The Evolution of Equality

A Comparative Analysis Between the Lincoln and Jeffersonian View of Racial Equality

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” [1].

With these words, Abraham Lincoln impressed his vision of racial equality upon the American political landscape, effectively supplanting the limited Jeffersonian concept of human equality based on natural right and the utility of “moral sense.” [2].

Lincoln envisioned an equality of the races, both, politically and socially, which ventured far beyond Jefferson’s simple premise of equal treatment under the law. Lincoln understood racial equality to be based upon natural, as well as, sacred right. [3]. He attributed the intellectual differences among men to be due to the “doctrine of necessity”– men’s intellect being guided “by some power,” outside of their control [4], rather than strictly being the product of biology or education.

For Lincoln, all men are created equal meant all of mankind, not just Whites of European descent. Thus, Lincoln’s sense of equality was more inclusive than Jefferson’s. While Lincoln was careful not to denigrate Negros as necessarily being physically, mentally, nor morally deficient, he was also careful not to enrage the dominant class by publicly conceding racial equality, acknowledging “he is not my equal in many respects – certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowments.” [5].

Lincoln saw Negros as being capable of making an intellectual contribution to society. In a private letter to Michael Hahn, Governor of Louisiana, Lincoln wrote:

Now you are about to have a Convention which, among other things, will probably define the elective franchise. I barely suggest, for your private consideration, whether some of the colored people may not be let in-as, for instance, the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks. They would probably help, in some trying time to come, to keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom. [6].

Jefferson felt otherwise; he conceded that Negros might be morally equal to the Whites, but saw them as physically and intellectually inferior. According to Jefferson, nature had provided “distinctions” between the races; besides the physiological differences, blacks lacked “forethought,” proper “reason,” and were “much inferior” in intellect. [7]. For these reasons, Negros, if emancipated, were to be segregated to prevent a “mixing of the races.” [8]. Jefferson was victimized by the poor science of his day, the prevailing European theory of Phrenology posited that Negros had a smaller brain mass than Whites.

Jefferson’s equality was contingent on natural rights. All men were not “created equal” with natural attributes; each was endowed with differing degrees of “talent” and “virtue,” – thus, each was afforded the right to pursue prosperity on an equal footing, but were unequal in their ability to attain the same level of achievement. [9]. Nevertheless, all men were equal in their natural right to procure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and they shared a common “moral sense,” of “right and wrong” provided by nature. [10]. Jefferson upheld that by exercising this intrinsic quality, through education, all men were capable of coming to a consensus on “self-evident” truths such as these.

Lincoln’s views on morality differed, in that they were based on his doctrine of necessity, rather than the Jeffersonian understanding of an internal moral sense. For Lincoln, educated men could come to opposing positions on the same issue, for “the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control.” [11]. Lincoln’s later writings support the notion that he may have believed this vague external force to be the result of God exercising his sovereign will in different circumstances to meet His divine plans and purposes. [12].

One of the great moral truths both, Lincoln, and Jefferson, could agree on was the injustice of the subjugation of the African race. Jefferson wrote:

The love of justice and the love of country plead equally the cause of these people, and it is a moral reproach to us that they should have pleaded it so long in vain, and should have produced not a single effort, nay fear not much serious willingness to relieve them and ourselves from our present condition of moral and political reprobation. [13].

Lincoln echoed these sentiments:

The monstrous injustice of slavery itself . . . Deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world-enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites- causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty. [14].

Where Lincoln veered from Jefferson was on the source of the natural right to equality. Lincoln appealed to the common humanity of the Negro, in His assertion that “it is your own sense of justice, and human sympathy, telling you, that the Negro has some natural right to himself … will you ask us to deny the humanity of the slave?” [15]. Lincoln also contended slavery was a transgression of the natural right to self-governance “according to our ancient faith,” and that “the just powers of governments are derived from the consent of the governed.” [16]. He agreed that this was intrinsically understood, not by nature, but by divine ordinance. Furthermore, Lincoln argued that “the relation of masters and slaves is Protanto, a total violation of this principle.” [17].

Jefferson and Lincoln concurred on the premise of a slave’s right to equal treatment under the law. Jefferson asserted that “whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights” [18], while holding onto the future hope for the Negro’s “re-establishment on an equal footing with the other colors of the human family.” [19]. Lincoln was even bolder in his stance, asserting “there is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence.” [20]. Lincoln avowed that the Negro, “in the right to eat bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns… is my equal… and the equal of every living man.” [21].

Lincoln’s greatest innovation was in transforming Jefferson’s abstract intellectual principle of equality into a concrete moral imperative. While treading lightly, Lincoln sought to replace Jefferson’s equality of nature, with an equality of status. In Lincoln’s opinion, the question was not “can any of us imagine better?” but rather, “can we do better?” [22]. Lincoln’s major obstacle was that “the great mass of white people” was reluctant to embrace the ideal of social and political equality between the races. Despite his lack of public support, Lincoln endured, and patiently nurtured the seeds of racial equality that Jefferson had so carefully sown. However, it would take another one hundred years before those seeds would begin to bear fruit.

Lawrence Christopher Skufca (2007)

Some Rights Reserved

Bibliography

[1]  Lincoln, Abraham. Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Editor: Roy P. Basler. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1946: 735.

[2]  Jefferson, Thomas. Moral Sense. Coursepack. Greenville: LAD Custom Publishing, Inc. 2007: 72.

[3]  Lincoln, Abraham. The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the Propriety of its Restoration: Speech at Peoria, Illinois, In Reply to Senator Douglas. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Editor: Roy P. Basler. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1946: 302-304.

[4]  Lincoln, Abraham. Religious Views: Letter to the Editor of the Illinois Gazette. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Editor: Roy P. Basler. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1946: 187-188.

[5]  Lincoln, Abraham. First Debate, at Ottawa, Illinois, August 21,1858. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Editor: Roy P. Basler. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1946: 445.

[6]  Lincoln, Abraham. Letter to Governor Michael Hahn, March 13,1864. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Editor: Roy P. Basler. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1946: 745.

[7]  Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia, queries XIV and XVIII. Coursepack. Greenville: LAD Custom Publishing, Inc. 2007: 48-49. Stable URL: http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch15s28.html

[8]  Ibid., p. 50.

[9]  Jefferson, Thomas. The Natural Aristocracy. Coursepack. Greenville: LAD Custom Publishing, Inc. 2007: 75-79.

[10] Jefferson, Thomas. Moral Sense. Coursepack. Greenville: LAD Custom Publishing, Inc. 2007: 72.

[11] Lincoln, Abraham. Religious Views: Letter to the Editor of the Illinois Gazette. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Editor: Roy P. Basler. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1946: 187-188.

[12] Lincoln, Abraham. Meditation on the Divine Will. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Editor: Roy P. Basler. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1946: 655.

[13] Jefferson, Thomas. Emancipation and the Younger Generation. Coursepack. Greenville: LAD Custom Publishing, Inc. 2007: 91-92.

[14] Lincoln, Abraham. The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the Propriety of its Restoration: Speech at Peoria, Illinois, In Reply to Senator Douglas. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Editor: Roy P. Basler. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1946: 291.

[15] Ibid., pp. 302-303.

[16] Ibid., p. 304.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Jefferson, Thomas. The Negro Race. Coursepack. Greenville: LAD Custom Publishing, Inc. 2007: 61.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Lincoln, Abraham. First Debate, at Ottawa, Illinois, August 21,1858. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Editor: Roy P. Basler. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1946: 445.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Lincoln, Abraham. Message to Congress, 1862. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Editor: Roy P. Basler. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1946:

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