Faithful readers of Constituting America’s 90-Day Study have followed the story of our constitution through each of our presidential elections. We have seen that the moral foundations of both of our constitutions—the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution that replaced it—find their most cogent expression in the Declaration of Independence. There, the Founders held the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Governments must therefore be framed to secure those unalienable rights. Our God-endowed, or natural, rights—regulated by the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God—find security in our legal or civil rights, defended by a system of government so structured as to channel the ambitions of political men and women toward the guardianship of those rights. This requires a regime designed to empower the government so our rights can be defended effectively against those who threaten them, at home or abroad. At the same time, the powers of that government will check and balance one another, so that no single individual or group of individuals will likely usurp all those powers, setting us on the road to tyranny. America’s early Constitutional conflicts centered on the question of how much power should be placed in the hands of the national government vis-à-vis the states’ governments. But whether Federalists or Anti-Federalists, Hamiltonians or Jeffersonians, all of the principal founders aimed at securing the natural rights of Americans by the means of well-designed constitutional forms.
“… if constitutionally we elect a President, and therefore you undertake to destroy the Union, it will be our duty to deal with you as old John Brown has been dealt with.”
– Abraham Lincoln, December 3, 1859
John Brown had been hanged for treason on December 2, 1859. Brown had lead a raid on the federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia on October 16. Brown and his group had intended to secure weapons to arm slaves for a revolt against their masters. The United States Marines, commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee captured the raiders, foiling the plan. On November 2, Brown received his death sentence.
Election of 1860
John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky entered the year 1860 as Vice President, having been elected to that office in 1856 as a Democrat from the Stephen Douglas wing of the party. Taking the oath of office when barely 36 years old, one year above the constitutional minimum, he remains the youngest man elected to that office. When the Whig party collapsed because its intrinsic identity as a national party was ground up between the sectional millstones over slavery, the Republican Party emerged as, initially, a staunch anti-slavery movement. Buoyed by its success in the 1858 congressional elections, the party expanded its political agenda. It strongly supported the Union, and moderated, but did not abandon, its official opposition on slavery. By 1860, it was the party of the North, which former Northern Whigs joined enthusiastically.
“Tell them to obey the laws and uphold the Constitution.”
Stephen A. Douglas, deathbed instructions for his sons, June 3, 1861
Stephen Douglas’ instruction to his sons to uphold the Constitution should have been quite clear. He had spent three decades in public life, including 18 years in the United States Congress. He had given hundreds if not thousands of speeches on the critical constitutional issues of his day: organization and admission of new states and the regulation of slavery in territories purchased from France and won in war with Mexico.