The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: And Reason, which is the Law, teaches all Mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions”
John Locke, Second Treatise of Government. 1690
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among those are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed — That whenever any Form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government”
The Declaration of Independence July 4, 1776
Well those two statements, if accepted at face value, identify Abraham Lincoln as a clear moral victor over Stephen Douglas in the nine debates over the future of slavery in the United States, held in the nine congressional districts of the State of Illinois. The final debate in that series, held in Alton, and labeled the Seventh Debate because two of the debates — in Chicago and Springfield – had already occurred before the debate formula was approved, is the subject matter of this essay. I do not intend to restate the debate itself — the two speakers are clear and unambiguous in what they have to say. Suffice it to say that Stephen Douglas won the political battle, which took him to the United States Senate, but lost the political war, which took Abraham Lincoln to the United States Presidency, and that took the United States to the Thirteenth Amendment, that abolished slavery across the United States.
Let me begin this discussion by noting certain ironies relating to the two statements cited above. John Locke was a protÃ©gÃ© of Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftsbury, who owned the territory then known as the Carolinas. John Locke drafted the Constitution for the Carolinas — a constitution that allowed for slavery. The author of The Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was a significant slave owner in the Commonwealth of Virginia. He was a significant breeder of slaves for profitable sale to the Deep South. He also contributed personally to the slave population by exercising the ‘privilege of slave row’ to engage in a long-term sexual relationship – whether by force or by consent we do not know — with one of his female slaves, by the name of Sally Hemings.
So there must be more to the Lincoln-Douglas debates than the seemingly unequivocal messages conveyed by John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, two important intellectual sources of the Constitution of the United States of America. I suggest that the missing elements are to be recovered from philosophy and economic interest.
First let us explore a crucial philosophical issue. Both John Locke and Thomas Jefferson refer to human beings. The Constitution itself refers exclusively to persons. Primitive and disgusting though this now appears, many white people during the seventeenth and even the eighteenth centuries refused to recognize Africans as true human beings endowed with souls. Surely many American slave-owners reconciled their consciences by adopting this convenient fiction, even as they instructed their slaves in Christianity, which would be a pointless exercise for creatures without a soul. The Constitution itself, inexcusably, adopted such a fiction by counting a slave as three-quarters of a non-slave for purposes of electoral representation.
Interestingly, Abraham Lincoln veered dangerously in this direction during his debates with Stephen Douglas: ‘I agree with Judge Douglas he (a slave) is not my equal in many respects — certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.’ (Debate at Ottawa, Illinois, August 21, 1858)
Lincoln himself was unsure about how emancipation might proceed. His preference was to colonize all slaves outside the United States, perhaps on the continent of Africa, but he admitted that this solution was impracticable. Only when the South looked like it might force partition in 1883, was Lincoln moved by political opportunism to emancipate all slaves in the Confederacy, while retaining slavery where it existed in the North. Of course, a presidential decree has no constitutional or legislative force in the United States, always assuming that the constitution is upheld by the federal courts.
Economic interest is always of immense importance in understanding specific events such as the debate over slavery in 1858. In 1787, at the founding of the United States, the Union was composed of thirteen states, twelve of which were slaveholding and one free. So any notion of emancipating the slaves across the new nation was never seriously on the negotiating table. However the issue of abolition of the slave trade was on the table. And the convention divided essentially on lines of economic interest in eventually endorsing a continuation of slave importation into the United States at least until 1808 (when many of the delegates would have passed on).
The major proponents of prohibiting slave importation were members of the Virginia delegation. The Maryland delegation was also strongly supportive. The North Carolina delegates were less enthusiastically supportive. All three of these states had large slave populations. The delegates of New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware were also advocates of an immediate prohibition. These states had relatively small slave populations and a few years later actually passed laws providing for gradual emancipation. The primary opposition to prohibiting slave importations came from delegations from South Carolina and Georgia, both of which had large slave populations. Allied to these states were the New England colonies, led by Connecticut, all of which had relatively small slave populations, and which provided for gradual emancipation during the nineteenth century. So the opposing coalitions were not aligned along any obvious North-South or pro-slavery/pro-abolition spectra.
The coalition alignments were precisely along the lines of economic interest. Over the course of the eighteenth century, slave imports into Virginia and Maryland had declined sharply, and after 1790, they fell to a negligible level. Over the same period, slave imports into the Deep South from outside the colonies had steadily increased. Some historians have attributed this relative increase to the harsh climate and prevalence of disease — especially malaria — in that region, leading to high death rates among the slave population. Others argue that the relative increase reflected an increased demand for slave labor because of the shift towards labor-intensive agricultural production, specifically in rice and cotton.
In any event, by the time of the Philadelphia convention, Virginia and Maryland were net exporters of slaves whereas Georgia and South Carolina were net importers within the colonies themselves. Because of this differential, slave-owners were sharply at variance with respect to prohibiting slave imports from outside the colonies. Those in Virginia and Maryland stood to make significant capital gains from prohibition which would significantly increase the value of their slave-holdings in trading with the Deep South. Conversely, those in the Deep South confronted significant capital losses as the price of slave-labor increased as a consequence of declining supply.
The New England states entered into a winning coalition with the Deep South, not because they were significant slave-users, but because of their shipping interests. Most slaves, upon arrival to the colonies, were shipped south in hulls owned by New England firms and individuals. In addition, the New England states desired to restrict the competitive entry of foreign shipping into American markets. So they entered into a logrolling deal with the Deep South, agreeing to vote in favor of continuing slave importation in return for the Deep South voting with them against the proposed requirement for a two-thirds majority in the Congress to pass navigation laws.
Over the twenty year interlude between ratification of the Constitution and the guaranteed period of grace for slave importation, the economic interest in the Deep South became more complex as a consequence of the changing pattern of agricultural production. Planters in the low-country area of South Carolina and the planters in the back country of that state, (as well as the frontier of Georgia and Kentucky) developed opposed interests regarding slave importation, The immediate cause was a decline in the labor-intensive production of rice in favor of the less labor-intensive production of short-staple cotton. The large plantations in the lowlands achieved significant economies of scale. The climate was healthier so the slave death-rate fell sharply. Between 1800 and 1810 some 81 per cent of imported slaves were destined for the labor-intensive backlands. The Deep South now split internally on the issue of prohibiting slave imports, although at the federal level they continued to oppose it.
Thomas Jefferson, as a major slave-owner and slave seller to the Deep South was president of the United States when the opportunity arose to ban slave imports. He jumped at the opportunity, not least with a view to restoring his declining business fortunes. A prohibition bill was ready in early 1807. The final bill passed with a vote of sixty-three to forty-nine, reflecting a clear North-South split. The South Carolina and the Georgia delegations voted against, this time with the support of Virginia, because the bill prohibited the transportation of their slaves south by their own coastal-water ships. New England now supported the bill because the restriction did not apply to their ocean-going vessels. President Jefferson was pressured by Virginia colleagues to veto the bill, but his own self-interest prevailed. He signed it into law and raised the price of his marketable slave cohort. Jefferson was a notoriously incompetent manager of his estate.
The passage of this bill indicates that a little bit of rent-seeking, especially by a U.S. president, sometimes is good for individual liberty and individual well-being. Banning the importation of slaves, surely improved the liberty of Africans who otherwise might have been entrapped into slavery. By raising the value of slaves, owners invested more in maintaining the value of their capital asset, treating and feeding them better, not necessarily out of altruism, bur rather out of self-interest. In Brazil, where no such restrictions applied, slave-owners brutally worked their slaves to early deaths replacing them with low-cost substitutes.
Gold and the gold-rush effectively changed the political composition of the United States during the half century between abolition of the slave trade and the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Manifest Destiny and the railroad weakened the vote power of the South both in presidential and in Congressional elections. The South generously had not pushed for a pro-slavery clause in the original constitution, when they had the vote power to succeed, preferring to leave the issue to individual states. By the time of the debates, Lincoln was well aware of his political advantage over Douglas who advocated state rights over the issue although his own state was free.
Lincoln, as we now know, was no advocate of state rights. He won the 1860 presidential election as a Republican Party candidate without a single southern electoral-college vote, his victory achieved only because the Democratic Party split over slavery and ran competing candidates, one of whom was Stephen Douglas. He then bulldozed state rights, using armed force to put down secessions that were in no way barred by the original constitution. With the South banned from Congress, as a consequence of secession, the Thirteenth Amendment was driven through Congress, only with extraordinary presidential arm-twisting and bribery that had no place in the amendment process.
The outcome was morally good in the sense that liberty was extended to those who were not free. But the result was achieved at an enormous cost to life and property, the other important inalienable rights advanced by John Locke. With the benefit of hindsight, Abraham Lincoln should have proceeded to emancipation once he achieved high office by working through Congress to raise revenues sufficient to pay slave-owners the full market price for the property that was being taken from them. The Fifth Amendment should have been the route to pursue, enabling the federal government to exercise a taking while paying just compensation. Rightly or wrongly, the slave-owners had purchased slaves under the ruling legal system. Those rights should not have been expropriated by force without compensation.
Abraham Lincoln was an Illinois politician trained in the law, not in economics. Such politicians often do great harm to the people they represent by ignoring gains-from-trade deals in favor of brutal confiscation by force.
May 9, 2013 – Essay #59
Fogel, R.W. and Engerman, S.L. Time on the Cross. Little, Brown 1974.
Anderson, G.M. Rowley, C.K., and Tollison, R.D. ‘Rent Seeking and the Restriction of Human Exchange’, The Journal of Legal Studies, January 1988, pp. 83-100.
Read the “Seventh Lincoln-Douglas Debate” https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=4311
Charles K. Rowley is Duncan Black Professor Emeritus of Economics at George Mason University and General Director of The Locke Institute in Fairfax, Virginia (www.the lockeinstitute.org). He has written extensively in the fields of classical liberalism, economics, public choice, law-and-economics, and political history. He publishes a daily blog at www.charlesrowley.com