Lincoln at 200, part 4

To mark the anniversary of Lincoln’s birth today, we continue featuring essays from the Lincoln Bicentennial issue of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here). Available online to subscribers now, this issue of the CRB features several reviews, essays, and illustrations to commemorate the life and legacy of our greatest president.

In “The Great Debate,” Professor Diana Schaub discusses the seven debates between Lincoln and Douglas in 1858 and the relationship between the two men. Lincoln and Douglas were centrists, Schaub writes, in the sense that they represented the division within the main body of the American people. Lincoln had too much prudence and respect for the Constitution to be an abolitionist, and Douglas was not an advocate of slavery. The political battle between the two was so contentious because both seemed to hold reasonable positions. Reasonable men could (and did) agree with Douglas’s principle of popular sovereignty, as others agreed with Lincoln that the repeal of the Missouri Compromise by Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act was a great wrong.

Though Lincoln and Douglas were fierce political opponents, their interactions were civil and even amiable. Via Roy Morris, Jr.’s book on Lincoln’s long struggle against Douglas, Schaub relates the story of how Lincoln’s son was accepted to Harvard with a letter of recommendation from Douglas written in the summer of 1860. “To me,” she writes, “this incident is a testament to civility — an example of how intense partisanship is compatible with collegiality. Lincoln and Douglas were lifelong rivals far apart on any spectrum, whether physical, characterological, or ideological. But they were not enemies.”

The best guidebook to the debates, Schaub writes, is Harry V. Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided (University of Chicago Press), soon to be republished with a new introduction in its 50th anniversary year. In the book, Jaffa makes the best possible case for Douglas, devoting 140 pages of sustained argument to his statesmanship. Jaffa’s Douglas is demolished by Lincoln’s true statesmanship, and the defeat is made even more dramatic by Jaffa’s discussion of Douglas’s virtues. The debate between Lincoln and Douglas was one between two skilled politicians operating at the height of their powers.

Douglas’s argument was powerfully made, but as Lincoln argued, the principle of popular sovereignty — that free people ought be given the choice to allow or abolish slavery — is a step away from the Declaration’s proclamation that “all men are created equal” — and toward tyranny. Schaub writes:

Douglas’s “don’t care” policy was an essential step toward joining the South in calling slavery right. Moral neutrality was foundational quicksand, weakening the ground for legal prohibition and preparing the ground for moral acceptance. Lincoln insisted instead on rock-solid moral disapproval of slavery, on which could be built a complex legal structure, tolerating slavery in the existing slave states while prohibiting it in the territories under federal control. Lincoln insisted that the American people both should care and did care.

If there is no moral distinction between slavery and the absence of slavery, Lincoln understood, then mere will prevails and might makes right. Lincoln upheld the essential moral distinction by invoking the principles upon which our country was founded. His battle against Douglas was a battle against despotism disguised as a harmless and democratic policy.

The temptation to tyranny is perennial, Schaub cautions, but as long as we remain mindful of Lincoln’s words and warnings, we can prevail against it.

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