A Fair Chance in the Race of Life: Thoughts on the 150th Anniversary of the Founding of the Columbia Institution

By McPherson, James M. | Sign Language Studies, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

A Fair Chance in the Race of Life: Thoughts on the 150th Anniversary of the Founding of the Columbia Institution


McPherson, James M., Sign Language Studies


ON THE FOURTH OF JULY 1861, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his first message to the United States Congress, which he had called into special session to deal with the Civil War that had begun three months earlier. Explaining what the North was fighting for in this war, Lincoln said: "This is essentially a People's contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men-to lift artificial weights from all shoulders - to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all - to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life."1

The artificial weights that Lincoln mentioned referred in part to the weight of slavery on the shoulders of four million African Americans, even though another year would pass before Lincoln made emancipation of the slaves one of the North's war aims. Nevertheless, everyone recognized that the South had seceded and the Confederacy had gone to war to protect slavery from the threat it perceived in the antislavery movement out of which had grown the Republican Party that elected Lincoln president in i860.

Yet, by lifting artificial weights and giving all people a fair chance in the race of life, Lincoln meant to include more than the question of slavery. The American venture of a republican form of government based on a democratic political system was a fragile experiment in that nineteenth-century world in which most other Western nations were governed by monarchs and based on theories of aristocracy and the inequality of social classes. Americans alive in i860 had seen two French republics succumb to the elevation of emperors and the restoration of the monarchy. The hopes of European liberals for the formation of democratic governments in 1848 had been crushed by counterrevolutions. And now a democratic form of government in the United States was threatened by a civil war that, if it broke the nation in two, would likewise discredit the very notion of democracy and equal opportunity. "The central idea pervading this struggle," said Lincoln in 1861, "is the necessity of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must setde this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose" - as the secessionists were trying to do.2

Where did this passion for popular government, for democracy, for giving all a fair chance in the race of life come from? For Americans, one of the principal sources was the Revolution of 1776. Lincoln declared, also in 1861, "I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence" with its ringing phrases that all men are created equal with inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - that pursuit being another way of describing a fair chance in the race of life.3 Lincoln was well aware that many Americans did not enjoy equality or a fair chance. He also understood that the author of the words "all men are created equal," Thomas Jefferson, and the other signers of the Declaration of Independence, "did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects." They did not even "mean to assert the obvious untruth" that all people in 1776 were equal in rights and opportunities. Rather, said Lincoln, "they meant to set up a standard maxim for a free society, which should be constandy looked to, constandy labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constandy approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere."4

The second great influence that underlay the progressive currents that shaped nineteenth-century movements to lift weights from shoulders was the French Revolution, which drew part of its energy from the example of the American Revolution and part from the intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment in France.

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