Lincoln’s greatest speech Americans have never heard

It was early winter in 1860, and the country was at a turning point that makes today’s divisions seem trivial. It wasn’t just slavery that was on trial. Not quite two decades before our first centenary, the vision of the founding fathers themselves was at stake. A growing segment of the American public believed that the drafters of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were fighting to improve the lives of white men only. The founders, a growing chorus of revisionists claimed, had no place for blacks in this new nation.

One man took it upon himself to write the definitive answer to these long-simmering claims. Although the world knows his Gettysburg Address, it was Abraham Lincoln’s speech at a new technical college in New York City that brought him national prominence.

In the mid-19th century, many Americans, particularly in the Southern States, made the argument that our Founding Fathers never intended to end slavery or establish equality for anyone other than those born white. They also accused the Americans of restricting or abolishing slavery because they had betrayed the intentions of the founders. Lincoln knew both claims were false and set about proving it in his Cooper Union speech.

His challenge was daunting because the founding fathers themselves were a large group of men with differing views. Could we really know their intentions regarding slavery and race? If they wanted to exclude black people, they would certainly have written or said so. If Thomas Jefferson, when he wrote the sacred words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” meant that those words should apply only to white men, why didn’t he write it that way?

Lincoln knew that Jefferson was a man of precision when it came to his choice of words. So much so that in 1859 Lincoln said the following about Jefferson and the Declaration:

All credit to Jeffersonto the man who, in the concrete printing of a single people’s struggle for national independence, had the coolness, prognosis, and skill to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth applicable to ALL men and ALL times, and to embalm it there , so that today and in all days to come it will be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the harbingers of a resurgent tyranny and oppression.

Lincoln understood that if the Declaration’s sole purpose was to advocate separation from England, it did not require the bold language of liberty and equality in its preamble. It could have simply listed the grievances against a tyrannical king.

In 1857, Lincoln, in his Supreme Court sentencing dred scott Decision, wrote this about the intentions of the founders:

They didn’t want to claim the obvious untruth that everyone did indeed enjoy this equality back then, nor that they would immediately grant it to them. In fact, they had no power to bestow such a blessing. They simply wanted to declare the right so that enforcement could happen as quickly as circumstances would allow. They wished to establish a general maxim for free society, to be known and revered by all; constantly sought, constantly worked for, and, though never fully attained, constantly approached, thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and increasing the happiness and value of life for all people of color everywhere.

Far from hypocrites, Lincoln believed, our founders were forward-thinking visionaries.

Lincoln in his study
President Abraham Lincoln in his study in the 1860s.
Fotosearch/Getty Images

With all of that in mind, Lincoln began his address with a question: “Who were our fathers who wrote the Constitution?” prominent trial attorney had used: evidence.

Lincoln prepared for months with his main source Jonathan Elliot’s six volumes Debates on the Federal Constitution. He also trawled the official records of Congressional sessions and the Congressional Globe.

Like a detective, Lincoln followed the actions of the founders to determine whether, having placed their names on parchment, they sought to reduce or abolish slavery, or to help preserve or spread it. He began by taking the audience back to 1784, to life under the Articles of Confederation three years before the Constitutional Convention.

It was federally owned land known as the Northwestern Territory. Four of the eventual signatories to the Constitution were present, and three of the four voted in favour to forbid Slavery in New Zealand. “In their understanding,” Lincoln wrote, “no line separating local from federal authority, nor anything else, prohibited the federal government from controlling slavery on federal territory.”

Three years later, the issue came up again before the Confederation Congress. Two other of the later signers of our future constitution were present. Both voted to prevent slavery in the Northwest Territory. Soon after, during the first Congress under our new Constitution, Lincoln revealed:

The bill for this law was introduced by one of the “thirty-nine” Thomas Fitzsimmons, then a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. It went through all its phases without a word of contradiction and finally passed both branches without a yes or no, which amounts to a unanimous pass. In that Congress were sixteen of the thirty-nine fathers who drafted the original Constitution… George Washington, another of the “thirty-nine,” was then President of the United States, and as such approved and signed the law.

During Jefferson’s presidency, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 was a big deal. Two constitutional signatories, Lincoln noted, were present at that Congress as the government further restricted slavery. Lincoln moved to the “Missouri Question” of 1819-20, with two signatories to the Constitution in Congress. One voted for the ban on slavery and one voted against the ban.

By Lincoln’s calculations, 23 of the 39 signatories to the constitution had a ballot on the subject of slavery. Of the 23, 21 – an overwhelming majority – voted to ban or limit the spread of slavery. Of the remaining 16 signers without voting records, Lincoln’s research revealed strong anti-slavery sentiments.

If we were to examine their actions and statements on these other phases, such as the foreign slave trade and the morality and politics of slavery in general, it seems to us, in relation to the direct question of federal control of slavery in federal territories, that the sixteen , if they had acted at all, they probably would have acted like the Twenty-Three. Among those sixteen were some of the most prominent anti-slavery men of the dayas dr Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Governor Morriswhile there was now no one known to have been different, except it might be John Rutledge of South Carolina.

Lincoln was just getting started. But what about the argument that preventing slavery violates the property rights of slave owners under the Fifth Amendment or the rights of states under the Tenth Amendment? Lincoln’s argument was devastating:

It is safe to assume that the thirty-nine drafters of the original Constitution and the seventy-six members of Congress who drafted the amendments to it, taken together, certainly comprise those who may rightly be called “our fathers who drafted the Constitution” Government, under that we live.” And so, provided I challenge every man to show that any of them have ever in their whole lives declared that in their opinion any proper separation of local and federal authority, or any part of the federal government’s constitution, forbids it Control of Slavery in the Federal Territories.

With these words, Lincoln destroyed the idea that our founders intended slavery to spread in America. Furthermore, the notion that they did not intend for the federal government to use its powers under the Constitution to prevent such expansion was wrong: a Congress simultaneously voting to prevent slavery in the new lands of America and the Americas to the the Bill of Rights decimated the claims of Southerners.

Lincoln has shown beyond any reasonable doubt that our founders attacked slavery as a moral wrong. “Neither the word slave nor slavery is found in the Constitution, nor is the word property in any connection with language alluding to the things slave or slavery,” Lincoln wrote. This was done intentionally, he noted, in order “to exclude from the Constitution the idea that there could be property in man”. Although a product of compromise and consensus, Lincoln surmised, the Constitution and Declaration were intended as great freedom documents and weapons against tyranny.

A great 20th-century visionary agreed with Lincoln. On July 4, 1965, a Southern preacher delivered an important sermon at his home church in Atlanta. Contrary to modern day skeptics and academics who peddle the notion that our founding documents were designed only to advance the interests of white men, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had a different message regarding the Declaration of Independence. “Never before in the history of the world has a socio-political document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and worth of the human personality,” King preached.

We can and should discuss how to transfer the vision of the founders to our modern society. But for anyone interested in the founders’ intentions regarding slavery and race, read Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address. The man who waged war with the southern states and emancipated the slaves made the most authoritative case in American history. It is as true today as it was when he created it in 1860.

Vince Benedetto is Founder and President of Bold Gold Media Group. An Air Force Academy graduate, he is an avid historian and leader of the Churchill Society of Pennsylvania. Lincoln’s greatest speech Americans have never heard

Rick Schindler

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