Revolutionaries—or just dead white men?
How Lincoln—and others—have seen the founding generation.
This is exciting! The publisher of Differ We Must has allowed me to post a free excerpt from the audiobook—one describing Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech at the Cooper Institute in early 1860. Here, let me read it to you.
Lincoln gave his speech at the start of an election year, accepting an invitation to appear before the city’s influential elites. While it would be hard to prove how seriously he took his bid for the presidency at that point, a major New York paper assumed he was auditioning for the nomination. The success of his speech showed that he passed the audition. It’s such a significant moment that the Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer published an entire book on it, Lincoln at Cooper Union, which is a wonderful read.
My passage about this speech is meant to illuminate a tactic that Lincoln used. In 1860, his Republican party was aiming to restrict the spread of slavery into the West. Lincoln supported this argument with a review of history. He asserted that most framers of the Constitution had gone on the record that the federal government had the power to ban slavery in federal territories. Therefore, Lincoln said, he was merely following the law and tradition—meaning his antislavery position was not progressive, but conservative!
Lincoln routinely invoked the founding generation to support his argument—most famously when he quoted the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal.” He used the phrase to show why slavery was fundamentally wrong. He borrowed this tactic from abolitionists, who had been quoting the line for generations.
Lincoln, then, made the Founders his allies in his bid for social change. But there are other ways to see them. They look different if you count how many owned slaves at some point as opposed to how many said slavery was wrong. Many did both, among them Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration. So it’s not surprising that many people today who focus on causes like racial justice talk of them as dead white men who stood in the way of a more equal society.
In 2020 on NPR I interviewed Shannon LaNier, who has a very personal issue with the Founders. Here’s how he identified himself.
I am Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings' sixth great-grandson, which makes me a ninth-generation descendant.
Sally Hemings, as many know, was enslaved on Jefferson’s farm.
LaNier was aware that later generations used Jefferson’s words from the Declaration as a lever to free people, but he was unimpressed.
And you know, people said, ‘Oh, yeah, but he wrote it.’ Well, OK. Maybe he wrote it just so he could write it. But he didn't fight for it hard enough. He didn't fight for it enough so that it would be true.
The Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. includes a statue of LaNier’s ancestor as well as his engraved words against slavery (“Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free”). LaNier told me the words could stay, but Jefferson’s statue might better be replaced with someone who acted on the words.
How can we reconcile Jefferson the slaveowner with Jefferson the herald of freedom? In 2022 on NPR I interviewed the historian Annette Gordon-Reed, who offered her perspective.
Jefferson had this idea… of the next generation carrying a ball forward. And we're sort of impatient with him about that, because we wanted him to do more at that point.
She imagined how Jefferson might answer the criticism—with words to the effect of:
Look, OK? We created a country. We left the largest, the most powerful nation on earth and created a country. Now there are things for you to do.
This was essentially Lincoln’s view, as expressed during his debates with Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858. He said the Founders had put the promise of equality into the Declaration “for future use.” He said equality was “never perfectly attained” but could be “constantly approximated” in ways that added to “the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”
In other words, equality was not an end state but a process. (Think of Martin Luther King’s “arc of history.”) Lincoln used the Founders as a lever to move that process along. He was a politician—and unwilling to cede the Founders’ symbolic power to the other side.
Thanks for reading Differ We Must. The best-selling book Differ We Must is at your bookstore or at this link.
Differ We Must is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.