It was early winter in 1860, and the country was at an inflection point that makes today’s divisions seem trivial. It wasn’t merely slavery that was on trial. Not quite two decades shy of our first centennial, the Founding Fathers’ vision itself hung in the balance. A growing segment of America’s population was convinced that the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were fighting to advance the lives of only white men. The founders, a growing chorus of revisionists claimed, had no room in this new nation for Black people.
One man took it upon himself to write the definitive response to these long-simmering claims. Though the world knows his Gettysburg Address, it was Abraham Lincoln’s speech at a new technical college in New York City that helped propel him to national prominence.
In the mid-19th century, a large number of Americans, particularly those in the Southern states, advanced the argument that our Founding Fathers never intended to end slavery or provide equality to anyone other than those born with white skin. They also accused Americans in favor of restricting or abolishing slavery of betraying the founders’ intentions. Lincoln knew both of those claims to be false and set about proving it in his Cooper Union Address.
His challenge was daunting because the Founding Fathers were themselves a large group of men with divergent views. Could we truly know their intentions regarding slavery and race? If they wanted to exclude Black people, they surely would have written or said as much. If Thomas Jefferson, when he wrote the sacred words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” meant for those words to apply only to white men, why didn’t he write it that way?
Lincoln knew Jefferson was a man of precision when it came to choosing his words. So much so that Lincoln, in 1859, said this of Jefferson and the Declaration:
All honor to Jefferson—to the man, who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to ALL men and ALL times, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.
Lincoln understood that if the Declaration’s only purpose was to make the case for separation from England, it didn’t require the bold language of liberty and equality in its preamble. It could have simply listed the grievances against a tyrannical king.
In 1857, Lincoln, in his condemnation of the Supreme Court‘s Dred Scott decision, wrote this about the founders’ intentions:
They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.
Far from being hypocrites, Lincoln believed, our founders were forward-thinking visionaries.
With all of that as background, Lincoln began his address by asking a question: “Who were our fathers that framed the Constitution?” He then went about building an airtight case in defense of the founders, using a tool he’d used as a prominent trial lawyer: evidence.
Lincoln prepared for months, with his primary source Jonathan Elliot’s six-volume Debates on the Federal Constitution. He scoured the official record of the proceedings of Congress too and the Congressional Globe.
Like a detective, Lincoln followed the founders’ actions to determine whether, after they affixed their names to parchment, they endeavored to limit or abolish slavery or contribute to its preservation or expansion. He started by taking the audience back to 1784, to life under the Articles of Confederation three years before the Constitutional Convention.
The issue at hand was land in possession of the federal government known as the Northwestern Territory. Four of the eventual signers of the Constitution were present, and three of the four voted to prohibit slavery in the new territory. “In their understanding,” Lincoln wrote, “no line dividing local from federal authority, nor anything else, properly forbade the Federal Government to control as to slavery in federal territory.”
Three years later, the issue again came before the Confederation Congress. Two more of the eventual signers of our future constitution were present. Both voted to prevent slavery in the Northwest Territory. Soon afterward, during the first Congress under our new constitution, Lincoln reveals:
The bill for this act was reported by one of the “thirty-nine,” Thomas Fitzsimmons, then a member of the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania. It went through all its stages without a word of opposition, and finally passed both branches without yeas and nays, which is equivalent to a unanimous passage. In this Congress there were sixteen of the thirty-nine fathers who framed the original Constitution…. George Washington, another of the “thirty-nine,” was then President of the United States, and, as such approved and signed the bill.
During Jefferson’s presidency, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 was a big deal. Two constitutional signers, Lincoln noted, were present in that Congress as the government further restricted slavery. Lincoln moved to the “Missouri question” of 1819-20, with two signers of the Constitution in Congress. One voted to prohibit slavery, and one voted against prohibition.
By Lincoln’s calculations, 23 of the 39 signers of the Constitution had a voting record on the issue of slavery. Of the 23, 21—an overwhelming majority— voted to prohibit or limit the expansion of slavery. Of the remaining 16 signers with no voting record, Lincoln’s research revealed strong anti-slavery sentiments.
If we should look into their acts and declarations on those other phases, as the foreign slave trade, and the morality and policy of slavery generally, it would appear to us that on the direct question of federal control of slavery in federal territories, the sixteen, if they had acted at all, would probably have acted just as the twenty-three did. Among that sixteen were several of the most noted anti-slavery men of those times—as Dr. Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris—while there was not one now known to have been otherwise, unless it may be John Rutledge of South Carolina.
Lincoln was just getting started. But what about the argument that preventing slavery violated slave owners’ property rights under the Fifth Amendment or the rights of states under the Tenth? Lincoln’s argument was devastating:
It is surely safe to assume that the thirty-nine framers of the original Constitution, and the seventy-six members of the Congress which framed the amendments thereto, taken together, do certainly include those who may be fairly called “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live.” And so assuming, I defy any man to show that any one of them ever, in his whole life, declared that, in his understanding, any proper division of local from federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control as to slavery in the federal territories.
Lincoln, with those words, destroyed the notion that our founders intended for slavery to expand in America. Further, the notion that they did not intend for the federal government to use its power under the Constitution to prevent such expansion was false: A Congress that voted concurrently to prevent slavery in the new lands of America and for the Bill of Rights decimated the Southerners’ claims.
Lincoln demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that our founders attacked slavery as a moral wrong. “Neither the word slave nor slavery is to be found in the Constitution, nor the word property even, in any connection with language alluding to the things slave, or slavery,” Lincoln wrote. This was done intentionally, he noted, to “exclude from the Constitution the idea that there could be property in man.” Though a product of compromises and consensus, Lincoln surmised, the Constitution and the Declaration were designed to be great freedom documents and weapons against tyranny.
A great 20th-century visionary concurred with Lincoln. On July 4, 1965, a Southern preacher delivered an important sermon in his home church in Atlanta. Unlike modern skeptics and academics peddling the notion that our founding documents were designed to advance only the interests of white men, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had a different message regarding the Declaration of Independence. “Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality,” King preached.
We can and should debate how we apply the founders’ vision to our modern society. But for anyone interested in the founders’ intentions on slavery and race, read Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address. The man who prosecuted the war with the Southern states and emancipated the slaves made the most authoritative case in American history. It remains as true today as it was when he made it in 1860.
Vince Benedetto is the founder and president of Bold Gold Media Group. A graduate of the Air Force Academy, he is an avid historian and head of the Churchill Society of Pennsylvania.
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