No Slaves, No Masters: What Democracy Meant to Abraham Lincoln (Allen C. Guelzo, February 8, 2024, LitHub)

[L]incoln’s only attempt at actually defining democracy occurred, almost in passing, in a note he jotted on the eve of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and at that moment, it was more of an effort to set democracy apart from slavery:

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.

This is a peculiar definition, since Lincoln makes no formal attempt in it at specifying the components of democracy (like the location of sovereignty), and makes no allusion to elections, or even to majority rule. What Lincoln did instead was to draw a contrast between slavery and democracy, so as to illustrate what democracy was not, and that contrast hinged on the point of consent. A slave is someone who has no autonomy, no say in their status, whose consent is unsolicited and undesired, and with no prospect of being delivered from that status.

Consent was a key concept for Lincoln in considering both democracy and slavery. Consent was how sovereignty was exercised: his objection, in 1848, to war with Mexico over the disputed region between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande was based on whether the people in that region had ever “submitted themselves to the government or laws of Texas, or of the United States, by consent.” And consent was what drew a line of separation between freedom and enslavement. “This is a world of compensations,” Lincoln concluded, “and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave.”

“According to our ancient faith,” Lincoln said in 1854, “the just powers of governments are derived from the consent of the governed.” It was one of the Declaration’s foundational arguments that Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, and Lincoln translated that “axiom” to mean “that no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent.

I say this is the leading principle—the sheet anchor of American republicanism.” Slavery might have some justification if the slave is not a human being, and is incapable of consent. “If he is not a man, why in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him.” But a slave, plainly, is “a man.” So, Lincoln reasoned, “is it not to that extent, a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself ?” When one man “governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man” without that vital element of consent, “that is more than self-government that is despotism.”

Participatory lawmaking in universally applicable laws is the whole magilla.