Lincoln Draws the Line on Slavery

2/23/2021 cbw

By Dr. Christian McWhirter

Among the most fascinating of Abraham Lincoln's writings are the notes he wrote to himself. Mostly discovered after his death, they offer few clues as to their origin and intent, but they give us glimpses into his thought process. They often appear to be intellectual exercises — ways Lincoln worked out difficult concepts by putting pen to paper.

The most famous of these notes, Lincoln’s “Meditation on the Divine Will,” best exemplifies this practice. “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God,” he wrote. “Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time.” He goes on to apply this principle to the conflict raging around him: “He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”

Fortunately, Lincoln’s secretaries John Hay and John G. Nicolay later provided context for this note. Recalling Lincoln wrote it in September 1862, during some of the bloodiest days of the Civil War, they said “it was not written to be seen of men.” Yet how wonderful that it eventually became public and provides such insight into Lincoln’s deepest thoughts at such a critical moment?

Among the items in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum’s collection is another note that will be on display in our Treasures Gallery for the upcoming year. Commonly referred to as the “Definition of Democracy,” it is much shorter than the “Meditation” and a bit more of a mystery. None of Lincoln’s contemporaries tell us anything about this note or when he wrote it. However, its text is bold and intriguing:

“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”

Lincoln's “Definition of Democracy” (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum)

The note is a concise example of the same sort of “logic puzzle” phenomenon exemplified by the “Meditation.” Lincoln’s starts with a premise he knows is true and then uses it to carve out a position for himself.

If he would not be enslaved, so he could not morally be an enslaver. Having established that principle, Lincoln applies it to his political philosophy, making it a central tenet of democracy itself. He finishes by affirming a principle also shared by many anti-slavery advocates: the institution of slavery is anathema to the practice of democracy.

If this is indeed Lincoln working out ideas for himself, it ends like a position statement. Lincoln defines how the institution of slavery relates to his overall political philosophy and draws a line between what he can and cannot support. It is, in effect, a test for himself: if he is faced with something that supports the practice of slavery, then he must reject it or betray his democratic principles. That is a strong statement for the time and affirms Lincoln’s anti-slavery stance — a stance, worth noting, not universally shared by white northerners.

So, when and why did Lincoln write this note? An old, unproven attribution dates it to August 1858. That would place it right before the Lincoln-Douglas debates, implying this was Lincoln working out his position before embarking on that high-profile discourse. Possible, but we can easily imagine it as a key line in a speech he never gave, perhaps because it would be viewed as too “radical.” Maybe it is Lincoln thinking through his principles before embarking on the 1860 presidential campaign, or even the presidency itself. That Nicolay and Hay didn’t appear to know about the note suggests it pre-dated Lincoln’s administration, but we don’t have much else to go on.

Nevertheless, the “Definition of Democracy” is a powerful document. Throughout his career, Lincoln attested to his hatred of slavery. Yet the extent he was willing to openly endorse and act on that belief is often obscure. Debates rage even today over precisely how far Lincoln was willing to go to end slavery and whether he was quick enough to move against it. This note informs those debates by showing Lincoln struggling with precisely that question. For him, a democracy that supported slavery was no democracy at all. The question was, how to resolve that contradiction.

Christian McWhirter is the ALPLM's Lincoln historian.

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