In 1858 Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln held seven debates between them as they fought for a Senate seat in Illinois. Back then, state legislatures elected senators. If you were running for the Senate, the goal was to convince the citizen to vote in your party so that indirectly you would gain that office.
Ironically, in a foreshadowing of the controversy of the 2000 presidential election, Lincoln’s Republican Party won the most votes, but due to gerrymandering the Democratic Party of Douglas won the election. We don’t remember the results so much because Lincoln went on to become President of the United States a few years later and that election was dwarfed by the events to follow.
What historians do recall are the ideas espoused during the debates, which were held in the midst of a crisis over the expansion of slavery which would lead to civil war. Douglas held that each new state should have the right to choose whether it wanted slavery or not. Lincoln believed that slavery should not be allowed to become part of the fabric of these new states. Contrary to the belief of some today, in 1858 Lincoln did not call for slavery’s removal from states where it was already practiced. His sponsorship of emancipation came in 1863 as Americans slaughtered each other over the issue.
While the immediate problem of the bondage of the black man was resolved by the Union victory in 1865, n the second decade of the 21st century men continue to seek to enslave each other in other ways. For example, human trafficking for sexual purposes is endemic all over the world and well publicized. On the other hand, some forms of slavery being pushed onto us today by politicians and others are less noticeable.
One example of this is the attempt to redistribute wealth in the United States. Wikipedia notes that redistribution of wealth and income is “the transfer of income,wealth or property from some individuals to others caused by a social mechanism such as taxation,monetary policies, welfare, charity, divorce or tort law.” Our current government is seeking to do just that.
If Mr. Lincoln were alive today, it is doubtful he would be in favor of such a policy. While he was a moderate abolitionist, working to improve the plight of the black man, he was no socialist. Lincoln’s views on the practical application of the abstract idea of freedom were delineated by him in this last debate over slavery between he and Douglas.
Lincoln made clear what he believed to be the crux of the matter. He noted that men like Douglas did not believe slavery to be wrong. On the other hand, the soon-to-be president indicated that Republicans thought slavery to be wrong morally, socially and politically. Lincoln cited Henry Clay, one of the great men of the time, who said he looked upon it as a “great evil.” In his final debate speech, Lincoln reviewed the meaning of the statement from the Declaration of Independence which says that “all men are created equal.” He outlined how he thought this phrase should be interpreted.
“I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not mean to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all men were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what they did consider all men created equal-equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, or yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.
“They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all: constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, every where.”
It would seem from these words that if Lincoln were president today he would not seek to involve the government in a mass transfer of wealth in the name of “equality”. Further on in his speech, he stated that it would be foolish to insist that all be required to be subject to a policy which gives one party rights by taking away the rights of others. (In this instance, he referred to individual states, but the principle applies.)
In summary, for Lincoln, whether slavery was right or wrong was the real issue.
“That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles-right and wrong-throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”
In our day, our current president, Mr. Obama, is seeking to create another form of royalty. His kingdom is one in which he and his court are to be the instruments of supposedly making Americans truly “equal”. By fiat, King Obama seeks to move the belongings of some wealthy men into the hands of his domain. His fiefdom will then supposedly be responsible for shifting these riches to others. In the end, we will all therefore be “equal”.
History shows us that taking the property of one group of men and putting it into the hands of royalty, even if well intentioned, does not work. This is because even the best of kings tend toward corruption. More than likely, the wealth Mr. Obama is collecting will never make it out of the government’s hands into the mitts of those he is attempting to serve. But this despicable prospect is all beside the point.
The core question, as with the slavery of the black man of Lincoln’s day, is whether or not a policy which seeks to redistribute wealth is right or wrong. The answer is that it is wrong for the same reasons that the treatment of the 19th century black man was wrong. Redistribution of wealth is just a sly method of creating another form of bondage.
Mr. Lincoln would not approve.