The United States Supreme Court is making headlines today. They have struck down the District of Columbia’s 32-year ban on handguns, claiming it is a clear violation of the Second Amendment to the U. S. Constitution:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
The decision hinged on a critical point. Does the Second Amendment protect an individual’s right to own a gun no matter what, or does the amendment simply protect the rights of the state militias?
In a 5-4 decision today, the Supreme Court decided that the Constitution does not permit, “the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home.”
I’m sure political commentators on radio and cable, as well as the internet and various print media outlets, will be discussing the decision for some time to come; however, I want to move in a different direction.
On this date in 1857, Abraham Lincoln spoke about a recent controversial Supreme Court decision.
He held no office; in fact, his lone term in Congress had ended almost a decade earlier. Though he had a burning desire to enter the national spotlight, in 1857 he was merely a lawyer from central Illinois.
The U. S. Supreme Court had recently handed down its controversial decision in the Dred Scott case. Though Lincoln had reverence for the law and was absolutely devoted to the American political process, he disagreed with the court’s decision. Moreover, he was appalled when Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas came out in support of the decision.
Lincoln began his speech by revealing Douglas’ motives:
There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people, to the idea of an indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races; and Judge Douglas evidently is basing his chief hope, upon the chances of being able to appropriate the benefit of this disgust to himself. If he can, by much drumming and repeating, fasten the odium of that idea upon his adversaries, he thinks he can struggle through the storm. He therefore clings to this hope, as a drowning man to the last plank.
Therefore, Douglas has used the Dred Scott decision to distort the Republican Party’s position on racial equality:
[Douglas] finds the Republicans insisting that the Declaration of Independence includes ALL men, black as well as white; and forth-with he boldly denies that it includes negroes at all, and proceeds to argue gravely that all who contend it does, do so only because they want to vote, and eat, and sleep, and marry with negroes!
Lincoln objected to Douglas’ caricature:
Now I protest against that counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. I need not have her for either, I can just leave her alone. In some respects she certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of any one else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others.
Lincoln told the crowd that the Dred Scott decision was absolutely revolutionary because the Supreme Court had reinterpreted the meaning of America’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence:
Chief Justice Taney, in his opinion in the Dred Scott case, admits that the language of the Declaration is broad enough to include the whole human family, but he and Judge Douglas argue that the authors of that instrument did not intend to include negroes, by the fact that they did not at once, actually place them on an equality with the whites. Now this grave argument comes to just nothing at all, by the other fact, that they did not at once, or ever afterwards, actually place all white people on an equality with one or another. And this is the staple argument of both the Chief Justice and the Senator, for doing this obvious violence to the plain unmistakable language of the Declaration.
Lincoln fundamentally disagreed with their interpretation. He revealed how he interpreted the document:
I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say 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.'' This they said, and this meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all 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 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. The assertion that ``all men are created equal'' was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, nor for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism. They knew the proneness of prosperity to breed tyrants, and they meant when such should re-appear in this fair land and commence their vocation they should find left for them at least one hard nut to crack.
Again, Lincoln reverted back to Senator Douglas. This, Lincoln claims, is how Douglas interprets the same Declaration of Independence:
No man can vindicate the character, motives and conduct of the signers of the Declaration of Independence except upon the hypothesis that they referred to the white race alone, and not to the African, when they declared all men to have been created equal---that they were speaking of British subjects on this continent being equal to British subjects born and residing in Great Britain---that they were entitled to the same inalienable rights, and among them were enumerated life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration was adopted for the purpose of justifying the colonists in the eyes of the civilized world in withdrawing their allegiance from the British crown, and dissolving their connection with the mother country.''
Not only was Douglas’ interpretation wrong, but Lincoln claims it is ultimately dangerous to the American experiment in popular government.
My good friends, read that carefully over some leisure hour, and ponder well upon it---see what a mere wreck---mangled ruin---it makes of our once glorious Declaration.
Why, according to this, not only negroes but white people outside of Great Britain and America are not spoken of in that instrument. The English, Irish and Scotch, along with white Americans, were included to be sure, but the French, Germans and other white people of the world are all gone to pot along with the Judge's inferior races.
I had thought the Declaration promised something better than the condition of British subjects; but no, it only meant that we should be equal to them in their own oppressed and unequal condition. According to that, it gave no promise that having kicked off the King and Lords of Great Britain, we should not at once be saddled with a King and Lords of our own.
I had thought the Declaration contemplated the progressive improvement in the condition of all men everywhere; but no, it merely ``was adopted for the purpose of justifying the colonists in the eyes of the civilized world in withdrawing their allegiance from the British crown, and dissolving their connection with the mother country.'' Why, that object having been effected some eighty years ago, the Declaration is of no practical use now---mere rubbish---old wadding left to rot on the battle-field after the victory is won.
Lincoln underscored what the Dred Scott decision had done by reinterpreting the Declaration of Independence:
I understand you are preparing to celebrate the ``Fourth,'' tomorrow week. What for? The doings of that day had no reference to the present; and quite half of you are not even descendants of those who were referred to at that day. But I suppose you will celebrate; and will even go so far as to read the Declaration. Suppose after you read it once in the old fashioned way, you read it once more with Judge Douglas' version. It will then run thus: ``We hold these truths to be self-evident that all British subjects who were on this continent eighty-one years ago, were created equal to all British subjects born and then residing in Great Britain.''
And now I appeal to all---to Democrats as well as others,---are you really willing that the Declaration shall be thus frittered away?---thus left no more at most, than an interesting memorial of the dead past? thus shorn of its vitality, and practical value; and left without the germ or even the suggestion of the individual rights of man in it?
With that being said, I cannot stress this point enough: throughout the speech, Lincoln clearly says America’s different races should remain separated. Indeed, he went on to develop that idea in the Lincoln-Douglas debates a year later (see the Charleston Debate, for instance).
It is incredibly important to acknowledge Lincoln’s views on racial equality. This is how Lincoln saw race in 1857:
But Judge Douglas is especially horrified at the thought of the mixing blood by the white and black races: agreed for once---a thousand times agreed. There are white men enough to marry all the white women, and black men enough to marry all the black women; and so let them be married. On this point we fully agree with the Judge; and when he shall show that his policy is better adapted to prevent amalgamation than ours we shall drop ours, and adopt his.
Lincoln argues that the Republican position to oppose the spread of slavery offers a practical solution to preventing the “amalgamation” of the races. Using statistics, Lincoln illustrates his case:
Let us see. In 1850 there were in the United States, 405,751, mulattoes. Very few of these are the offspring of whites and free blacks; nearly all have sprung from black slaves and white masters. A separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation but as an immediate separation is impossible the next best thing is to keep them apart where they are not already together. If white and black people never get together in Kansas, they will never mix blood in Kansas. That is at least one self-evident truth. A few free colored persons may get into the free States, in any event; but their number is too insignificant to amount to much in the way of mixing blood. In 1850 there were in the free states, 56,649 mulattoes; but for the most part they were not born there---they came from the slave States, ready made up. In the same year the slave States had 348,874 mulattoes all of home production. The proportion of free mulattoes to free blacks---the only colored classes in the free states---is much greater in the slave than in the free states. It is worthy of note too, that among the free states those which make the colored man the nearest to equal the white, have, proportionably the fewest mulattoes the least of amalgamation. In New Hampshire, the State which goes farthest towards equality between the races, there are just 184 Mulattoes while there are in Virginia---how many do you think? 79,775, being 23,126 more than in all the free States together.
These statistics show that slavery is the greatest source of amalgamation; and next to it, not the elevation, but the degeneration of the free blacks. Yet Judge Douglas dreads the slightest restraints on the spread of slavery, and the slightest human recognition of the negro, as tending horribly to amalgamation.
I have said that the separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation. I have no right to say all the members of the Republican party are in favor of this, nor to say that as a party they are in favor of it. There is nothing in their platform directly on the subject. But I can say a very large proportion of its members are for it, and that the chief plank in their platform---opposition to the spread of slavery---is most favorable to that separation.
Such separation, if ever effected at all, must be effected by colonization; and no political party, as such, is now doing anything directly for colonization. Party operations at present only favor or retard colonization incidentally. The enterprise is a difficult one; but ``when there is a will there is a way;'' and what colonization needs most is a hearty will. Will springs from the two elements of moral sense and self-interest. Let us be brought to believe it is morally right, and, at the same time, favorable to, or, at least, not against, our interest, to transfer the African to his native clime, and we shall find a way to do it, however great the task may be. The children of Israel, to such numbers as to include four hundred thousand fighting men, went out of Egyptian bondage in a body.
What do we make of all this?
First, these words often make people uncomfortable. Many of us don’t want to think the author of the Emancipation Proclamation ever said or believed such things. To the folks who say highlighting Lincoln’s rhetoric in 1857 is somehow sacrilegious, especially on a site like LincolnStudies.com, I sharply disagree. I don’t write hagiography; I write history. I would encourage my readers to hold themselves to the same standard. Lincoln was not semi-divine; he was thoroughly human.
Second, these words often make other people quite happy. Challenge a neo-Confederate to quote Lincoln’s 1837 protest statement on slavery in the Illinois State Legislature or his 1864 letter to Albert G. Hodges and you’ll get a blank stare, but if you mention the statements like the ones quoted throughout this post, you’ll see their eyes light up. Both the hagiographers and the neo-Confederates operate under a similar set of standards: both are interested in creating cartoon figures, not historical actors.
Third, these words tell us a great deal about the Nineteenth Century. The crowd in Springfield cheered when they heard Lincoln's words. There is a reason why books like Lerone Bennett's Forced into Glory are written, but in my view, such interpretations inevitably miss the mark. Was Lincoln a racist or was he the Great Emancipator? Well, it simply isn't that easy.
Lincoln wrestled with tough questions throughout his life. This speech from 1857 documents the answers he had found at that moment in time.
But Lincoln never stopped looking for answers. His ideas were not set in stone in 1857.
His ideas evolved over the next year when he met Douglas in debates throughout Illinois. As history presented different variables, Lincoln’s ideas evolved. The election of 1860 certainly transformed the political landscape, while the most horrific tragedy in American history forced him to rethink his position even further.
Modern political discourse has deceived us into thinking politicians are supposed to be marble statues long before they die. We seem to delight in confronting politicians with conflicting statements; we are very quick to brand someone a “flip-flopper.”
Of course, that is the problem with statues. They lock a person into a rigid pose; they deny a person the ability to grow.
But consider this. Though America is filled with statues of Abraham Lincoln, how many of them depict the way he looked in 1857?