I have mentioned before that I often ask visitors to White Haven: What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “American”? Invariably they answer “freedom.” It’s as if the word “American” and the word “freedom” are synonymous.
In 1850, eight years before Abraham Lincoln famously contended with Steven Douglas in a series of debates that focused on the institution of slavery in America, a decade before Lincoln was elected President and the country split into warring sections, and thirteen years before Lincoln gave one of the most profound and well-known speeches in American history, Theodore Parker addressed the New England Anti-Slavery Convention in Boston. In his speech he contended:
Now, there are two opposite and conflicting principles recognized in the political action of America: at this moment, they contend for mastery, each striving to destroy the other.
There is what I call the American idea. I so name it, because it seems to me to lie at the basis of all our truly original, distinctive and American institutions. It is itself a complex idea, composed of three subordinate and more simple ideas, namely: the idea that all men have unalienable rights; that in respect thereof, all men are created equal; and that government is to be established and maintained for the purpose of giving every man an opportunity for the enjoyment and development of all these unalienable rights. This idea demands, as the proximate organization thereof, a democracy, that is, a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people; of course, a government after the principles of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God; for shortness sake, I will call it the idea of Freedom.
That is one idea; and the other is, that one man has a right to hold another man in thralldom, not for the slave’s good, but for the master’s convenience; not on account of any wrong the slave has done or intended, but solely for the benefit of the master. This idea is not peculiarly American. For shortness’ sake, I will call this the idea of Slavery. It demands for its proximate organization, an aristocracy, that is, a government of all the people by a part of the people – the masters; against a part of the people – the slaves; a government contrary to the principles of eternal justice, contrary to the unchanging law of God. These two ideas are hostile, irreconcilably hostile, and can no more be compromised and made to coalesce in the life of this nation, than the worship of the real God and the worship of the imaginary Devil can be combined and made to coalesce in the life of a single man. You can read the entire speech here.
Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon carried on a correspondence with Parker in the 1850s. Herndon gave Parker’s speeches to Lincoln, who read and annotated them.
Contrast Parker’s vision of America with that of Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederate States in 1861:
The prevailing ideas….at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically….Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it-when the “storm came and the wind blew, it fell.”…..Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth……
Many Governments have been founded upon the principles of certain classes; but the classes thus enslaved, were of the same race, and in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. The negro by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite-then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is the best, not only for the superior but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances or to question them. For His own purposes He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another in glory.”
The great objects of humanity are best attained, when conformed to his laws and degrees [sic], in the formation of Governments as well as in all things else. Our Confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws. This stone which was rejected by the first builders “is become the chief stone of the corner” in our new edifice. Read more here.
I am not one to argue over the “purposes of the Creator.” I do, however, believe that Parker was correct in his contention that “freedom” was and continues to be an “American idea.” Stephens believed that the Northern “crusade against our institutions [slavery] would ultimately fail.” In that, he was incorrect. The last few days there has been quite an exchange of comments at Brooks Simpson’s Crossroads. He has drawn the ire of some people who still, after nearly 150 years, refuse to acknowledge that the American idea triumphed in the Civil War, and, despite their hatred of it, the American idea will continue long after they are gone.