No man or statesman ever contemplated and wrestled with these crucial questions more thoroughly and deeply than did Abraham Lincoln. He expressed, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence…It was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland; but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men.” (Address at Independence Hall, February 22, 1861). Earlier in his political career, he stated, “Most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of the equal rights of men … [whereas] ours began, by affirming those rights. They said, some men are too ignorant, and vicious, to share in government. Possibly so, said we; and, by your system, you would always keep them ignorant and vicious. We proposed to give all a chance; and we expected the weak to grow stronger, the ignorant, wiser; and all better, and happier together.” (Speech fragment on Slavery, circa 1857-1858. Autograph manuscript).
During the campaign of 1858, Lincoln engaged in a series of formal debates with the incumbent Senator, Stephen A. Douglas, in a contest for one of Illinois' two United States Senate seats. Although Lincoln lost the election, these debates launched him into national prominence which eventually led to his election as President of the United States. The main theme of the Lincoln–Douglas debates was slavery, particularly the issue of slavery's expansion into the territories. Preceding the debates, in 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court in an opinion authored by Chief Justice Taney, held that that negroes or African-Americans, “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The question of the equal rights of “all men” was on the mind of ‘almost all’ citizens. The long-held and simmering disagreements related to this question, and to slavery itself, led not only to great debates, but to great divisions among the American people.
In the candidates’ debate held on October 7, 1858 at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln replied, “The judge [Douglas] has alluded to the Declaration of Independence, and insisted that negroes are not included in that Declaration; and that it is a slander upon the framers of that instrument to suppose that negroes were meant therein; and he asks you: Is it possible to believe that Mr. Jefferson, who penned the immortal paper, could have supposed himself applying the language of that instrument to the negro race, and yet held a portion of that race in slavery? … I believe the entire records of the world, from the date of the Declaration of Independence up to within three years ago, may be searched in vain for one single affirmation, from one single man, that the negro was not included in the Declaration of Independence; I think I may defy Judge Douglas to show that he ever said so, that Washington ever said so, that any President [including Jefferson] ever said so, that any member of Congress ever said so, or that any living man upon the whole earth ever said so, until the necessities of the present policy of the Democratic party in regard to slavery had to invent that affirmation.”
Lincoln repeated this same powerful argument in the next debate held on October 15, 1858, at Alton, Illinois: “[T]here never had been a man, so far as I knew or believed, in the whole world, who had said that the Declaration of Independence did not include negroes in the term “all men.” I reassert it today. I assert that Judge Douglas and all his friends may search the whole records of the country, and it will be a matter of great astonishment to me if they shall be able to find that one human being three years ago had ever uttered the astounding sentiment that the term “all men” in the Declaration did not include the negro. Do not let me be misunderstood. I know that more than three years ago there were men who, finding this assertion constantly in the way of their schemes to bring about the ascendency and perpetuation of slavery, denied the truth of it. I know that Mr. Calhoun and all the politicians of his school denied the truth of the Declaration. I know that it ran along in the mouth of some Southern men for a period of years, ending at last in that shameful, though rather forcible declaration of Pettit of Indiana, upon the floor of the United States Senate, that the Declaration of Independence was in that respect “a self-evident lie,” rather than a self-evident truth. But I say, with a perfect knowledge of all this hawking at the Declaration without directly attacking it, that three years ago there never had lived a man who had ventured to assail it in the sneaking way of pretending to believe it, and then asserting it did not include the negro. I believe the first man who ever said it was Chief Justice Taney in the Dred Scott case, and the next to him was our friend Stephen A. Douglas. And now it has become the catch-word of the entire [Democratic] party.”
In these debates, Lincoln plainly confronted the incongruences of opposing arguments and exposed the inherent fallacy of the Southern states’ position with respect to the founding. Some basis for the South’s prejudice in this matter may be found in the implausible argument of Senator John C. Calhoun (South Carolina) in 1837 that “slavery was a positive good.” This reasoning, followed by the ostensible legal justification in the Dred Scott decision 20 years later, combined with vested economic interests, together became rolling stones contributing to the secession of South Carolina and other southern states from the Union in 1860-1861.
A few weeks preceding the outbreak of the Civil War, the new Confederate States’ Vice President, Alexander H. Stephens, in his “Corner Stone Speech,” delivered on March 21, 1861, in Savannah, Georgia, confirmed that the Confederacy stood for the proposition that Jefferson and the Founders were fundamentally wrong in declaring that “all men are created equal.” Remarkably and sadly, Stephens said, “The new [Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the ‘storm came and the wind blew.’ Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Thus, the South actually argued against Jefferson and the language of the Declaration in seeking to justify their philosophy of inequality. And, “Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas and Alexander Stephens [all] agreed on one thing: the cause of the civil war was slavery.” – Thomas G. West, Vindicating the Founders (Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), p. 35.
Even Frederick Douglass, the former slave and an articulate spokesman for his people, supported the fact that the principle of human equality was enshrined in the Declaration. He stated, “I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost…” (“What, to the Slave, is the Fourth Of July?” Rochester, New York, addressing the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society, July 5, 1852). He firmly believed that with the Declaration and the Constitution, “there are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery.” (Id.). Those forces operated, and from 1861 to 1865 approximately 620,000 Americans died in a brutal war between the North and South that preserved the Union and brought an end to slavery (Civil War casualties exceed the nation's losses in all its other wars combined).
The answer and conclusion to this first, great question is Lincoln’s, briefly, yet eloquently set forth in his Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Our nation was indeed conceived in liberty and dedicated to this divine proposition – that “all men are created equal” – meaning all races and creeds. The Revolutionary War and the Civil War were fought to establish and to defend this great principle of liberty, respectively, in companionship with other natural rights. Every generation must also consider and respond to the self-evident truth of the equal rights of man, and determine whether our nation “so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” May we study, understand, and as Frederick Douglass implored: “stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.”