An Interview with Lucas Morel regarding his book Lincoln and the American Founding

An Interview with Lucas Morel regarding his book Lincoln and the American Founding


Columbia’s Noblest Sons LN1110

Sara Gabbard:  I have always been fascinated by the fact that Lincoln’s “four score and seven” years spoken at Gettysburg referred back to 1776.  I would have thought that bringing “forth a new nation” would have been established by the Constitution, not by the Declaration of Independence.


Lucas Morel: That’s a timely question given all the hullabaloo over the 1619 Project, which strangely considers 1619 the true founding year of America because of the introduction of Black enslaved people at Point Comfort, near the English colony of Jamestown. Lincoln considered July 4, 1776, the birthday of the United States of America because on that day, the representatives of “the good people of these colonies” declared their independence from Great Britain upon the self-evident truth “that all men are created equal” and therefore did not deserve to be ruled without their consent. The diverse 13 British colonies first became a nation when they announced the reasons for their separation from mother England, and that announcement came on the Fourth of July, 1776.

As important as the U.S. Constitution was to Lincoln, it represented a means to something higher—namely, the ends spelled out in the Declaration of Independence. In this way, the Declaration represents the soul of America, what Lincoln once called “the spirit of seventy-six,” while the Constitution represents the form. Therefore, the real heart of the nation is expressed by its principles whereas its operation is expressed by the mechanisms laid out in its constitution.


SG:  Your first chapter is titled “Lincoln, Washington, and the Fathers.”  You give a detailed account of Lincoln’s admiration for George Washington.  Did he ever comment on the fact that Washington owned slaves?

Stephen A Douglas LFA0237

LM: Frederick Douglass famously observed that “Washington could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves,” alluding to Washington freeing the slaves he had legal control of in his will. I don’t remember Lincoln making a similar observation about Washington specifically. His comments about the founders’ decision not to emancipate immediately upon establishing their independence from Great Britain usually related to explaining their efforts to erect the institutions of self-government on proper principles and trust that their operation over time would lead to the abolition of slavery “as fast as circumstances should permit.” Lincoln acknowledged that Taney and Douglas were correct when they pointed out that the founders “did not at once, actually place them [Black people] on an equality with the whites.” However, he went on to add that “they did not at once, or ever afterwards, actually place all white people on an equality with one or another.” This alluded to the fact that most white men were not allowed to vote, let alone hold office, in the early days of the American republic. Lincoln called attention to the selective use of history on behalf of policies designed to make slavery more difficult to remove, not easier. In this light, by the mid-1850s Lincoln lamented that “On the question of liberty, as a principle, we are not what we have been.” Ironically, he was arguing that Americans were never so devoted to freedom than when they were surrounded by slaves. Alas, as the founding receded from literal view in the form of living remembrances in families who traced their ancestry to the American revolutionary era, Lincoln observed that white Americans were growing increasingly indifferent towards the enslavement of people who did not look like them. This made the northerner Stephen Douglas, not southerners like Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, and Howell Cobb, the greatest threat to the eventual eradication of slavery. Viewed in this light, Lincoln believed that Washington’s ownership of slaves, or Henry Clay’s and Zachary Taylor’s for that matter, posed less of an obstacle to emancipation in America than northern politicians like Douglas, who preached indifference towards the extension of slavery into federal territory.


SG:  What did Lincoln mean when he referred to his “ancient faith?”  Why did he frame it in that way?


LM: He spoke of “my ancient faith” and “our ancient faith” in 1854 to distinguish the longstanding principles of the Declaration of Independence from the popular sovereignty expressed in the recently enacted Kansas-Nebraska Act. Associating the fundamental political beliefs of Americans with “faith” or religion was a way for Lincoln to suggest how profound, even sacred, the central ideals of the American regime are or should be. To speak of it as “ancient” implied that it was not a new faith or understanding but traditional and orthodox as contrasted with the bowdlerized version of self-government that Stephen Douglas enshrined in his Nebraska bill, which Lincoln saw as a recent innovation and not the genuine article.

An ancient faith also suggested truths that were timeless and universal. This comported with their expression in the formative document of their national existence, the Declaration of Independence, as “self-evident.”

Thus to lose one’s faith in, or devotion to, these ideals would be to turn away from the only sure ground of one’s individual liberty in a government that operated according to the opinion of the citizenry. In his Peoria Address of 1854, Lincoln said his “ancient faith” taught him that “all men are created equal.” He went on to call government by consent of the governed “the sheet anchor of American republicanism.” Moreover, in his one term in Congress (1847-49), he referred to the right of revolution as “a most valuable,—a most sacred right—a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world.” Taken together, these founding beliefs of the fathers of the American republic—whom he playfully called “those old-time men” who had famously worked in “old Independence Hall”— represented the original doctrines or creed of American self-government. Lincoln portrayed this political faith of “our revolutionary fathers” as a conviction he believed was necessary to perpetuate the American way of life. I should add that in his first great speech, delivered before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, in 1838, he spoke of “reverence for the Constitution and laws” as “the political religion of the nation” (his emphasis), but that was the only time he ever used that phrase. Understanding that their government was founded to promote their civil and religious liberty, succeeding generations of Americans ought to express their gratitude by scrupulously obeying the laws and appealing to courts to secure justice and not resort to mob violence or lynch law.


SG:  What was Lincoln’s assessment of Thomas Jefferson?  What did he mean when he wrote “All honor to Jefferson”?


LM: Lincoln fervently believed that the political principles Jefferson laid out in the Declaration of Independence were, as he put it in 1859, “the definitions and axioms of free society.” No doubt he was looking ahead to the 1860 election year and was trying to recruit Democrats to the Republican fold by praising Jefferson, their chieftain of old. Lincoln was invited to Boston to commemorate Jefferson’s birthday at a festival but could not take the time to make the trip. Instead, he wrote a brief but incisive letter in April 1859 praising Jefferson, which would be read at the event. Having recently lost his bid to replace the nation’s leading Democrat, Stephen A. Douglas, in the Senate, Lincoln never flagged in his efforts to get his countrymen to reclaim or “re-adopt” the ideals of the Declaration as the surest means of preserving the union of the American states. He was concerned that “the principles of Jefferson” were being jettisoned not just south but also north of the Mason-Dixon line, and therefore he enlisted the name and reputation of the original standard-bearer of the Democratic party to indicate that what modern-day Republicans were preaching was essentially the original belief in “the personal rights of men” once held by Jefferson and his party. He would argue later that year that contrary to Douglas’s “don’t care” policy regarding the expansion of slavery into federal territories, “This was not the opinion held by the good men of the Revolution of it. It was not the expressed opinion of Mr. Jefferson.”

That said, we cannot forget that Lincoln was a Whig, and therefore did not subscribe to the political policies of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party. With Henry Clay as his “beau ideal of a statesman,” he believed in Clay’s American System, which envisioned a substantial role for the federal government to provide the infrastructure and monetary policy that would both enable individual citizens to prosper according to their own talents, industry, and initiative, and help connect and unite the disparate regions of the United States.


SG:  Of the first four presidents, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison were truly scholars of history, philosophy, etc.  Washington was not.  Did Lincoln ever mention this?

Henry Clay OC0496

LM: I don’t recall him noting Washington’s lack of formal education. Except for one or two occasions, Lincoln was all praise whenever he mentioned Washington (and the founders, in general). My good friend Allen Guelzo has observed that Washington’s description of his “defective education” was precisely how Lincoln described his own formal schooling when asked for a brief biography in 1858. (Lincoln once described Henry Clay’s education as “comparatively limited,” but only to offer Clay as an example of what anyone could achieve by dint of personal initiative and pursuit of “sufficient education.”) His many references to Washington were always for some political purpose, whether as an example of personal firmness, honor, morals, or courage, or in defense of a political principle or policy. I don’t recall him ever needing to mention Washington’s lack of a college education.


SG:  Did the founders really believe that prohibition of the slave trade after 1808 would lead to eventual extinction?


LM: The great conundrum of 20th and 21st century Americans looking back to the founding is squaring their many statements affirming human equality and natural rights and condemning slavery on the one hand, and their continued practice of slavery on the other hand. Many today simply see this as rank hypocrisy and unwittingly find themselves agreeing with Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and Stephen A. Douglas, who concluded that the founding generation could not have meant “all” when they said “all” because they did not immediately free all American slaves. Therefore, in the words of Douglas, “this Government of ours was founded, and wisely founded, upon the white basis. It was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity, to be executed and managed by white men.” How could Lincoln not draw the same conclusion?

Lincoln did not believe the founders were hypocrites, generally speaking. As he put it, “We had slavery 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.” In brief, he thought the founders did not think they could free themselves and free their slaves at the same time. However, once they had secured their independence, what did they do collectively with regards to the “domestic” or state institution of slavery? Did their federal constitution indicate a desire to strengthen slavery’s hold on the American people or did the framers attempt to reduce their dependence upon the peculiar institution?

Lincoln answered by observing that the U.S. Constitution, unlike the Articles of Confederation, empowered Congress to ban the importation of slaves in 1808. “A constitutional provision was necessary to prevent the people, through Congress,” Lincoln noted, “from putting a stop to the traffic immediately at the close of the war. Now, if slavery had been a good thing, would the Fathers of the Republic have taken a step calculated to diminish its beneficent influences among themselves, and snatch the boon wholly from their posterity?” If the federal government did not possess the authority to abolish slavery right away, given its legality as a state institution, then the founders attempted to begin its eradication by preventing its continued supply. In addition, under the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of 1787, Congress passed an ordinance banning slavery from the Northwest Territory, the only territory owned by the United States at that time. Taken together, these were early attempts at the national level to prevent both the supply and expansion of slavery on American soil. The expectation was that slavery would eventually wither on the vine and the nation would peacefully outlive the utility of slavery. I hasten to add that these actions and expectations all occurred prior to the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, which is to say prior to the enormous profitability of plantation-grown cotton as an export and what then became the extraordinary productivity of slave labor in harvesting that cash crop.

To be sure, South Carolina and Georgia were always resistant to national control over slavery in their states, and exercised outsized power as a minority of the American states when the states strove “to form a more perfect union.” Thus to speak of “the founders” when it came to expectations regarding slavery over the long haul is to speak in general terms and not to affirm an opinion held by every significant political player in this tragic drama. This is what produced some of the debates at the convention and eventual compromises over slavery in the Constitution, but what Madison expected would lead to the demise of slavery over time. Excellent books on this subject are West, Vindicating the Founders, Kaminsky, A Necessary Evil?, Ford, Deliver Us from Evil, and Wilentz, No Property in Man, and of course Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided and New Birth of Freedom.


SG:  When Stephen Douglas supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act, were there counter-arguments that this action violated the concept of the Northwest Ordinance?


LM: Yes; in his justly famous speech at Peoria, Illinois, in 1854, in which Lincoln made multiple arguments against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he gave a detailed account of how the early generation of Americans banned slavery from the Northwest Territory, and did so upon the basis of a version of the ordinance drafted by “the most distinguished politician of our history”—namely, Thomas Jefferson, himself a slaveholder, as Lincoln notes. More important than Jefferson’s slaveholding is what he did despite that pernicious practice, which was to take steps towards the eventual eradication of slavery; as Lincoln put it, at a time when Americans breathed “the pure fresh, free breath of the revolution,” whose principles for the new nation were best expressed by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.

That said, Lincoln spent more time in his Peoria Address demonstrating why the Kansas-Nebraska Act violated the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which had long been respected by both parties. Moreover, Lincoln noted that as late as 1849, Douglas himself declared that the Missouri Compromise “had been canonized in the hearts of the American people, as a sacred thing which no ruthless hand would ever be reckless enough to disturb.” Of course, with the Compromise Measures of 1850, Douglas assumed the mantle of the Great Compromiser Henry Clay and cobbled together various coalitions to get them passed as separate statutes rather than the omnibus bill initially proposed by Clay. In doing so, Douglas would later point to popular sovereignty in the territories of Utah and New Mexico as examples in 1850 that superseded the precedent set by the 1820 Missouri Compromise. Lincoln devoted his Peoria Address to rebutting Douglas’s claim of the inauguration of a new national policy regarding the expansion of slavery, and pointed to the 1787 Northwest Ordinance and 1820 Missouri Compromise as signal examples of earlier generations of Americans who sought to keep the nation on the path of putting slavery on the course of ultimate extinction. In Lincoln’s words, “Thus we see, the plain unmistakable spirit of that age, towards slavery, was hostility to the principle, and toleration, only by necessity.”


SG:  Lincoln was born on the cusp between Enlightenment and Romanticism.  I have always thought that his Lyceum Address carried elements of both “ages.”  Please comment on his reverence for the founders as expressed in the Address.


LM:  That’s a big question about a big and quite sophisticated speech of Lincoln’s. While Lincoln certainly knew his Byron, his favorite poet by far was William Shakespeare, with Robert Burns an honorable mention. Moreover, as far as his political sentiments go, they were shaped most significantly by the Enlightenment best exemplified by John Locke. Although there’s no evidence he actually read Locke (or Algernon Sidney or other Enlightenment thinkers that shaped the American founding), he got it honestly through deep reflection upon the writings of Thomas Jefferson. Stopping in Philadelphia en route to his inauguration as president, Lincoln declared, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” Are you tired of me mentioning the Declaration of Independence, yet? Take it up with Lincoln!

Conjoined with this classical liberal understanding of human nature and civil society, one must hasten to add not Romanticism so much as Lincoln’s not-quite orthodox Christian sensibilities. Although never an official member of any church, even of those at which he rented a family pew in Springfield, Illinois or frequented as president in Washington, D.C., he knew his Bible as well as any preacher of his day and increasingly drew upon its truths late in his Illinois life and certainly as president. The example par excellence is his Second Inaugural Address, which was preceded by a revealing note he wrote to himself that has come down to us as his “Meditation on Divine Will.”

Addressing more directly your question about “his reverence for the founders” in the Lyceum Address, Lincoln offers a qualified appreciation of the founding generation but closes with supreme praise for Washington. In short, while he appreciated what the founders achieved in establishing political independence and erecting the institutions of self-government, he implicitly takes them down a peg by observing that their task was made easier by the existence of an external foe, which naturally unites a people that would otherwise be “turned against each other” when following the ordinary passions that beset mankind in times of peace. “And thus, from the force of circumstances,” Lincoln commented, “the basest principles of our nature, were either made to lie dormant, or to become the active agents in the advancement of the noblest of causes—that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty.” Moving from the passions of the many to those of the few in every society who seek glory in a grand way, and Lincoln thereby identifies motives of the founding era that were not entirely noble or altruistic. At bottom, in a speech he titled “On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” Lincoln both praised the “fathers,” whom he described as “a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors,” and leavened that praise with some hard-nosed observations about human nature that were at work during that momentous era of American independence and liberation.


SG:  Was Lincoln’s admiration for Henry Clay comparable to his feelings for the founders?


LM: Lincoln called Clay “my beau ideal of a statesman” and “our gallant Harry of the West” (possibly an allusion to Lord Byron’s description of George Washington—“The Cincinnatus of the West”). He saw in Clay a devotion to the United States that he believed derived from the goodness of the American regime. As Lincoln put it, Clay “loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country.” Despite being a slaveholder, Clay attempted to get his home state of Kentucky (Lincoln’s birth state) to adopt a gradual emancipation plan. That attempt impressed Lincoln, and although it was unsuccessful, Lincoln thought it was the only peaceful way that slavery could be abolished under the federal constitution.

After Clay’s death in 1852, Lincoln spent the rest of the 1850s trying to persuade Americans north and south that, at minimum, they needed to return to the founders’ view that slavery was wrong and should be put “on the course of ultimate extinction.” Lincoln, with Clay and the founders (like Jefferson and Madison), thought that immediate, mass emancipation would jeopardize the viability of the nascent republic, and therefore abolition could only be accomplished safely—for both the free and the enslaved—if done gradually. Moreover, emancipation would need to be coupled with dispersal or diffusion of the slaves away from their former legal masters—namely, colonization either out west or Central or South America.

If he had to choose, he would go with the founders because the founding encompasses the very principles of the regime whereas Clay’s politics were chiefly practical (albeit guided by basic principles he drew from the founding).


SG:  What is the subject of your next book?


LM: The title of my current book project is “Lincoln, Race, and the Fragile American Republic.” I intend to argue that Lincoln’s most controversial statements and policies dealing with slavery and Black people must be understood in light of the tenuous or “fragile” status of self-government in antebellum America. The principles of the founding were losing their hold on many Americans, especially but not exclusively in the slaveholding South, and needed shoring up by the time Lincoln came into notoriety in the 1850s. The passage of Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which would permit white settlers in the Nebraska Territory to decide without congressional intervention if enslaving Black people would be permitted, struck Lincoln as a betrayal of the longstanding Missouri Compromise of 1820 and a fundamental departure from what he considered was the founders’ intention to rid the nation of slavery “as fast as circumstances should permit.” His return to politics that year, after completing his one term in Congress in 1849, was devoted altogether to demonstrating what he called the “insidious” nature of local popular sovereignty. Without shoring up the now waning conviction that the enslaved Black people at least possessed natural rights, Lincoln believed pressing for equal civil and political rights would be a fool’s errand.

Most of the free state of Illinois was infused with color prejudice; recall that it bordered slaveholding Kentucky and Missouri. Thus Lincoln chose to build a bridge from where white citizens stood on the race question to where he thought they should be according to the “central idea” of the regime, which he called “the equality of men.” Most of his arguments to them, as well as white southerners, were designed less to elicit their sympathy of enslaved Black people and more to show that the ground of the rights of white people was their common humanity and not their race. To do right by Black people was the surest route to the security of their own rights—at least that was what he attempted to argue. His debates with Douglas in 1858 demonstrate how difficult that task was, given that Douglas could and did trumpet his unabashed white supremacy before an Illinois citizenry that had recently banned Black people from entering the state.

Government by consent of the governed was an operative principle of America, and therefore the opinions of those consenting citizens mattered. “In this and like communities,” Lincoln said in his first formal debate with Douglas in 1858, “public sentiment is everything.” He sought to inform that sentiment, and therefore could not ignore the existing prejudices of his prospective constituents. If Lincoln’s most controversial remarks that year appear to show him playing the race card, the debates readily show that Douglas played the whole deck! Lincoln saw Douglas’s popular sovereignty, and not Jefferson Davis’s pro-slavery mindset, as the bellwether for American policy towards enslaved Black people. At bottom, if he could not persuade whites in the free states that Black people possessed natural rights, then it would be pointless to push for civil or political rights for Black people. His apparent slowness on the issue of civil rights had everything to do with his concern that a government owned and operated by the American people was losing sight of its true North, the natural rights of all human beings. Thus, Lincoln proceeded with due caution to pursue progress in securing rights consistent with the long-term viability of self-government.

Lucas Morel is Professor of History at Washington & Lee University.  He is the author of Lincoln’s Sacred Effort.