I urge everyone to see Steven Spielberg’s remarkable achievement in the heroic movie “Lincoln,” about compromise; where satisfying a moral position – embracing of social equality between black and white – would have led to defeat of the 13th Amendment. Lincoln was willing to compromise on “almost everything – except his ultimate destination.” The precise issue was argued by Lincoln against Senator Stephen Douglas in their famous debate in 1858 in Illinois for the U.S. Senate seat.
Lincoln understood that Negro prejudice was so prevailing that an abolitionist or a candidate espousing social equality of the races had no chance of being elected. The debate centered on the intent of the Founding Fathers. Douglas argued, “I hold that this government was made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever… the signers of the Declaration of Independence had no reference to the Negro, when they declared (in the preamble) that all men are created equal.” According to Jeffersonian author James McClellan, “the signers did not intend to include the Negro or they would have been bound to abolish slavery in every Colony from that very day.”
Lincoln, deploring slavery, made a remarkable interpretation of Jefferson’s preamble, which ended up electing him President and produced the 13th Amendment, ending slavery. A skilled trial attorney, Lincoln found a provision in the Constitution that provided that Congress could not consider the possible end to the slave importation trade until 1808. “Thus,” Lincoln argued, “the Founding Fathers had taken a step to diminish its possible influence among themselves.” While acknowledging the social differences of the races, Lincoln argued that the Declaration should be interpreted to mean that everyone was equal in the eyes of the Creator and thus entitled to equal justice. The Negro, he argued, was therefore entitled to all that the Declaration held out, namely, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Since Lincoln, Jefferson’s 55 word preamble (whether intended or not) has grown in meaning to become the seminal statement for a mandate for individual rights “that eventually ended slavery, made women’s suffrage inevitable and sanctioned civil rights for all minorities.”