"Lincoln the Debator." by Leonard Cr...
“Lincoln the Debator.” by Leonard Crunelle Lincoln-Douglas debates monument in downtown Freeport, Illinois, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Does Government Become God?

Setting The Context

When does government become God? Without intending to do so, I believe Abraham Lincoln and Senator Stephen Douglas debated that issue during the Lincoln – Douglas Debates in 1858. That is because much of the debate revolved around the meaning of a phrase taken from the Declaration of Independence.

“all men are created equal”

In this post we will consider what Douglas had to say about the subject. In the next post, we will consider Lincoln’s point of view.

What Douglas Thought of All Men Being Equal

How did Douglas use the phrase “all men are created equal” in the debates? Douglas used that phrase to issue what he apparently considered a well-founded accusation against Lincoln. In fact, Douglas used the expression “created equal” to charge Lincoln in six of the seven debates. In fact,Douglas often quoted Lincoln using the term. However, in this excerpt from the Third Debate, we consider what Douglas thought the writers of the Declaration of Independence intended when they used the phrase.

I hold that a negro is not and never ought to be a citizen of the United States. (Good, good, and tremendous cheers.) I hold that this Government was made on the white basis, by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and should be administered by white men and none others. I do not believe that the Almighty made the negro capable of self-government. I am aware that all the Abolition lecturers that you find traveling about through the country, are in the habit of reading the Declaration of Independence to prove that all men were created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Mr. Lincoln is very much in the habit of following in the track of Lovejoy in this particular, by reading that part of the Declaration of Independence to prove that the negro was endowed by the Almighty with the inalienable right of equality with white men. Now, I say to you, my fellow-citizens, that in my opinion, the signers of the Declaration had no reference to the negro whatever, when they declared all men to be created equal. They desired to express by that phrase white men, men of European birth and European descent, and had no reference either to the negro, the savage Indians, the Fejee, the Malay, or any other inferior and degraded race, when they spoke of the equality of men. One great evidence that such was their understanding, is to be found in the fact that at that time every one of the thirteen colonies was a slaveholding colony, every signer of the Declaration represented a slaveholding constituency, and we know that no one of them emancipated his slaves, much less offered citizenship to them when they signed the Declaration; and yet, if they intended to declare that the negro was the equal of the white man, and entitled by divine right to an equality with him, they were bound, as honest men, that day and hour to have put their negroes on an equality with themselves. (Cheers.) Instead of doing so, with uplifted eyes to heaven they implored the divine blessing upon them, during the seven years’ bloody war they had to fight to maintain that Declaration, never dreaming that they were violating divine law by still holding the negroes in bondage and depriving them of equality.

My friends, I am in favor of preserving this Government as our fathers made it. It does not follow by any means that because a negro is not your equal or mine, that hence he must necessarily be a slave. On the contrary, it does follow that we ought to extend to the negro every right, every privilege, every immunity which he is capable of enjoying, consistent with the good of society. When you ask me what these rights are, what their nature and extent is, I tell you that that is a question which each State of this Union must decide for itself. Illinois has already decided the question. We have decided that the negro must not be a slave within our limits, but we have also decided that the negro shall not be a citizen within our limits; that he shall not vote, hold office, or exercise any political rights. I maintain that Illinois, as a sovereign State, has a right thus to fix her policy with reference to the relation between the white man and the negro; but while we had that right to decide the question for ourselves, we must recognize the same right in Kentucky and in every other State to make the same decision, or a different one. Having decided our own policy with reference to the black race, we must leave Kentucky and Missouri and every other State perfectly free to make just such a decision as they see proper on that question.

Kentucky has decided that question for herself. She has said that within her limits a negro shall not exercise any political rights, and she has also said that a portion of the negroes under the laws of that State shall be slaves. She had as much right to adopt that as her policy as we had to adopt the contrary for our policy. New York has decided that in that State a negro may vote if he has $250 worth of property, and if he owns that much he may vote upon an equality with the white man. I, for one, am utterly opposed to negro suffrage any where and under any circumstances; yet, inasmuch as the Supreme Court have decided in the celebrated Dred Scott case that a State has a right to confer the privilege of voting upon free negroes, I am not going to make war upon New York because she has adopted a policy repugnant to my feelings. (That’s good.) But New York must mind her own business, and keep her negro suffrage to herself, and not attempt to force it upon us. (Great applause.) (from here)

Without explaining why whites — by a majority vote (with only white men voting)  — had the right to enslave blacks, Douglas asserted that the whites did have that right. Apparently, Douglas took the inferiority of blacks for granted. What mattered to him is how he interpreted the law.  Thus, in the seventh debate, he said this.

Mr. Lincoln tries to avoid the main issue by attacking the truth of my proposition, that our fathers made this Government divided into free and slave States, recognizing the right of each to decide all its local questions for itself. Did they not thus make it? It is true that they did not establish slavery in any of the States, or abolish it in any of them; but finding thirteen States, twelve of which were slave and one free, they agreed to form a government uniting them together, as they stood divided into free and slave States, and to guaranty forever to each State the right to do as it pleased on the slavery question. (Cheers.) Having thus made the government, and conferred this right upon each State forever, I assert that this Government can exist as they made it, divided into free and slave States, if any one State chooses to retain slavery. (Cheers.) He says that he looks forward to a time when slavery shall be abolished every where. I look forward to a time when each State shall be allowed to do as it pleases. If it chooses to keep slavery forever, it is not my business, but its own; if it chooses to abolish slavery, it is its own business-not mine. I care more for the great principle of self-government, the right of the people to rule, than I do for all the negroes in Christendom. (Cheers.) I would not endanger the perpetuity of this Union, I would not blot out the great inalienable rights of the white men for all the negroes that ever existed. (Renewed applause.) Hence, I say, let us maintain this Government on the principles that our fathers made it, recognizing the right of each State to keep slavery as long as its people determine, or to abolish it when they please. (Cheers.) But Mr. Lincoln says that when our fathers made this Government they did not look forward to the state of things now existing, and therefore he thinks the doctrine was wrong; and he quotes Brooks, of South Carolina, to prove that our fathers then thought that probably slavery would be abolished by each State acting for itself before this time. Suppose they did; suppose they did not foresee what has occurred,-does that change the principles of our Government? They did not probably foresee the telegraph that transmits intelligence by lightning, nor did they foresee the railroads that now form the bonds of union between the different States, or the thousand mechanical inventions that have elevated mankind. But do these things change the principles of the Government? Our fathers, I say, made this Government on the principle of the right of each State to do as it pleases in its own domestic affairs, subject to the Constitution, and allowed the people of each to apply to every new change of circumstances such remedy as they may see fit to improve their condition. This right they have for all time to come. (from here)

Similarly, even today people express the same belief that Douglas advocated about that phrase, “all men are created equal.”

When the Declaration of Independence was written, the term “men” referred only to those who were able to be land owners which, at that time, meant only white men. The term excluded anyone of any color as well as women. So, yes, basically you have it right- the ‘founding fathers’ were racist hypocrites. (from here as “Best Answer”)

Thus, Douglas, using the vote of the majority as an excuse, found in government the means to condone slavery. What do we call the use of such a majority? That is majoritarian tyranny.

For a list of the posts in this series, see AN EXAMPLE OF BIGOTRY — PART 1.

4 thoughts on “AN EXAMPLE OF BIGOTRY — PART 5

  1. Very interesting post Tom. I am really looking forward to learning more about Lincoln’s response to all of this.
    You are so right in your response comment when you said ” I think I have learned more from reading such documents than I did from the history courses I have taken. Why? Because our schools are run by politicians, our history textbooks provide a politically corrected version of history. Given that, the best alternative is to go to the source.”

    Thanks for taking the time to research and share these source documents with us. They certainly do give us a clearer picture of what actually took place concerning these issues. Lord bless you.

    1. Thank you. I can always use a little encouragement.

      Even as a child, I enjoyed political discussions with my friends. One of the things we debated was the cause of the Civil War. Our history books left the cause in doubt. After reading the Lincoln-Douglas debates, I now have no doubt. These men spoke about only one issue, slavery. Following the debates, each of these men became their party’s nominee for President of the United States.

      Because of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, we can understand why the South would not accept Lincoln when he became president. For moral reasons — reasons that supersede any legalism the law could provide — Lincoln condemned the institution of slavery. That condemnation of evil, personified in Lincoln, the South would not accept.

      So why are our textbooks so vague as to the cause of the Civil War? Because they seek to satisfy the demands of various political constituencies, politicians seek compromise. To find a compromise that “works,” too many politicians will compromise their principles, that includes the principle of adhering to the truth.

    1. Glad you got something out of this post.

      One of the things I try to do is to post extracts from historical documents. What I want to do is encourage people to read them. I can only speak from my own experience, but I think I have learned more from reading such documents than I did from the history courses I have taken. Why? Because our schools are run by politicians, our history textbooks provide a politically corrected version of history. Given that, the best alternative is to go to the source.

      Not sure what the Civil War was about? Not certain why the biggest conflict in our nation’s history could not be avoided? If you read the Lincoln-Douglas Debates and do a little research on what those two men debated, then you will know.

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