In a new documentary about the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 titled “Right Makes Might,” produced by Madison McQueen Films and distributed by the faith and family-focused Exploration Films, viewers are challenged to ponder the philosophical questions surrounding Abraham Lincoln’s rise to political prominence.
The film — narrated by Dr. Allen Guelzo and featuring Drs. Lucas Morel of Washington & Lee University, Michael Burlingame of the University of Illinois Springfield, and Charles Kesler of Claremont McKenna College — provides expert analysis of one of the most important yet understated events in U.S. history. Had Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln not engaged in these debates, or had they gone just slightly differently, events central to our national trajectory would have never occurred or occurred through vastly different means.
A notable example is Douglas and Lincoln’s debate in Freeport, Illinois. As the professors note, this is the point in which Lincoln forced Douglas to publicly attempt to reconcile the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision with the doctrine of popular sovereignty.
Popular sovereignty, of which Douglas was a well-known advocate, held that residents of a new territory should determine if they would allow slavery through popular ascension. Douglas believed that confrontation between pro- and anti-slavery groups could be avoided if the people could decide this matter for themselves. Pro-slavery groups tended to favor this approach, but they also favored the Dred Scott decision, which held Congress did not have the power to prohibit slavery in new territories.
During the Freeport debate, Douglas indicated the doctrine of popular sovereignty would, and ought to be able to, enable the settlers of a territory to prohibit slavery. He argued this did not contradict Dred Scott because Congress had no part in the decision-making process if it were the direct will of the people.
By making this argument, Douglas alienated Southern Democrats who viewed Dred Scott as a form of legal insurance that their financial interests and “property” would be secure should they participate in the nation’s expansion. They felt like Douglas’ stance sold them out, and this splinter in the Democratic Party paved the way for Lincoln’s ascension to the presidency. But had he not bested Douglas in this debate, Lincoln may not have gained the notoriety or momentum necessary to win the presidency.
Abraham Lincoln — a man with less than a calendar year of formal education — sought to communicate the moral philosophy defining the American founding in ways all people could understand. This approach, grounded in humility and a reverence for the belief that all men were indeed created equal, enabled him to rhetorically best Stephen Douglas and ascend to the heights of American political power.
“Right Makes Might” was produced by people with a reverence for this period in U.S. history and it shows. The featured academics have a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter and adeptly explain complex cultural and political topics that are crucial for properly understanding this era.
Contemporary retrospectives perpetuate dishonest interpretations of American history and encourage people to loathe their heritage. “Right Makes Might” provides an honest, unflinching perspective that is both comfortable and endearing.
“Right Makes Might” can be streamed on Exploration Films’ streaming service, exploreflix.