No Slaves, No Masters: What Democracy Meant to Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln did not merely espouse democracy; he looked like democracy. He was as common-looking and homely as a democratic people were themselves common and homely. Henry Clay Whitney, hearing Lincoln speak at Urbana, Illinois, in 1854, thought “he had the appearance of a rough, intelligent farmer.” He was “Stoop Shouldered,” long-armed, with “large and bony” hands, and an attender of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858 found “his general appearance anything but prepossessing” (and “his phiz is truly awful”).

Above all, he was “not stiff” or formal. Jane Martin Johns described him in 1849 as “unaffected, unostentatious,” and Whitney was impressed by how “he entered into conversation in a frank, genial, unconstrained manner as if the stranger was on terms of familiarity and mutual accord, and had been for years.” Even after his election as president in 1860, Ada Bailhache could spend “an evening at Mr. Lincolns” before his departure from his home in Illinois, scarcely realizing “that I was sitting in the august presence of a real live President.

William Howard Russell, The Times of London’s reporter in America in 1861, was startled to find that at Lincoln’s White House receptions “any one could walk in who chose.” Even the hat he wore en route to Washington and his inauguration sent a democratic message: it was a “soft wool hat” with a wide brim and tall crown, known as a “Kossuth hat,” from the style worn by the Hungarian revolutionary, Lajos Kossuth.

Slavery is a condition Lincoln would not wish for himself or his country.

Lincoln did not, however, offer a specific, or even lengthy, definition of democracy, or “representative” democracy, or “a representative Republic,” or a “constitutional republic, or “a democracy—a government of the people, by the same people.” A republic was clearly a democratic space, since its opposite was the suppression of “meetings,” and through that, “to shut men’s mouths,” and he had no hesitation in jumbling together republic and democracy as though they were synonyms. But Lincoln’s only attempt at actually defining democracy occurred, almost in passing, in a note he jotted on the eve of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and at that moment, it was more of an effort to set democracy apart from slavery:

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.

This is a peculiar definition, since Lincoln makes no formal attempt in it at specifying the components of democracy (like the location of sovereignty), and makes no allusion to elections, or even to majority rule. What Lincoln did instead was to draw a contrast between slavery and democracy, so as to illustrate what democracy was not, and that contrast hinged on the point of consent. A slave is someone who has no autonomy, no say in their status, whose consent is unsolicited and undesired, and with no prospect of being delivered from that status.

Consent was a key concept for Lincoln in considering both democracy and slavery. Consent was how sovereignty was exercised: his objection, in 1848, to war with Mexico over the disputed region between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande was based on whether the people in that region had ever “submitted themselves to the government or laws of Texas, or of the United States, by consent.” And consent was what drew a line of separation between freedom and enslavement. “This is a world of compensations,” Lincoln concluded, “and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave.”

“According to our ancient faith,” Lincoln said in 1854, “the just powers of governments are derived from the consent of the governed.” It was one of the Declaration’s foundational arguments that Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, and Lincoln translated that “axiom” to mean “that no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent.

I say this is the leading principle—the sheet anchor of American republicanism.” Slavery might have some justification if the slave is not a human being, and is incapable of consent. “If he is not a man, why in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him.” But a slave, plainly, is “a man.” So, Lincoln reasoned, “is it not to that extent, a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself ?” When one man “governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man” without that vital element of consent, “that is more than self-government that is despotism.”

Consent could come in several forms. It could mean active agreement, either vocal or participatory. Democracy encourages “the people to judge and act for themselves,” and in a functioning democracy, “all the governed” exercise “an equal voice in the government.” In some contexts, consent could come with certain reservations.

Lincoln himself would “consent to the extension” of slavery into the republic’s western territories “rather than see the Union dissolved, just as I would consent to any great evil, to avoid a greater one”—although he suspected that yielding such a consent would, in fact, disregard any consent by the people living in those territories, forcing “Governors, and Secretaries, and Judges on the people of the territories, without their choice or consent,” to tolerate the intrusion of slavery.

And to the free laborer consent was what began and ended his labor for another. Consent was exactly what was absent from the slave’s labor, either at its beginning or ending. In slavery, “the master not only governs the slave without his consent; but he governs him by a set of rules altogether different from those which he prescribes for himself.” It appropriates the slave’s labor, the slave’s personality, even the slave’s sexuality, since it allows the master to exploit the slave’s physical being in “forced concubinage.”

Or, consent could mean simple passive acquiescence. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 “was settled by the Northern members consenting to the admission of Missouri, with the understanding that in consideration thereof the South consented that slavery should forever be prohibited from entering any territory north of 36 degrees 30 minutes.”

This, however, was a low form of consent, in a grudging spirit, and only out of necessity to preserve the Union (and American democracy with it) from heading off disaster’s cliffs. It was better, at least, than the conniving sort of consent Lincoln had known, in which shady lawyers “in advance, consent to be a knave.” But not by much.

Lincoln believed that slavery persisted in the American republic only by this low form of consent, a fact which was suggestive of how inconsistent slavery and democracy really were. Mere acquiescence fostered a political environment in which active consent is unsolicited, and sooner or later, disregarded.

The crime of the “famous” Kansas-Nebraska Act, which erased even the Missouri Compromise and opened all the western territories to the possibility of legalized slavery, was that “it was done without the consent of the people” in those territories, “and against their wishes, for if the matter had been put to vote before the people directly, whether that should be made a slave territory, they would have indignantly voted it down.”

From that point in 1854, the record of James Buchanan’s failed presidency was little more than a series of “fraudulent attempts of the administration and the slave power to force institutions upon a free people against their consent.”

On those terms, slavery is a condition Lincoln would not wish for himself or his country, and all the more so because he had tasted something of slavery in his own crude, backwoods upbringing. As an adolescent, Lincoln’s father, Thomas, had, quite literally, rented him out to neighboring farmers and flatboaters, with all the proceeds going back into his father’s hands.

The memory of that “domination” still rankled Lincoln four decades later, leading him to claim that “I used to be a slave,” but “now I am so free that they let me practice law.” It rankled still further when protectors of slavery argued that slavery was, in fact, a “positive good” for the slave, because American slavery was confined to a race of natural inferiors—as though slavery was a benefit bestowed on those incapable of appreciating democracy.

In its worst form, slavery was nothing but Thomas Hobbes’s war-of-all-against-all, and slavery’s most shameless defender, John C. Calhoun, did not hesitate to say that “property in man has existed in all ages, and results from the natural state of man, which is war.” This was nature seen, not as a manifestation of orderliness, but of a violent contest of the strong and the weak, the intelligent and the imbecile. As such, Lincoln added, the slavery argument was indistinguishable from the excuses of monarchs, because kings “always bestrode the necks of the people…because the people were better off for being ridden.”

Slavery was the antithesis of consent, because consent implied order, and the capacity of all human beings to perceive and embrace order; slavery was about power, not order. It prescribed what one must or must not do, irrespective of any thought or gesture on the part of the enslaved, and rendered the slave incapable of registering either.

Arguments defending slavery excited as much contempt in Lincoln as arguments for kings. “As a good thing, slavery is strikingly peculiar, in this, that it is the only good thing which no man ever seeks the good of, for himself. ” Lincoln had “never known a man who wished to be himself a slave”; if that man would not consent to be a slave, he had no business overriding the consent of others and making them slaves. “If any should be slaves,” he told the soldiers of an Indiana regiment during the Civil War, “it should be first those who desire it for themselves.”

Lincoln understood that democracy is characterized by its location of sovereignty in the body of the people.

Democracy implied a political Golden Rule: what you do not want done to yourself, do not try to impose on others; what you do impose on others, submit to yourself. Those who wish not to have consent trampled upon must not be party to such trampling themselves. If not a slave, then not a master; that is democracy, or at least, one key aspect of it. There is no separation of people into the categories of those born naturally to freedom and those born, as in Aristotle’s Politics, with slave-like traits and who are unable to live on any higher plane than subservience and unintelligence.

Democracy and slavery are so unalike that those who want to live in a democracy cannot, ultimately, reconcile that desire with the buying, owning, and keeping of slaves. That some people do manage this artful dodging is an evasion of logic and reason, growing out of pure self-interest and the irrational lust for power. It survives as it does only because some people cannot see the inconsistency of democracy and slavery “through 2,000,000,000 of dollars.” It did not matter that, technically, democracy is a political system and slavery an economic one, for in Lincoln’s mind, the boundary between economics and politics was thin to the point of evaporation.


Lincoln’s “idea of democracy” only establishes what democracy is not, or at least cannot include. He never offered a more thoroughgoing definition of what democracy is. But it is not difficult to piece together a larger “idea” from the vast outpouring of letters, speeches, briefs, notes, and state papers which he composed over the course of a public life that lasted thirty-three years, from the day he first announced himself as a candidate for the Illinois state legislature.

Even more than consent, Lincoln understood that democracy is characterized by its location of sovereignty in the body of the people. “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it,” he announced in his first inaugural address, and the great challenge of the Civil War— first, even before dealing with slavery—was proving that this is “not an absurdity.” A sovereign people can amend their democracy’s rules or replace their rulers, but it cannot suffer one portion of that democracy simply to walk away and call it “peaceful secession.”

If a minority balks at the policy endorsed by the majority, and then proceeds to break things up by armed force, then democracy would appear in the eyes of a not-very-sympathetic world to be a practical farce. “We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose,” Lincoln explained to his secretary, John Hay, less than a month after the war began. “If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.”

The way that they would govern themselves, however, would be by law. Universal “reverence for the laws” was the spirit of order; it restrained the state from becoming tyrannical and the people from becoming a mob, and had application as much to the high as to the low. Yield an inch on the law, and next the yard will be taken. “Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary,” he complained to William Herndon in 1848, “and you allow him to make war at pleasure.”

Law, however, only ensured stability; it could not inspire participation, and in a democracy, the participation of the citizens was indispensable. Lincoln closed a speech in 1859 with “an appeal to all—opponents as well as friends—to think soberly and maturely, and never fail to cast their vote, insisting that it was not a privilege only, but a duty to do so.” Even “with its incidental, and undesirable strife,” an election is the only way of “demonstrating popular sentiment.” It was the genius of the American democracy that its Constitution gave “public servants but little power for mischief.” And what “mischief ” they might inaugurate with that “little power” would be of no great duration, since the people, through the Constitution, “have, with equal wisdom, provided for the return of that little to their own hands at very short intervals.”

But a democracy practiced in this way would only function “while the people remain patient, and true to themselves.” Patience—and the law it served—would turn out to be in fearfully short supply in Lincoln’s America, for there were too many who were only too happy to be masters, and to have others as slaves.


Excerpted from Our Ancient Faith: Lincoln, Democracy, and the American Experiment by Allen C. Guelzo, published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Bear One Holdings, LLC.

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