October 7, 1858 – Stephen A. Douglas Gives a Different Meaning of the Declaration of Independence Than That Proffered by Lincoln

In 1858, Senator Stephan A. Douglas, a nationally prominent spokesman for the Democratic party, was seeking reelection to a third term in the U.S. Senate. Lincoln was running for Douglas’s Senate seat as a Republican. They met for a series of seven debates during the campaign. On this day in history, Senator Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln met for the fifth debate in Galesburg, Illinois on the campus of Knox College.

More than 15,000 people attended. The focus of the debate was on the meaning of the Declaration of Independence; i.e., whether it was meant to apply only to white men. Douglas argued it was so intended:

I tell you that this Chicago doctrine of Lincoln’s-declaring that the negro and the white man are made equal by the Declaration of Independence and by Divine Providence-is a monstrous heresy. The signers of the Declaration of Independence never dreamed of the negro when they were writing that document. They referred to white men, to men of European birth and European descent, when they declared the equality of all men. I see a gentleman there in the crowd shaking his head. Let me remind him that when Thomas Jefferson wrote that document, he was the owner, and so continued until his death, of a large number of slaves. Did he intend to say in that Declaration, that his negro slaves, which he held and treated as property, were created his equals by Divine law, and that he was violating the law of God every day of his life by holding them as slaves? It must be borne in mind that when that Declaration was put forth, every one of the thirteen Colonies were slaveholding Colonies, and every man who signed that instrument represented a slave-holding constituency. Recollect, also, that no one of them emancipated his slaves, much less put them on an equality with himself, after he signed the Declaration. On the contrary, they all continued to hold their negroes as slaves during the revolutionary war. Now, do you believe-are you willing to have it said-that every man who signed the Declaration of Independence declared the negro his equal, and then was hypocrite enough to continue to hold him as a slave, in violation of what he believed to be the Divine law? And yet when you say that the Declaration of Independence includes the negro, you charge the signers of it with hypocrisy.

I say to you, frankly, that in my opinion, this Government was made by our fathers on the white basis. It was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and was intended to be administered by white men in all time to come.”

Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, as he contended (in a speech on June 26, 1857) insisted that the Founders “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. …” In other words, the purpose of law is to establish normative standards, and act as a bridge, from that which is, to that which ought to be. This philosophy was reified in the Declaration of Independence.

Lincoln’s brilliant co-optation of the words used by the Founders – his insistence that this country live up to the words that comprise the compact agreed to in 1787, was a stroke of lawyerly genius that could not be gainsaid by the South. Henry L. Gates, Jr., writing in Lincoln on Race and Slavery, opined that this re-interpretation was “the most radical thing that Abraham Lincoln did.”

Today, most Americans believe in the elevated meaning that Lincoln gave to the Declaration. As Lincoln said in Peoria in 1854, we must re-adopt the Declaration along with practices and policies that harmonize with the plain meaning of the words set forth in the document:

If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving. We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations.”


In the present time, on the Fourth of July, the document we celebrate is the one written by Jefferson, but translated by Lincoln, and thus is truly a document that guarantees life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all human beings in the United States. We still struggle with putting its fine intentions into practice, but the blueprint it outlines is one of which the country can be proud.


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