Lucas Morel’s book, “Lincoln and the American Founding,” makes clear that Abraham Lincoln’s philosophy of equality and self-government is the balm capable of healing our nation’s present wounds. While Morel did not write his compact book about Lincoln’s political thought as a response to the New York Times’ 1619 Project, it is just that – and a good response at that.
The 1619 Project’s only mention of Lincoln is a negative one. Ignoring Lincoln’s writings, speeches, and actions, Nikole Hannah-Jones takes an isolated incident and paints Lincoln as a perpetuator of white supremacy. Morel’s book is a thorough denunciation of this view. It is impossible to come away from this book without a renewed respect for the man that fought so hard to preserve our union on the basis of equality and republican government.
Morel’s aim is not only to vindicate Lincoln but to vindicate the Founders as well. He demonstrates just how greatly Lincoln was influenced by the Founders as well as by the documents they wrote.
The Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence was of particular importance to Lincoln, Morel explains. While on his way to his inauguration, Lincoln stopped at Independence Hall. There he stated that all of his political sentiments derive from the words and principles of the Declaration.
As seven states had already declared secession from the Union, Lincoln hoped the Declaration could unify the people of the United States once again. It was also the Declaration and its espousal of equality that would not allow Lincoln to bow to the will of the slave-holding states.
In 1858, Lincoln gave a speech in Chicago. He told those assembled the Declaration unites all Americans. Lincoln made clear that we are not a country united by blood or by soil, but by the electric cord of equality. He stated that although many Americans of his day could not trace their lineage to the Founding Fathers when they read the words of the Declaration, they should feel a kinship with it. Morel writes that the principle of human equality made possible a political kinship that was free from the old-world tradition of blood and soil.
In a birthday message paying “all honor to Jefferson,” Lincoln praised the author of the Declaration for having the foresight to move beyond the politics of the moment and to introduce a truth applicable to all men at all times. Morel explains that the Declaration wasn’t just a statement about a particular people’s decision to rule themselves but was a statement that all peoples had the right to rule themselves and consent to their form of government.
Like the Founders, Lincoln believed the purpose of government is to protect inalienable rights. That is why, as much as Lincoln respected the Constitution, he saw the Declaration as America’s true Founding treatise. He once wrote that the Constitution was made for the Declaration, not the Declaration for the Constitution – although the structure of government matters, it is the purpose for which that government exists that matters more.
Morel notes when Lincoln declared a new birth of freedom in the Gettysburg Address, he was declaring a recommitment to the original plan of the Founding Fathers, to the original freedom, one where all men, having been created equal, will also be protected equally. Lincoln derided those who claimed that the Declaration did not apply to black men and women. He believed that if all men were not born with inalienable rights, then no man was. He also argued that if black men were the exception to Jefferson’s axiom, “all men are created equal,” then there is no telling where such exceptions would end.
The Means of Government
Morel observes that if the Declaration explains the ends of government, then the Constitution explains the means. According to Morel, neither the Continental Congress nor the Articles of Confederation provided an adequate means of governance or protection of rights. Thus, the Founders designed the Constitution to provide a strong national government while allowing states to maintain local control.
Morel also explains that one of the things that kept Lincoln from associating himself with the abolitionists was that many of them had a radical disdain for the Constitution. Lincoln, like Frederick Douglass, believed the Constitution promoted liberty and equality and was thus not a pro-slavery document.
Lincoln greatly respected the federal system set up by the Constitution. Morel points out that although Lincoln spoke of the union more often, it was also clear that he respected the rights of states to govern their local affairs. He did not believe that the federal government had the power to abolish slavery in every state.
That is why he concentrated his efforts on preventing slavery’s spread instead of attacking it where it already existed. When Lincoln finally did emancipate the slaves, it was as a wartime measure and he insisted that a constitutional amendment be passed to make the emancipation permanent.
Slavery: Lincoln and the Founding
Lincoln sought to deal with the problem of slavery in what he called the old way, the way the Founders dealt with it. The Founders knew there would be no union if they did not allow the Southern states to maintain their slave system. Therefore, they put processes in place to eventually extinguish it and ensured the practice was not enshrined in the Constitution, with the hope and belief that slavery was on its way to eventual extinction.
Further, they made sure that through the Northwest Ordinance, and later the Missouri Compromise, the evil institution would not spread. Lincoln fought hard to resist those who sought to undo the work of the Founders by allowing slavery to spread into federal territories and new states. His most notable nemesis was Stephen Douglas, who argued that each state should decide whether to be a slave state for themselves, in the name of self-government.
In the Lincoln-Douglas debates and elsewhere, Lincoln made clear that this was not the right way to deal with slavery nor was it an accurate view of self-government. He argued that self-government, rightly understood, is when a man governs himself, not when he attempts to govern another man without his consent.
Lincoln pointed out that the founders did not introduce slavery into America but found the institution already existing there. In fact, Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence condemned King George III for hindering certain colonies from prohibiting slavery.
Morel reminds the reader that although the Founders did not abolish slavery, they did employ measures they believed would lead to its eradication. According to Morel, you can examine the debates under the Articles of Confederation, during the Continental Congress, and during the First Congress, and you won’t find a single man saying slavery is a good thing, but numerous condemnations of it.
However, Morel writes that constitutional limitations on the federal government limited how slavery could be dealt with on a national level, both for the Founders and for Lincoln. It was not until John C. Calhoun and James Henry Hammond argued that slavery was a positive good that sentiments towards the practice began to change. It was this changing sentiment that Lincoln fought so hard against.
Today the Founders are maligned because they fought to make a “more perfect union” instead of a completely perfect union. Lincoln, the man who oversaw the greatest progress towards equality since the Founding, is also not given his due. Instead, activists call for the removal of statues of Lincoln in Washington D.C. and debase the Lincoln Memorial, while calling for our greatest founders to be erased.
If Lincoln were here today, he would not see the present movement as a furtherance of our Founding principles, but a retrenchment. If Morel’s book teaches nothing else, it teaches that Lincoln prized self-government and inalienable rights, but what today’s activists are fighting for is license, not liberty; despotism, not self-government; and egalitarianism, not equality.
If we hope to survive this present crisis, we would do well to look to statesmen like Jefferson and Lincoln, who saw past their political moment and upheld truths that were true for all times and all people. Lucas Morel’s book could not have come at a better time.