As important as the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation was to Abraham Lincoln’s legacy, there was something even more important that he left behind for future generations that is rarely recognized in our day. This idea was the motivation behind freeing the slaves in America and was the idea the propelled Abraham Lincoln into the national spotlight and onto the presidency. It was developed during the Lincoln and Douglas debates for the U.S Senate campaign in Illinois in 1858 and it is what set apart Lincoln from Stephen Douglas and all politicians who came after our Founding Fathers to the time of the campaign.
Lincoln believed that democracy needed to be morally accountable. He believed that there was a morality beyond the pale of citizens exercising their rights and that this morality was not to be defined or to be decided by popular majorities. Lincoln opposed Douglas because Senator Douglas promoted the idea of popular sovereignty in the territories when it came to slavery. Or, the idea of that right and wrong were relative, manmade concepts to only be decided by majorities. Lincoln saw the tyranny in such an idea not only as it had been manifested in the Nebraska and Kansas territories over the issue of slavery, but he saw the future despotism of majorities deciding what was “right” when it stood in direct opposition to natural law. As Lincoln poignantly pointed out during the debate at Quincy, Illinois that “if it is a wrong, he [Douglas] cannot say people have a right to do wrong.”
Douglas’s idea, despite what he claimed, was pushing the United States further away from the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution. Lincoln’s ultimate triumph is that he brought America closer to the ideas embodied in those documents and again, like our Founding Fathers, dared to recognize and act on overriding natural law.
I find it both encouraging, yet odd to see Hollywood embracing Abraham Lincoln this season. Considering that Hollywood or the entertainment industry for the most part embraces a morality and polity like the one Stephen Douglas advocated. A universe where no one morality is held up against another as a standard and morality is always trumped by rights as determined by social policy and popular will creating what T.S. Eliot ironically called “systems so perfect that no one will need to be good”.
As Allen C. Guelzo pointed in his book Lincoln and Douglas, “…at the deepest level, what Lincoln defended in the debates was the possibility that there could be a moral core to a democracy…For him, politics was not about helping people exercise rights apart from doing what was right.”