Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director for the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

In his “House Divided” speech, Abraham Lincoln contested the “popular sovereignty” doctrine of Stephen Douglas by stating “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”  His opponent for the Illinois senate seat, Douglas, nicknamed the “Little Giant,” answered Lincoln’s charges a few weeks later in a speech in Chicago.  Douglas adamantly defended the principle of popular sovereignty and revealed his understanding of the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Douglas reasserted the principle of popular sovereignty that each state and territory would decide for itself whether or not to have slaves.   He disagreed with Lincoln that the United States could not endure as a House divided on the slavery question.  “I do not subscribe to the doctrine of my friend Mr. Lincoln, that uniformity is either desirable or possible.  I do not acknowledge that the States must all be free or must all be slave.”

Douglas reviews the history of his key role in formulating the popular sovereignty doctrine throughout the late 1840s and 1850s.  Indeed, he even pledges that, “so far as the power should be in my hands, would vindicate the principle of the right of the people to form their own institutions, to establish free States or slave States as they chose, and that that principle should never be violated . . . if it was in my power to prevent it.”  Douglas was unquestionably committed to the rightness of popular sovereignty regarding slavery.

For Douglas, popular sovereignty was a moral principle.  The self-governing people had the right to decide for themselves whether or not an action was moral.  This was, according to Douglas, a fundamental right of free thought and free judgment.  He saw it as deeply rooted in principles of the American republic.  “The great principle is the right of every community to judge and decide for itself whether a thing is right or wrong, whether it would be good or evil for them to adopt it.”  This was true, Douglas argues, for establishing temperance laws, public schools, marriage regulations, and banks.  Every state has a different character and should be allowed to make its own laws and institutions.

Douglas’ statement was moral relativism masquerading as self-government.  He held fast to the idea that a people could democratically decide whether an action was good or evil.  Nothing was objectively right or wrong; it was simply a matter of collective decision.  Douglas does not follow the principle to its logical conclusion and weigh in on whether a state could allow murder, rape, or polygamy within its borders if the democratic people so decided.  However, he does baldly state that, “Whenever you put a limitation upon the right of any people to decide what laws they want, you have destroyed the fundamental principle of self-government.”

It should probably not be surprising then that Douglas continues by rejecting the universal natural right principles of the Declaration of Independence and engages in horrific racism.  He says that, “I am free to say to you that in my opinion this government of ours is founded on the white basis.  It was made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men.”  He does aver that “a negro, an Indian, or any other man of inferior race” should have rights and privileges, but he qualifies the statement by arguing that those rights only exist to the extent that they do not interfere with the good and safety of white society.  Additionally, he defines the rights loosely on a shaky foundation.  “Each state must decide for itself the nature and extent of these rights.”  During the Founding, Alexander Hamilton wrote that, “The sacred rights of mankind . . . are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”  Contrarily, Stephen Douglas offers the principle of “Who’s to say?”

Douglas discusses several different state laws regarding slavery and celebrates their diversity.  Illinois for example decided that “the negro shall not be a slave, and we have at the same time decided that he shall not vote, or serve on juries, or enjoy political privileges.”  But, the sovereign people of other states may feel differently.  His principle is, “I wouldn’t personally own a slave, but I won’t judge those who do.”

In his speech in Chicago, Douglas reaffirmed the idea of popular sovereignty which seemed to him an American foundational principle.  He did so with the best of intentions to save the Union from growing sectionalism and a possible civil war.  But, Douglas was perverting Jefferson’s ideals into the self-evident truth that all men were created unequal, and only the white man had any rights entitled to respect.  Douglas sought to rest the American republic upon the foundations of racial inequality rather than the “laws of nature and nature’s God.”

May 8, 2013 – Essay #58

Read Stephen Douglas’s Speech at Chicago here:

Tony Williams is the Program Director for the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute, which teaches teachers American Founding principles and documents, in Charlottesville, VA.  He is also the author of four books, including America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.

3 replies
  1. Ron
    Ron says:

    There is a fine line between universal truth – all men are created equal and endowed with natural rights – and popular sovereignty based on reason alone. As a conservative Christian, I find myself agreeing with Douglas on the idea that a people, not a government, should make decisions on behalf of the people. But, then Douglas crosses that fine line of moral relativism and rejection of universal truth, holding that popular sovereignty trumps universal truth.

    Today’s progressives have distorted universal truth to include things that, in reality, serve to enslave rather than empower people. Discernment about the fine line between universal truth and false teaching is difficult work. Studying Lincoln’s and Douglas’s speeches, and contrasting the fine line between the two, is a great way to raise those difficult questions and cause us to think through why we believe what we believe.

    I wonder where today’s progressives would come down on Lincoln vs. Douglas.


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