Abraham Lincoln, the American Founding, and the Principles of the Republican Party

Mackubin T. Owens

February 23, 2002

Tonight, your main speaker will talk to you about the upcoming elections of 2002. These off-year elections are certainly important and worthy of discussion. But at the same time, it is occasionally useful to return to our origins, “to recur to first principles.” That is what I wish to do with the time allotted me. What are the principles of the Republican Party? What do Republicans believe in? What differentiates Republicans from Democrats?

Although some here tonight may disagree, let me offer a suggestion as to what these differences are. The modern Democratic Party was founded by FDR. Its central idea is that government’s job is to adjudicate the distribution of resources among competing claimants. Democrats increasingly view the United States, not as a community of individuals, but as an array of groups whose demands must be met. But since government produces nothing on its own, certain favored groups prosper at the expense of others. The modern Democratic Party invokes the language of rights, but what Democrats really mean by the term are privileges or claims to resources that are granted by government. They certainly don’t mean by rights what the Founders meant when they used the term.

On the other hand, the Republican Party was founded on the basis of principles invoked by Abraham Lincoln. He himself recurred to the principles of the American Founding, specifically the Declaration of Independence, so we can say that the principles of the Republican Party are the principles of the nation. In essence these principles hold that the only purpose of government is to protect the equal natural rights of individual citizens. These rights inhere in individuals, not groups, and are antecedent to the creation of government. They are the rights invoked by the Declaration of Independence—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—not happiness, but the pursuit of happiness.

We should remember that the Republican Party was created in response to a crisis arising from the fact that the country had drifted away from its founding principles. While the some of the founders may have owned slaves, they denounced the institution as a corrupt system that America had inherited, but which for the sake of security could not be abolished all at once. However, they fully expected that they had put slavery on the road to extinction.

But they were wrong. Slavery flourished in the South during the ante-bellum period. More importantly, public opinion had come to accept the idea that there was no moral reason that slavery should not be permitted to expand into the territories if that’s what a majority of the white people there wanted.

Lincoln understood the critical importance of public sentiment in a democracy. “Our government rests in public opinion….Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much.”

In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.

Lincoln was concerned that public sentiment was being prepared to accept the rightness of slavery. It was being prepared by Stephen Douglas’s doctrine of “popular sovereignty,” which professed indifference to the moral aspect of slavery, leaving the question to the preferences of the community. It was being prepared by Chief Justice Taney, who argued in Dred Scott that blacks had no rights that whites were bound to respect.

In opposition to this trend in public opinion, Lincoln invoked America’s “central idea.” “Every nation,” said Lincoln, “has a central idea from which all its minor thoughts radiate.” For Lincoln, this central idea was the Declaration of Independence and its notion of equality as the basis for republican government—the simple idea that no one has the right by nature to rule over another without the latter’s consent: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”
Lincoln saw more clearly than his critics, then or now, that equality is inseparable from democracy. As he remarked in 1859: “All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”

Indeed, it is the idea of equality in the Declaration, not race and blood, that establishes American nationhood, constituting what Abraham Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land…”

In a speech delivered just after Independence Day 1858, Lincoln clarified the link between the Declaration and American nationhood. His argument is one we should ponder at a time when “multiculturalists” are advancing the view that the US is not a land of free individuals but instead a conglomeration of discrete racial and ethnic groups.

When we celebrate the Fourth of July, Lincoln told his listeners in Chicago, we celebrate the founders, “our fathers and grandfathers,” those “iron men…But after we have done this we have not yet reached the whole. There is something else connected with it. We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors—among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe—German, Irish, French and Scandinavian—…finding themselves our equals in all things. If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that ’We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that the moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.”

Lincoln fought to save this “central idea” from its contemporary detractors by pointing out that the United States faced two irreconcilable choices on slavery: As Larry P. Arnn, now President of Hillsdale College in Michigan has observed, we could re-dedicate ourselves to the principles of the Declaration of Independence or we could embrace the contrary doctrine proposed by Southern slavery advocates in the 1830s and ’40s. According to the former, all people have equal rights by nature and government’s purpose is to protect those rights. According to the latter—which harkened to European feudalism—government’s task is to assign rights unequally, whether based on race or class, in order to achieve a predetermined social goal.

Lincoln’s opponent in the Illinois Senate race of 1858—and a leading national Democrat—was Stephen Douglas. He attempted to sidestep the conflict then facing the nation: whether slavery would be extended to the federal territories to the West, and ultimately throughout the nation, or whether it would be put “in the course of ultimate extinction.” Douglas defended the right of the people in the territories to outlaw slavery. But he also defended the right of Southerners to own slaves and transport them to the new territories.

While Douglas repeatedly refused to say that slavery was wrong, Lincoln never hesitated to criticize the institution as incompatible with republican government. In his 1854 speech at Peoria on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln declared that he hated slavery because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.

Lincoln rejected the possibility that the choice between slavery and the equality that underpins republican government could be evaded: “A house divided against itself cannot stand…. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved, I do not expect the house to fall, but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all free or all slave.” And Lincoln indicated the logical absurdity in Douglas’s attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable.

Now of course, sophisticates argue that since Jefferson and some of the other founders owned slaves, they did not really mean “that all men are created equal” when they signed the Declaration of Independence. I have had occasion to teach some political science classes at URI over the years, and the predominant view among my students has been precisely this. But, as I hope I was able to convince them, this view is false. Here’s what Lincoln had to say about the founders and “all men are created equal.”

As he said in his speech on the Dred Scott Decision of 1857, I think the authors of [the Declaration of Independence] intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare men equal in all respects. This did not mean to say that all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal—equal in “certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

He also argued that the founders “did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all men were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for a free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”

But as witnesses in support of Lincoln’s assessment of the founders, we can, ironically, call upon the likes of John C. Calhoun, the arch-defender of slavery, and Alexander Stephens, a US Senator from Georgia and later vice-president of the Confederacy.

John C. Calhoun argued that

[the proposition “all men are created equal”] as now understood, has become the most false and dangerous of all political errors….We now begin to experience the danger of admitting so great an error to have a place in the declaration of independence. For a long time it lay dormant; but in the process of time it began to germinate, and produce its dangerous fruits. It had a strong hold on the mind of Mr. Jefferson, the author of that document, which caused him to take an utterly false view of the subordinate relation of the black to the white race in the South; and to hold, in consequence, that the former, although utterly unqualified to possess liberty, were as fully entitled to both liberty and equality as the latter; and that to deprive them of it was unjust and immoral.

And Alexander H. Stephens contended that the Confederate constitution, the “cornerstone” of which was the “great truth” of slavery and inequality, would correct the fatal error advanced in the Declaration of Independence.

Lincoln understood something that our current day “multiculturalists” either cannot or will not see. When the United States declared its independence in 1776, slavery was a worldwide phenomenon. But slavery was only part of a greater political reality. Before the American founding, all regimes were based on the principle of interest—the interest of the stronger. That principle was articulated by the Greek historian Thucydides: “Questions of justice arise only between equals. As for the rest, the strong do what they will. The weak suffer what they must.”

The United States was founded on different principles—justice and equality. No longer would it be the foundation of political government that some men were born “with saddles on their backs” to be ridden by others born “booted and spurred.” In other words, no one had the right to rule over another without the latter’s consent.

Slavery of course was a violation of this principle but as the distinguished professor of American history and politics, Harry V. Jaffa, has written: “It is not wonderful that a nation of slave-holders, upon achieving independence, failed to abolish slavery. What is wonderful, indeed miraculous, is that a nation of slave-holders founded a new nation on the proposition that ’all men are created equal,’ making the abolition of slavery a moral and political necessity.”

It took the founding of United States on the principle of equality to undermine the principle of inequality—that the strong by nature should rule the weak—upon which slavery was based. If the multiculturalist crowd cannot appreciate the role of the American founding in ending the worldwide system of slavery that existed in 1776, perhaps they should listen to Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist. “I would not, even in words,” he said, “do violence to the great events, and thrilling association, that gloriously cluster around the birth of our national independence.” He continued, “no people ever entered upon pathways of nations, with higher and grander ideas of justice, liberty and humanity than ourselves.”

Thanks to the Founders, the United States was founded on a principle of justice, not the interest of the stronger. And because of Lincoln’s uncompromising commitment to equality as America’s “central idea,” the Union was not only saved, but saved so “as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving….”

The irony is that while Lincoln’s view prevailed with the Union triumph in the Civil War and was subsequently incorporated into the Constitution via the 13th and 14th Amendments, it is the perspective of Calhoun et al that often holds sway today. The contemporary followers of Calhoun, both in politics and the academy, reject the idea that rights belong by nature to individuals and that they are antecedent to the state. They hold instead that rights are “prescriptive,” i.e. that government determines what constitutes a right and then distributes those rights unequally according to its own preferences.

The United States is a fundamentally decent regime based on the universal principle that all human beings are equal in terms of their natural rights. The implication of this principle is that the best government is limited government. As Republicans, we must ask ourselves a series of questions: Do we still “hold these truths to be self-evident”? That all men are created equal? That they are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights? That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men?

As the country music philosopher, Aaron Tippin, said in a song a few years back, “you’ve got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.” Republicans have traditionally stood for limited government to protect equal rights. If the Party of Lincoln ever abandons its fealty to the principles of the Declaration, it will become little more than a pale imitation of the redistributionist Democratic Party. And Republicans can never hope to match the Democrats in offering a government solution for every problem, real or imagined.

Today we face the same decision as our forebears did in the 1850s. We can choose to re-dedicate ourselves to the principles of the Declaration of Independence or we can embrace the contemporary version of pro-slavery doctrine—that rights are not natural but prescriptive and that the task of government is to assign these prescriptive rights as it wishes based on such group criteria as race or class, in order to achieve a predetermined social goal. May the Republican Party pursue the former course.

Thank you.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.