his inauguration. On February 21, 1861, the New Jersey State Senate hosted a reception for the president-elect, though a majority of the attendees were Democrats who had voted for Lincoln’s Illinois rival, Stephen Douglas, for president. (New Jersey allowed its seven electoral votes for president to be divided among the leading candidates, with four Republican electors voting for Lincoln and the three Democratic electors choosing Douglas.) With the threat of additional states seceding, Lincoln stopped at New Jersey’s state capitol to deliver brief remarks, which he concluded by calling attention to the polite reception that the New Jersey Senate had given him, “without distinction of party.” He valued this nonpartisan respect from men who, regardless of their votes, accepted the election of a Republican president. Lincoln remarked, “I learn that this body is composed of a majority of gentlemen who, in the exercise of their best judgment in the choice of a Chief Magistrate, did not think I was the man.” Nevertheless, they received him “as the constitutional President of the United States—as citizens of the United States, to meet the man who, for the time being, is the representative man of the nation, united by a purpose to perpetuate the Union and liberties of the people.”
Self-government could not last without self-control on the part of the citizenry, which, at minimum, required obedience to duly elected officials. Government by consent of the governed requires that political dissent be expressed in civil and constitutional ways, not violent or unconstitutional ones. The New Jersey senators demonstrated how to be good losers. Lincoln would spend his presidency explaining how he intended to be a good winner.
For Lincoln, matters of right and wrong were not the mere product of majority vote, but derived from moral standards that reached across time and transcended nations.
Lincoln understood more deeply than any American since the Founding that America’s political development centered on the belief that might does not dictate right. For Lincoln, matters of right and wrong were not the mere product of majority vote, but derived from moral standards that reached across time and transcended nations. He believed that the American Founders declared their independence by appealing to these standards of right. By the 1850s, when the slavery question threatened to dissolve the American union, Lincoln thought that a return to the Founders’ approach could best resolve the controversy.
In December 1860, after his election as the first Republican president, Lincoln received a letter from Alexander H. Stephens, a former Whig ally but soon to become vice president of the Confederate States of America. Stephens himself had argued against secession in a speech to his home state of Georgia. After South Carolina seceded following Lincoln’s election, Stephens wrote to Lincoln asking for a public statement to help calm fears in the southern slaveholding states. “I would have you understand me as being not a personal enemy, but as one who would have you do what you can to save our common country.” Alluding to Proverbs 25:11, Stephens then added: “A word ‘fitly spoken’ by you now would indeed be like ‘apples of gold in pictures of silver.’” Though Lincoln was no conventional believer, he knew his Bible as well as any frontier preacher and caught the reference. He mulled over the metaphor of apples of gold in “pictures” (or settings) of silver—and jotted a note to himself about the connection between the Declaration of Independence and the constitutional union of the American states.
As the nation entered into a secession winter, Stephens thought that citizens would welcome a message from the president-elect before he took office in March. Lincoln disagreed. What Americans needed was not new words from the incoming president, but old words from the nation’s founding. Though he revered the Constitution and the Union, Lincoln understood them as means to a higher end: namely, the protection of individual rights. In his note, he called this “Liberty to all.”
In his “note to self,” Lincoln described the principle of human equality, found in the Declaration of Independence, as follows:
The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture.
Lincoln thought this old way of thinking about humanity, the equality of all human beings, would be better than any new way, whether proposed by him or anyone else. To lose sight of the goal of “Liberty to all” would turn self-government into mere majority rule, thereby allowing numerical might to determine which individuals had rights deserving of government’s protection. If this were to happen, Lincoln once remarked, he would “prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
To lose sight of the goal of “Liberty to all” would turn self-government into mere majority rule, thereby allowing numerical might to determine which individuals had rights deserving of government’s protection.
By the time of the 1860 presidential campaign, he saw two ways of interpreting the Constitution that were undermining the “Spirit of ‘76” as he understood it. On the one hand, southern slaveholders threatened to disrupt the American union on behalf of a new way of thinking about the human race—rejecting human equality in favor of white supremacy and even seeing in slavery a “positive good.” On the other hand, a less obvious threat, and therefore more insidious, was the effort by Stephen Douglas to apply local “popular sovereignty” to the question of slavery in the federal territories. Agreeing with Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s ruling in the 1857 Dred Scott case, Douglas argued that Congress did not have authority over slavery in the territories. He believed that the national crisis over slavery could be lessened if the expansion of black slavery were removed from Congress’s purview and left for local white settlers to decide.
Lincoln thought that Douglas’s professed indifference regarding the expansion of slavery—a position Lincoln referred to as the “don’t care” policy because it taught white Americans not to care about black slavery—would actually result in the spread of slavery and its eventual legality in every state. Douglas’s version of popular sovereignty taught Americans that as long as white people voted on the issue, majority rule could determine whether slavery was right or wrong.
And so the greatest threat to the viability of self-government in the 1850s was not southern white slaveowners but northern white citizens: namely, the temptation not to care what happened to blacks in the federal territories.
And so the greatest threat to the viability of self-government in the 1850s was not southern white slaveowners but northern white citizens: namely, the temptation not to care what happened to blacks in the federal territories. The battle over slavery in those territories would be determined not simply in those territories but also in the free states, where the battle over slavery was supposedly already won. Lincoln insisted that what happened to black people in those territories was precisely an issue in which all Americans had a stake. He believed that both constitutional principle and practice enabled Congress to determine slavery’s future in the territories.
In the face of these defective alternatives, Lincoln concluded his private note with the exhortation that Americans should “act, that neither picture, or apple, shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken.” By connecting the principle of human equality to the mechanisms of the Constitution and American union, Lincoln showed the necessity of political might to promote the common good and not just the self-interest of the many. In the end, to enjoy the exercise of what Americans possess in common required a measure of restraint. Lincoln was a consistent defender of acting within limits. He reminded the American people of their fundamental expression of that self-limitation—the Constitution.
This explains why Lincoln did not rush to emancipate slaves during the Civil War. He had to turn a humanitarian end into a constitutional means in order to justify it to the American people. His distinction between “personal wish” and “official duty” was required under a government by consent. The government could do no more than the citizens had delegated to it.
This is why [Lincoln] rejected secession, which he deemed “the essence of anarchy,” for he saw in it a rejection of constitutionalism.
That said, Lincoln also noted that having a written constitution, while necessary for freedom, was not sufficient. This is why he rejected secession, which he deemed “the essence of anarchy,” for he saw in it a rejection of constitutionalism. He believed that right ruling required right thinking and right acting. To operate under a constitution without a proper understanding of the principles that informed that constitution could lead to the crude majoritarianism of Douglas’s “popular sovereignty,” or the nationalization of slavery envisioned by Alexander Stephens. In Lincoln’s mind, this would be a picture or apple blurred or bruised—and if the nation were unable to recover a common understanding of why the American union existed, both picture and apple could be broken.
Lincoln’s rhetoric, the most eloquent of all American presidents, would be unrecognizable without its expression of the core principles of the American Founding. His chief claims to historical importance, saving the union of American states and emancipating slaves, owe their success to his reclaiming these founding ideals as the lodestar of American political progress. Lincoln saw them as the moral foundations and political aspirations of a free society, and he enlisted them as a beacon during the most trying time in the nation’s history.
Time and again, as slavery threatened to split the nation, Lincoln returned to the words of the Declaration of Independence. There, he hoped that Americans would find clarity about the true principles of self-government, and thus common ground for promoting a common future.
To keep Lincoln relevant, our task should not be to remake him in our image but to render an accurate portrait of him in his age.
To keep Lincoln relevant, our task should not be to remake him in our image but to render an accurate portrait of him in his age. He spoke with sufficient transcendence not only to enable Americans of his time to surmount their difficulties but also to teach subsequent generations how to address the abiding questions that confront a free people. Lincoln “belongs to the ages” as a teacher of profound lessons regarding the nature of the American regime—and how Americans from generation to generation can preserve and perpetuate our free system of government. Lincoln became a statesman by reaching back to the American Founding and making the case that what the Founders achieved was the best, most prudent means of securing the safety and happiness of a free people. Accepting that understanding was the precondition of moving forward to what Lincoln called a “new birth of freedom” for the United States.
Lucas Morel is Professor of Politics and Head of the Politics Department at Washington and Lee University, and holds a Ph.D. in political science from Claremont Graduate University. He is the editor of Lincoln and Liberty: Wisdom for the Ages (2014), and author of Lincoln’s Sacred Effort: Defining Religion’s Role in American Self-Government(2000) and Lincoln and the American Founding, forthcoming in June 2020. Dr. Morel is a member of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission, which will plan activities to commemorate the founding of the United States of America in 2026.
This essay originally appeared in RealClearPublicAffairs: American Civics.