When Thomas Jefferson wrote that it was a self-evident truth that all men are created equal, he both did and did not will the end of slavery. Lincoln, making similar arguments in the early years of the Civil War, both somehow knew, and did not publicly acknowledge, that the promise of equality is a promise of racial equality. The meaning of the promise of equality continues to become clearer even today, and its furthest implications have yet to be brought to light. Few of those implications could have been in the focal consciousness of the Founding Fathers or Lincoln. But to deny being bound by the entailments of such values is probably a more destructive misreading of the founders' intentions than to acknowledge being bound by them. Both Lincoln and Jefferson were in a position to deny embracing those intentions, and their denials may not have been entirely strategic.
Consider: Even while Lincoln was still denying any intention of seeking racial equality, the values that would later commit him to that course were already at work. In 1858, for instance, Lincoln and Douglas were engaged in a furious debate over the future of Kansas Territory. Neither man wanted slavery to go into Kansas, although for different reasons: Douglas because the people of the territory did not want it, Lincoln because slavery is wrong in itself. In any case, by the summer of 1858, it was clear that Kansas would not welcome slavery after all. So why should it matter whether Kansas rejects slavery for the right or wrong reasons?
In the first place, there was a practical issue: If slavery were rejected for political rather than for moral reasons, a change in economic or demographic circumstances might well revive interest in slavery. But if slavery were morally stigmatized, its chances of revival would be smaller. That practical issue wasn't what moved Lincoln most crucially. Lincoln was willing to bow to necessity and tolerate slavery where it already existed. But failing to stigmatize slavery would ultimately risk the moral prerequisites for democratic rule, since mastership corrupts the culture of freedom, and slaveholders must seek to dominate the politics of any polity in which they play a part. As Lincoln wrote in an 1859 letter: "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." Slaveholding debauches the public mind out of the conviction that all men are created equal; no democracy can long survive the loss of that conviction.
A purely political case does not have racial equality as an implication, since it's not in the nature of a majority to seek rights for minorities that the majority has an interest in exploiting. Lincoln repeatedly and plausibly denied having an investment in racial equality when Douglas accused him of it, and in the tangle of his complicated motives and necessities, I would hesitate to say that he had a mature plan for racial equality. But racial equality was within the penumbra of his intentions, a course of argument he had chosen even while recognizing that this course had a political cost (a cost that included his defeat in the close Senate election in 1858).
Implicit commitments like these, only darkly understood even by those who made them, have the kind of depth that makes it an open question whether they are expressions of conscious agency or the unchosen and inevitable realizations of character and destiny. The force of an implicit commitment was not something felt by Lincoln alone; indeed, part of the course of American history has been the unfolding of new responsibilities made evident to us by a deeper understanding of values — values that are expressed and betrayed under the pressures of political and historical circumstances. That emancipation should lead to suffrage seems obvious in retrospect because connecting them does better justice to the value that underlies emancipation — a sense of the moral equality of all persons — than separating them does. That suffrage for black men should lead to suffrage for women likewise seems inevitable in retrospect, however different the two causes may have seemed to some at the time. That equality among genders should imply equality among sexual orientations seems just as inevitable, however impossible it might have seemed only a year ago.
We do not always understand the meaning of our deepest moral commitments when we make them, because we see them through the haze of our limitations and from within the double-binds of our time and place. Sometimes we explicitly deny what in retrospect seem to be the implications of our own words. As exigencies force us to re-examine our values' meaning, new layers of obligation are required. Our constitution changes because under the pressure of moral crisis we come to understand its underlying values better than we did before. Whenever we have achieved a fresh grasp upon the meaning of democracy, we have done something that seemed impossible beforehand, although once we have done it, our chief question becomes, What took us so long to get around to it? In serving those old values in a new way, we show more loyalty to the founders than we would have shown had we confined ourselves to what was in their focal intention in their time (assuming we are in a position to know that), because what was in their focal intention was always an imperfect, even a distorted, reflection of what most mattered to them. It is only when we have thought anew — and acted anew — that we have disenthralled ourselves and saved our country. But in doing that we have shown why, despite everything, it was and is the last best hope of earth.
John Burt, a professor of English at Brandeis University, is the author of "Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism."
"Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism"
By John Burt, Belknap, 814 pages, $39.95