How Abraham Lincoln Used The American Creed To End Slavery
“all men are created equal”
In this post we will consider what Abraham Lincoln had to say about the subject.
What Some People Think That Phrase Means
Google or yahoo the following: “all men are created equal” meaning. There is certainly interest in the meaning of that phrase. There is also bewilderment. When we can “see” that all men are not equal, how did that phrase get in the Declaration of Independence?
So what is on the web? Here we have a somewhat ambiguous statement from the Library of Congress (LOC), but the statement is firm on one point.
The concept that all men are created equal was a key to European Enlightenment philosophy. But the interpretation of “all men” has hovered over the Declaration of Independence since its creation. Although most people have interpreted “all men” to mean humanity, others have argued that Jefferson and the other authors of the Declaration meant to exclude women and children. Within the context of the times it is clear that “all men” was a euphemism for “humanity,” and thus those people, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, who used the Declaration of Independence to demand equality for African Americans and women seized the historical as well as the moral high ground. Where did this idea come from? » (from here)
At the end of the paragraph above, the LOC links to documents that served as Antecedent Documents. On the other hand, in The Unfinished Revolution, the National Park Service cites documents where the phrase “All Men Are Created Equal” is used to justify appeals for equal treatment before the law.
All men are created equal is a phrase from the Declaration of Independence. It literally meant that every man in the world should have the same rights as each other. It has since been re-interpreted to mean all humans are created equal.
So why then did America still have slaves? At big think, the author takes exception with the assertion that the equality of all men is self evident, but we will get to that latter. What is more pertinent here is the way that author depicts the problem Lincoln faced.
Indeed, in history’s most famous disagreement with this phrase, just such a danger was almost realized. Said Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy: “The prevailing ideas entertained by [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically… Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.” (from here)
Regardless of what the Declaration of Independence said, substantial numbers of people still wanted blacks to be slaves.
What Lincoln Thought of All Men Being Equal
Throughout the debates, Douglas and Lincoln spoke with astonishing brilliance. Yet what is most impressive about Lincoln is how rarely he repeated himself. I expect that left Douglas a bit tired and flustered. Douglas never knew what Lincoln would say next. Lincoln answered his charges, but he also focused relentlessly on the issue of the day. Here is what Lincoln saved up for the last debate. That included quotes from portions of his own speeches that Douglas had not seen fit to quote.
You have heard him frequently allude to my controversy with him in regard to the Declaration of Independence. I confess that I have had a struggle with Judge Douglas on that matter, and I will try briefly to place myself right in regard to it on this occasion. I said-and it is between the extracts Judge Douglas has taken from this speech, and put in his published speeches:
“It may be argued that there are certain conditions that make necessities and impose them upon us, and to the extent that a necessity is imposed upon a man he must submit to it. I think that was the condition in which we found ourselves when we established this Government. We had slaves among us, we could not get our Constitution unless we permitted them to remain in slavery, we could not secure the good we did secure if we grasped for more; and having by necessity submitted to that much, it does not destroy the principle that is the charter of our liberties. Let the charter remain as our standard.”
Now I have upon all occasions declared as strongly as Judge Douglas against the disposition to interfere with the existing institution of slavery. You hear me read it from the same speech from which he takes garbled extracts for the purpose of proving upon me a disposition to interfere with the institution of slavery, and establish a perfect social and political equality between negroes and white people.
Allow me while upon this subject briefly to present one other extract from a speech of mine, more than a year ago, at Springfield, in discussing this very same question, soon after Judge Douglas took his ground that negroes were not included in the Declaration of Independence:
“I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not mean to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all men were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what 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 they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, or 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: 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, every where.”
There again are the sentiments I have expressed in regard to the Declaration of Independence upon a former occasion-sentiments which have been put in print and read wherever any body cared to know what so humble an individual as myself chose to say in regard to it.
At Galesburgh the other day, I said in answer to Judge Douglas, that three years ago there never had been a man, so far as I knew or believed, in the whole world, who had said that the Declaration of Independence did not include negroes in the term “all men.” I reassert it to-day. I assert that Judge Douglas and all his friends may search the whole records of the country, and it will be a matter of great astonishment to me if they shall be able to find that one human being three years ago had ever uttered the astounding sentiment that the term “all men” in the Declaration did not include the negro. Do not let me be misunderstood. I know that more than three years ago there were men who, finding this assertion constantly in the way of their schemes to bring about the ascendancy and perpetuation of slavery, denied the truth of it. I know that Mr. Calhoun and all the politicians of his school denied the truth of the Declaration. I know that it ran along in the mouth of some Southern men for a period of years, ending at last in that shameful though rather forcible declaration of Pettit of Indiana, upon the floor of the United States Senate, that the Declaration of Independence was in that respect “a self-evident lie,” rather than a self-evident truth. But I say, with a perfect knowledge of all this hawking at the Declaration without directly attacking it, that three years ago there never had lived a man who had ventured to assail it in the sneaking way of pretending to believe it and then asserting it did not include the negro. I believe the first man who ever said it was Chief Justice Taney in the Dred Scott case, and the next to him was our friend, Stephen A. Douglas. And now it has become the catch-word of the entire party. I would like to call upon his friends every where to consider how they have come in so short a time to view this matter in a way so entirely different from their former belief? to ask whether they are not being borne along by an irresistible current-whither, they know not? [Great applause.] (from here)
So What Is Origin Of The Phrase?
From whence comes this belief in the equality of man? Is it self evident? In “All Men Are Created Equal.” Really?, that article I mentioned from big think earlier, we have a logical explanation of how we are not equal. So were the founders being illogical? No. Consider Galatians 3:28 in context.
Galatians 3:23-29 English Standard Version (ESV)
23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
How did I discover that passage? At Yahoo! Answers, I read the answer to this question:
Where in the Bible does it state all people are created equal? (from here)
Other Bible passages were suggested, but that is the one that most pleased the asker. Where is the question addressed more completely? Here are some articles.
- Does the Bible support the idea that all men are created equal? from La Vista Church contains a good selection of Bible passages. Here is one of my favorites.
Ephesians 6:5-9 Good News Translation (GNT)
Slaves and Masters
5 Slaves, obey your human masters with fear and trembling; and do it with a sincere heart, as though you were serving Christ. 6 Do this not only when they are watching you, because you want to gain their approval; but with all your heart do what God wants, as slaves of Christ. 7 Do your work as slaves cheerfully, as though you served the Lord, and not merely human beings. 8 Remember that the Lord will reward each of us, whether slave or free, for the good work we do.
9 Masters, behave in the same way toward your slaves and stop using threats. Remember that you and your slaves belong to the same Master in heaven, who judges everyone by the same standard.
What is your first reaction? Don’t you wonder if God approves of slavery? Then you are reminded there is only one master.
- What does the Bible say about human rights? from gotQuestions.org approaches the subject from the perspective of human rights. Because we belong to God, we have the rights He has given us, and He has commanded us to love each other.
- Were the founding fathers egalitarians? What did they mean by “all men are created equal”? from The American Vision explores the issue from the perspective of the founders.
For a list of the posts in this series, see AN EXAMPLE OF BIGOTRY — PART 1.