He who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave

Lincoln and company standing in front of a tent

Lincoln at Antietam with Allan Pinkerton and Major General John Alexander, 1862

Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809. As 16th President he led the United States through the American Civil War, while preserving the Union and ending slavery.

Because today is February 12th, I chose to feature a quote that sums up what has come to represent his place in history: he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.

In his time, those were both fighting words and a straight-talking, no-nonsense philosophical stance – quite the tightrope.

Throughout the letter, Lincoln ties issues of his own time to those of Jefferson’s. Give the last paragraph a close look. Lincoln ends by honoring Jefferson for including into the Constitution, an otherwise “merely revolutionary document,” the idea that that all men are created equal (an “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.”)

Lincoln talked a lot about Constitutional values – it was the hot topic of the day in both North and South then and for many, many years to come. At the time of the Civil war much of the population on both sides of the Mason Dixon line believed that the Constitution supported secession. For many, though the Civil War enforced and preserved Unity, issues of equal rights were separate questions that were resolved, painfully, over time.

As a lawyer, Lincoln revered the Constitution as a clear set of ideals on which to base a country’s government, but as a practical man and a politician he’d come to see those ideals as subject to a measure of interpretation. This was not a new idea, though it was not always as common as it is today. Jefferson himself wrote, “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy.” However, the metaphor of an evolving organism or “living constitution” didn’t come into common use in the United States until after the 1920’s, and the validity of the idea is still debated by conservatives such as Justice Scalia.

Springfield, Ills, April 6, 1859

Messrs. Henry L. Pierce, & others.


Your kind note inviting me to attend a Festival in Boston, on the 13th. Inst. in honor of the birth-day of Thomas Jefferson, was duly received. My engagements are such that I can not attend.

Bearing in mind that about seventy years ago, two great political parties were first formed in this country, that Thomas Jefferson was the head of one of them, and Boston the head-quarters of the other, it is both curious and interesting that those supposed to descend politically from the party opposed to Jefferson should now be celebrating his birthday in their own original seat of empire, while those claiming political descent from him have nearly ceased to breathe his name everywhere.

Remembering too, that the Jefferson party were formed upon its supposed superior devotion to the personal rights of men, holding the rights of property to be secondary only, and greatly inferior, and then assuming that the so-called democracy of to-day, are the Jefferson, and their opponents, the anti-Jefferson parties, it will be equally interesting to note how completely the two have changed hands as to the principle upon which they were originally supposed to be divided.

The democracy of to-day hold the liberty of one man to be absolutely nothing, when in conflict with another man’s right of property. Republicans, on the contrary, are for both the man and the dollar; but in cases of conflict, the man before the dollar.

I remember once being much amused at seeing two partially intoxicated men engage in a fight with their great-coats on, which fight, after a long, and rather harmless contest, ended in each having fought himself out of his own coat, and into that of the other. If the two leading parties of this day are really identical with the two in the days of Jefferson and Adams, they have performed the same feat as the two drunken men.

But soberly, it is now no child’s play to save the principles of Jefferson from total overthrow in this nation.

One would start with great confidence that he could convince any sane child that the simpler propositions of Euclid are true; but, nevertheless, he would fail, utterly, with one who should deny the definitions and axioms. The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society.

And yet they are denied and evaded, with no small show of success.

One dashingly calls them “glittering generalities”; another bluntly calls them “self evident lies”; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only to “superior races.”

These expressions, differing in form, are identical in object and effect–the supplanting the principles of free government, and restoring those of classification, caste, and legitimacy. They would delight a convocation of crowned heads, plotting against the people. They are the van-guard–the miners, and sappers–of returning despotism.

We must repulse them, or they will subjugate us.

This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.

All honor to Jefferson–to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.

Your obedient Servant
A. Lincoln–

by Abraham Lincoln, (February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865)
from Letter to Henry Pierce (April 6, 1859)
image: Library of Congress

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6 Responses to “He who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave”

  1. Allen Taylor Says:

    Good post.

    How ironic was Lincoln in that he fought so hard for the freedom of some while disallowing the freedom of others to chose their own destiny. The right of secession was the very core of the principles upon which the Constitution was written. Otherwise, we’d all still be British subjects. Happy Birthday, Abe.

  2. admin Says:

    This is what I’ve come to believe, from my reading.

    Lincoln came to the idea of a true emancipation later on, after it because obvious that compromise and consensus building would not work in the matter of slavery. Originally he was very much pro more Union than anti slavery. He promoted the principle of not extending slavery, through restricting it to what were currently slave states.

    However, once his mind was made up that emancipation was the way to preserve the Union, he changed his tactics and became passionately pro emancipation. This was more than a political move. When the escaped slave and activist Frederick Douglass went to visit Abraham Lincoln in the White House, he had some trouble getting inside, but no problem with the president. In Life and Times of Frederick Douglass he wrote that Lincoln treated him with respect, saying “In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color,” and that Lincoln had a “humane interest in the welfare of my whole race.”

    Douglass’s speech at the dedication of the Emancipation Memorial is a good, balanced, read, if anyone is interested in more information.

  3. toptenz Says:

    In his time, those were both fighting words and a straight-talking, no-nonsense philosophical stance – quite the tightrope. <– Amen to that.

    Nice post about one of our greatest presidents. I posted a top 10 list about Honest Abe. Please stop by and read: http://www.toptenz.net/facts-about-abraham-lincoln.php

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