Lincoln on Race and Slavery

By Henry Louis Gates Jr.; Donald Yacovone et al. | Go to book overview

26

Speech at Lewistown, Illinois:
CW, 2:546–547

This address was delivered on the porch of the Fulton County courthouse, where Stephen A. Douglas had served as a circuit court judge. The elevated moral tone of the speech made it a favorite of Lincoln supporters, and the oft-quoted address became known as the “Return to the Fountain” speech. In tribute to its historical importance, the event was re-created on its 150th anniversary. Lincoln condemned the false, morally neutral stand of his opponent and tried to corner him politically by compelling Douglas to state his personal view of slavery. Douglas, Lincoln charged, “never said that he regarded it either as an evil or a good, morally right or morally wrong.” Such a choice would have proven fatal to the senator's presidential aspirations. Lincoln then returned to his central belief in the inalienable rights of man, “Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man.” Such principles offered the only protection from “the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The soaring rhetoric did not contradict his belief in racial segregation but, rather, established a level below which no one should tread in American society. Nowhere else did Lincoln offer such eloquence in defense of Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence. He concentrated squarely on the noble goal of liberty and equality for all men, and implored all who have strayed from this ideal to “return to the fountain.” He concluded his address by elevating his argument from the sphere of worldly governance to the level of divine authority. In the ultimate validity of this context, he declared that all other interests, including his own political ambition (and that of his opponent as well), are inconsequential beside this sanctified cause.

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