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Making Sense Of The Fourth Of July
The DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE is not what Thomas Jefferson thought it was when he wrote it—and that is why we celebrate it
July/August 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 4
Lincoln’s position emerged fully and powerfully during his debates with Illinois’s senator Stephen Douglas, a Democrat who had proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and whose seat Lincoln sought in 1858. They were an odd couple, Douglas and Lincoln, as different physically—at full height Douglas came only to Lincoln’s shoulders—as they were in style. Douglas wore well-tailored clothes; Lincoln’s barely covered his limbs. Douglas was in general the more polished speaker; Lincoln sometimes rambled on, losing his point and his audience, although he could also, especially with a prepared text, be a powerful orator. The greatest difference between them was, however, in the positions they took on the future of slavery and the meaning of the Declaration of Independence.
Douglas defended the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed the people of those states to permit slavery within their borders, as consistent with the revolutionary heritage. After all, in instructing their delegates to vote for independence, one state after another had explicitly retained the exclusive right of defining its domestic institutions. Moreover, the Declaration of Independence carried no implications for slavery, since its statement on equality referred to white men only. In fact, Douglas said, it simply meant that American colonists of European descent had equal rights with the King’s subjects in Great Britain. The signers were not thinking of “the negro or … savage Indians, or the Feejee, or the Malay, or any other inferior or degraded race.” Otherwise they would have been honor bound to free their own slaves, which not even Thomas Jefferson did. The Declaration had only one purpose: to explain and justify American independence.
To Lincoln, Douglas’s argument left only a “mangled ruin” of the Declaration of Independence, whose “plain, unmistakable language” said “ all men” were created equal. In affirming that government derived its “just powers from the consent of the governed,” the Declaration also said that no man could rightly govern others without their consent. If, then, “the negro is a man,” was it not a “total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself ?” To govern a man without his consent was “despotism.” Moreover, to confine the Declaration’s significance to the British peoples of 1776 denied its meaning, Lincoln charged, not only for Douglas’s “inferior races” but for the French, Irish, German, Scandinavian, and other immigrants who had come to America after the Revolution. For them the promise of equality linked new Americans with the founding generation; it was an “electric cord” that bound them into the nation “as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration,” and so made one people out of many. Lincoln believed that the Declaration “contemplated the progressive improvement in the condition of all men everywhere.” If instead it was only a justification of independence “without the germ , or even the suggestion of the individual rights of man in it,” the document was “of no practical use now—mere rubbish—old wadding left to rot on the battlefield after the victory is won,” an “interesting memorial of the dead past… shorn of its vitality, and practical value.”
Like Wade, Lincoln denied that the signers meant that men were equal in “ all respects ,” including “color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity.” He, too, made sense of the Declaration’s assertion of man’s equal creation by eliding it with the next, separate statement on rights. The signers, he insisted, said men were equal in having “‘certain inalienable rights….’ This they said, and this they meant.” Like John Cooke in Virginia three decades before, Lincoln thought the Founders allowed the persistence of practices at odds with their principles for reasons of necessity: to establish the Constitution demanded that slavery continue in those original states that chose to keep it. “We could not secure the good we did if we grasped for more,” but that did not “destroy the principle that is the charter of our liberties.” Nor did it mean that slavery had to be allowed in states not yet organized in 1776. such as Kansas and Nebraska.