Book Review: Lucas Morel, Lincoln and the American Founding

Lucas Morel, Lincoln and the American Founding

Reviewed by Burrus M. Carnahan

In the fall of 2020, Professor Lucas Morel of Washington and Lee University spoke at the University of Colorado on “The 1619 Project as Missed Opportunity.” His point was that Nicole Hannah-Jones depicted American history as a racial zero-sum game – that any gains in equality and freedom by African-Americans had to be at the expense of white Americans, who were little more than constant oppressors. According to the professor, the Project missed the opportunity to remember the contribution of both races to the expansion of freedom and equality in this country.

Professor Morel’s new book on Lincoln and the Founders is a powerful example of what was missed. The achievements of President Lincoln expanded freedom and equality in America and strengthened the cause of democracy worldwide. As Lincoln and the American Founding demonstrates, he based those achievements on his understanding of the values of the founding generation.

Morel’s basic thesis is that Lincoln was equally devoted to the two primary texts created by the Founders, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Declaration defined the proper ends of free government while the Constitution prescribed the institutional means to those ends. As president, Lincoln’s task was to find a way to fully respect both documents.

Morel’s first chapter examines Lincoln’s fascination with George Washington. Early in his life, Lincoln became convinced that Washington and his soldiers were fighting for something more than mere independence from Great Britain. They were, he concluded, also fighting for universal values of human freedom and equality. Within the context of the entire work, this chapter explains why Lincoln regarded the achievements of the founding generation so highly.

In subsequent chapters the author examines Lincoln’s understanding of the Declaration and the Constitution. The Declaration, particularly its self-evident truth that “all men are created equal,” was the “sine qua non of Lincoln’s political thought.” The application of this principle in his own life had allowed him to rise from poverty to the presidency.

According to the Declaration, governments derived their legitimate powers from the consent of the governed, and the Constitution was the mechanism by which Americans gave their consent to government action. Lincoln therefore “identified allegiance to the Constitution as allegiance to liberty.” In this he differed from William Lloyd Garrison, who would have destroyed slavery regardless of the procedural restraints in the constitution. On the other hand, Stephen Douglas’ “popular sovereignty” elevated majority rule over justice by allowing the expansion of slavery. Lincoln believed justice required respect for both the Constitution and the ideals of the Declaration. In the Emancipation Proclamation, for example, he believed he had found a “constitutional means” to a “humanitarian end.”

Chapter 4 deals with the problem of slavery under the Constitution. The historical evidence, Lincoln believed, established that the Founders regarded slavery as an evil on the road to ultimate extinction, and tolerated its existence only as a temporary necessity. To ensure its eventual extinction they opposed its expansion into new territories.

He lamented that his own time was not as anti-slavery as the Founders’ generation, with some even declaring slavery a positive good. “On the question of liberty,” he wrote in 1855, “we are not what we have been.” In a private note, he declared that the “essence of democracy” could be expressed in the statement, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” From this, Morel concludes, Lincoln believed the “legitimacy and viability of self-government depended on free citizens not thinking they could be good masters.” The weakening of anti-slavery sentiment, therefore, threatened the liberty of all Americans. In this regard, Lincoln believed the Abolitionists were their own worst enemies, whose inflammatory rhetoric impeded the anti-slavery cause by stiffening Southern resistance.

Lincoln did recognize that new circumstances could limit the value of the Founders’ work, an issue the author addresses in his chapter on “Lincoln and Original Intent.” As president he faced such situations whenever he invoked his war powers as commander in chief. An early example was his decision to suspend the writ of habeas corpus on his own authority. While the power to suspend the writ in cases of war or insurrection was located in Article I of the Constitution, which deals with the powers of Congress, the document did not expressly say which branch of government should make the initial decision to suspend the writ. Reasoning that the Founders must have intended that the power to suspend must be used effectively, and that a suspension could not have been effective if the government was forced to wait until Congress had assembled during an invasion or insurrection, he concluded that he, as president, had the initial power to suspend the writ.

In this case and others, “Lincoln’s focus on constitutional ends showed how to interpret and apply the specific means spelled out in the Constitution.” By publicly explaining the “spectrum of executive authority when faced with an unprecedented threat,” Lincoln hoped “to equip the American people to judge whether his response to armed secession prudently avoided extremes that would destroy free government not only in America but also the world.”

The research and erudition displayed in this short book could easily have supported a work ten times its length. Lincoln and the American Founding is nevertheless clearly written and accessible to the general reader. We can only hope that it will be widely adopted in basic history courses as an alternative, or at least an antidote, to the 1619 Project.


Reviewed by Burrus M. Carnahan, Adjunct Professor of Law, George Washington University

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