SUNDAY ESSAY: Lincoln v. Douglas

Within my family, there are two strands of ancestral history. My mother’s family line comes from the British Isles, and they have names such as Clark and Brewton. My father’s families are continental Europeans in origin, and the name I carry, Roush, is a German named which once was spelled Rausch. This is the family history I know, both because I was told about it by my parents, and it was confirmed when I had a DNA analysis done by 23andMe. The results show a mix between the British side and the German side, with a few other minor strands as well. One strand goes all the way to India!

So, am I mixed race? The people of the past certainly thought so. The two most destructive wars in European and world history were between the Germans and their allies on one side and the British and their allies on the other. Whoopi Goldberg notwithstanding, German leadership in the Nazi period thought perfectly light skinned Jews to be of another race, and they thought of the many Slavic peoples they intended to enslave as another race as well. Their Aryan supremacy ideas excluded other Europeans.

So, I would be ‘mixed race’ in the past but not today. One wonders what the people of the American past would think of our current ethnic definitions. At just the moment that we can use DNA to trace our ancestry with incredible precision, we’ve devolved to the binary ‘white’ or ‘people of color’ standard.

Surely, those that sacrificed so much would be appalled at our current situation. One such person was Abraham Lincoln, who, if through some miracle was still alive, would have turned 212 on February 12. Lincoln was the first Republican President and his speech at the dedication of the battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as a national memorial is his best known public oratory. He made many other speeches and his debates with the Democrat Senator from Illinois, Stephan Douglas, when the two men were running against each other in 1858 for the Illinois Senate seat, are timeless oratories about freedom, liberty, and slavery in the United States. Douglas supported slavery and Lincoln did not.

On July 10 of 1858, the two men met in Chicago, and commenced with another great rhetorical contest. These debates were considered so compelling at the time that records were made of what was said. Douglas had stated previously that he supported slavery and further, that the United States was created for white people. His words have been preserved as such:

“I hold that a Negro is not and never ought to be a citizen of the United States. I hold that this government was made on the white basis; made by the white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and should be administered by white men and none others.”

Stephan Douglas

At around the same time as these debates were occurring, the Dred Scott decision had been handed down by the Supreme Court and it held that the Constitution did not apply to people of African decedent, be they slave OR free. In this decision, and in the claim by Douglas that the United States was for the white man, Lincoln saw an opportunity, and so at the July 10 debate, he stated what would have certainly caught the attention of my German relatives:

“Now, sirs, for the purpose of squaring things with this idea of “don’t care if slavery is voted up or voted down,” for sustaining the Dred Scott decision, for holding that the Declaration of Independence did not mean anything at all, we have Judge Douglas giving his exposition of what the Declaration of Independence means, and we have him saying that the people of America are equal to the people of England. According to his construction, you Germans are not connected with it. Now I ask you in all soberness, if all these things, if indulged in, if ratified, if confirmed and endorsed, if taught to our children, and repeated to them, do not tend to rub out the sentiment of liberty in the country, and to transform this Government into a government of some other form. Those arguments that are made, that the inferior race are to be treated with as much allowance as they are capable of enjoying; that as much is to be done for them as their condition will allow. What are these arguments? They are the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of king-craft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden. That is their argument, and this argument of the Judge is the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it.”

Abraham Lincoln, July 10, 1858 at Chicago, IL

And so, here we find ourselves, 212 years after Lincoln’s birth and 157 years past his death, still decided who has preference under the law, who will enjoy advantages in the law, and who will toil and who will enjoy the fruits of it. The same people then as now declare that there are no timeless ideas, none such as were captured by the writers of the US Constitution and championed by Lincoln, and sanctified on battlefields throughout the Civil War, and on foreign soils in every continent on earth, including in Germany.

On that July day so long ago, Lincoln articulated how the English side of me was made either equal or irrelevant by a Creator with the German side of me, and this fact was recognized by the timeless ideals in our fragile Constitution. I am equal to my fellow citizens in a land of freedom. I am neither English, German, or Indian; I am an American.

In less than three years after that debate, the most brutal and destructive war in US history began and it settled, at tremendous cost, the issue of the equality and place in the nation of those of African decedent. We are safe to assume that anyone who falls under the reductive moniker of ‘people of color’ have a place as well. Those that still claim we must not be treated equally under law are, as Lincoln stated, “always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden.”

Lincoln himself was the final casualty of that war in April of 1865, only seven years after his speech in Chicago.

This country has inhabited the timeless ideals of the equality of humanity at least we well as any nation on earth, and we can celebrate in peace if those who would divide us endlessly can be defeated or ignored, once and for all.

Lincoln – Douglas
Dred Scott