Allen C. Guelzo: Lincoln's lessons for today's culture wars

Roundup: Historians' Take

... What lies behind the insistence on injecting morality into politics – and what lies behind the resistance to it – is a battle between two basic concepts of democracy itself: between democracy as process and democracy as purpose. This conflict is hardly an aberration of the 1990s or the Religious Right. It's a battle that was spectacularly played out 150 years ago in the great debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas.

Then, as now, politicians preferred their problems to come with neutral, dollars-and-cents solutions. In 1858, slavery was legal in 15 states, and slaveholders were demanding slavery's legalization in the Western territories as well. These demands had paralyzed Congress and triggered bloodshed in the Kansas Territory.

As the senior US senator from Illinois and chair of the Senate Committee on Territories, Douglas's solution was simply to let the people who lived there decide for themselves. He called this "popular sovereignty," and it bothered him not at all that some people (in this case, white settlers) had the authority to decide whether other people (in this case, black slaves) should be held in a lifetime of forced labor.

"If Kansas wants a slave-State constitution she has a right to it," Douglas announced on the floor of the Senate. "I do not care whether it is voted down or voted up." Law, for Douglas, was mere traffic regulations: so long as the proper procedures were observed, what people thought was right or wrong was irrelevant.

Abraham Lincoln believed as devoutly as Douglas in democracy. "The sacred right of self-government, rightly understood, no one appreciated more than [me]," Lincoln said before the debates. "But it has no just application" to the question of slavery.

Enslaving another human being was a denial of one of the primary natural rights – the right to liberty – with which everyone, according to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, had been "endowed by their Creator." For that reason, "there can be no moral right in connection with one man's making a slave of another" – and no moral right in allowing a majority of white people to vote black people into slavery.

But questions about moral right were exactly what Douglas believed had to be avoided in American public life. Once morality became mixed up with politics, then people began looking for firearms....

[Lincoln felt differently.]

A democracy without a sense of the sacredness of ... rights was like a tornado, hollow at the core and purposeless in direction. "[T]he real issue," in the slavery controversy, Lincoln said, was "the eternal struggle between these two principles – right and wrong – throughout the world," and anyone who ignored the "real issue" in the name of secularism and choice was eroding the moral capital on which democracy relies....

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