Exploring Our Ancient Faith (Lucas Morel, 5/05/24, Public Discourse)

So what did Lincoln mean by “our ancient faith”? In his 1854 speech at Peoria, Illinois, what Guelzo rightly calls “the greatest speech he had yet uttered,” Lincoln identified the Declaration of Independence as the source of America’s ancient faith: “If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal;’ and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.” That Lincoln turned the humanity of black people into a rhetorical question made clear his concern that America was at risk of losing its claim to be a free country. Lincoln then added that “according to our ancient faith, the just powers of governments are derived from the consent of the governed.” Only by “re-adopt[ing] the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it,” could the union of American states be “worthy of the saving.”

Lincoln’s nemesis, Stephen Douglas, emphatically disagreed. Quoting Lincoln, Guelzo recounts that Douglas employed the “lullaby” of popular sovereignty to “tranquilize the whole country” into thinking “there would be no more slavery agitation in or out of Congress, and the vexed question would be left entirely to the people of the territories.” Most importantly, Guelzo adds that the “real damage came from the implication that ‘popular sovereignty’ was real democracy, that democracy had no bedrock of principle beyond the mechanics of democratic process.” As committed to democracy as Lincoln was, vox populi, vox Dei was never his mantra the way it was for Douglas. Those, like Douglas, who did not see that the equality principle of the Declaration of Independence included all people regardless of race, essentially taught citizens “that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”