- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2008




This year marks the 150th anniversary of the famous 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Stephen Douglas was an incumbent U.S. senator from Illinois and Abraham Lincoln (who was a former one-term member or the U.S. House of Representatives) wanted to replace him and thereby return to the nation’s capital.

There were seven debates in all, and they took place throughout the state before large and attentive audiences. Each debate dealt with only one subject, and that subject was slavery.

The Founders of the American Revolution could be characterized as a group of brilliant but “courageous cowards” who all knew slavery was the great cultural contradiction in the creation of a democratic republic founded on the lofty principle that “all men are created equal.”

Although they were incredibly valiant to declare their independence from England (the most powerful political and military force since the days of Imperial Rome) the majority, quite consciously, chose to pass on to their “heirs” the challenge of having to confront and ultimately resolve the thorny issue of the presence of human bondage in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Indeed, several of their heirs became men of profound prominence. For example, Robert E. Lee was born in 1807, Jefferson Davis was born in 1808, Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809, and Frederick Douglass was born in 1817. Thomas Jefferson (for whom the president of the Confederacy was named) and his close friend, John Adams, did not die until July 4, 1826. James Madison, an even closer friend to Jefferson, died a decade later. Thus the second generation was maturing while their elders were exiting.

To truly grasp the magnitude and mission of the Civil War, it is best to approach the event through the views and values of Lincoln, Lee and Douglass.

For Lincoln the Union was a “marriage” and therefore to him secession was a “divorce.” Vows of lifelong commitment are taken at marriages and thus they are intended to last forever until death - not dissatisfaction - do the parties part. Regarding slavery, Lincoln forcefully stated in his first Inaugural address: “I have no purpose directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

He continues: “That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the states, and especially the right of each state to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any state or territory, no matter what pretext as among the gravest of crimes.” Here then, from the Southern perspective, is the origin of the view that the conflict should be correctly characterized as “the war of Northern aggression.”

Within weeks after the firing on Fort Sumter the Union’s invasion of Virginia led to the first battle of Bull Run that resulted in a decisive Confederate victory and - had the Southerners pursued the retreating Northern troops - it might have led to the capture of Washington and the advent of Southern independence.

For Lee, the individual states were sovereign,reflected in their territorial and political autonomy as is evidenced by the fact each state has its own capital city, court system, legislature and even its own “president” (as in governor) and its own flag. The states voluntarily entered the Union and therefore reserved for themselves the right to voluntarily exit the Union.

Lest we forget, the Constitution was entirely silent on the subject of secession. Indeed, on Dec. 20, 1860, only a few weeks after Lincoln’s election, South Carolina left the Union entirely on its own, seemingly not knowing - or even caring - whether other states would follow her lead.

For Douglass, the Union needed to be preserved but in its preservation it must be made better. Thus, to him the war provided the opportunity to eradicate from the American experiment the most glaring element that made it defective: slavery. Certainly, no one invested more time and energy in recruiting black soldiers and sailors to fight for the Union cause than Douglass himself, even to the point of urging two of his three sons to enlist in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. That particular unit was immortalized in the movie “Glory.”

Over time Lincoln went through a major change of heart concerning slavery and thus the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September, 1862 and went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863. That was 21 months after the war had begun and we should remember that in the beginning Lincoln predicted that the repression of the rebellion would only last 90 days and all he would need to prosecute it would be 75,000 volunteers.

In the end, the Civil War would last for four years, causing enormous physical destruction and emotional devastation and claiming the lives of nearly 650,000 soldiers and civilians. In future military conflicts, we would never fight foreign enemies with the same degree of fervor and ferocity that we waged war against ourselves.

The war ended in April 1865 and a new America was about to be born. President Lincoln, who had visited the captured capital of Richmond (not to punish but to pardon) on April 4-5, would return to Washington where he - as the “savior” of the country - would be assassinated on Good Friday and die the following day.

Immediately after the conclusion of the Civil War, three new amendments - within only five years - were added to the Constitution specifically for the protection and promotion of the welfare of blacks. The 13th Amendment of 1865 abolished slavery; the 14th Amendment of 1868 awarded blacks the rights of citizenship (reversing the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott ruling), and the 15th Amendment of 1870 provided black males the right to vote. The last time the Constitution had been amended was in 1804, and it would not be amended again until 1913.

The purpose of all this is to underscore the simple fact that had Lincoln won the Lincoln-Douglas Debates he would have been sworn into office in 1859, the year of John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry and its immediate aftermath, which included Brown’s arrest, trial and subsequent execution.

Therefore, it is impossible to imagine Lincoln leaving the Senate (an institution distinguished by such pre-Civil War notables as John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster - all of whom he greatly admired and sought to emulate) to run for the presidency in 1860.

So the making of a new America - severed entirely from slavery - was largely made possible because Lincoln’s loss to Stephen Douglas left him available to run for the nation’s highest elective office, which he secured and used to achieve victory over national division and social injustice.

Edward C. Smith is a professor and the co-director of the Civil War Institute at American University.

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