“Right Makes Might: The Lincoln-Douglas Debates” is a timely documentary now streaming at Fox Nation that all Americans should watch.
Narrated by Lincoln historian Allen Guelzo, it features noted scholars Michael Burlingame, Lucas Morel, and Charles Kesler exploring the most famous series of political debates in American history. Between August and October of 1858, little-known country lawyer Abraham Lincoln squared off against Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas in seven towns across Illinois. The hoped-for prize for the winner? A seat in the U.S. Senate.
Produced by Madison McQueen Films — creator of the documentary “No Safe Spaces” featuring Dennis Prager and Adam Corolla — the topic that “Right Makes Might” examines is just as relevant now as in the days leading up to the Civil War: Is America fundamentally defined by slavery or freedom?
In 1858, America stood at a crossroads. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 effectively repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise and allowed slavery to spread into the territories west of the Mississippi River. To make matters worse, in its Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court found that Congress did not have the power to ban slavery in the territories. The American experiment in liberty and equality looked like it was coming to an end.
Known as the “Little Giant” for his short stature but mighty rhetorical skill, Douglas stirred the audience’s anti-black prejudice by arguing that Lincoln and the Republican Party stood for radical abolitionism. His solution to the slavery question: popular sovereignty, which allowed people living in the territories to vote on whether they wanted slavery or not.
Though this policy sounds consistent with majority rule and the principles of republican government, Kesler argues that it amounted to nothing more than the principle of “might makes right — that if the majority has the power, it ought to have the right to rule.”
By contrast, Lincoln believed that “right makes might” — a famous phrase he would utter two years later in his consequential Cooper Union address.
As Morel argues, Lincoln and the Republican Party attempted to work prudentially “against slavery but in a constitutional way” by arguing that Congress had the power to restrict slavery in the territories and that, even more importantly, the Declaration of Independence’s principle that “all men are created equal” included both blacks and whites.
In Lincoln’s view, slavery was a universal wrong that no majority could sanction because it undermined everyone’s natural rights. Race was an arbitrary characteristic that had no bearing on an individual’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The American Founders and Lincoln, says Burlingame, did not believe that everyone was equally talented or intelligent; but they insisted that all human beings have the equal freedom to “progress as far as their talent, ability, industry, and virtue will take them.” Recognizing this truth would unleash an “incredible economic dynamism” and give citizens the freedom to better themselves, their families, and their communities.
Although from our contemporary perspective, Lincoln’s repeated rejection of granting full voting rights to blacks seems abhorrent, Kesler argues that “to rush towards the perfect realization” of full political equality in 1858 would have guaranteed a war. Instead, Lincoln sought to answer the question: Were blacks human beings, with rights that needed to be respected, or were they simply objects that could be used as a master saw fit?
Though Lincoln went on to lose the Illinois Senate race, he ultimately triumphed over Douglas in the presidential election two years later despite not being on the ballot in 10 Southern states.
How can Lincoln help guide America today as we find ourselves again embroiled in national controversies over race and slavery?
According to Morel, Lincoln teaches Americans to speak in the “language of the founding” and to see themselves as fellow citizens who share a common purpose and a common humanity. On the subject of race, Burlingame contends that we should remember Lincoln as “a martyr to black civil rights just as much as Martin Luther King Jr.” Kesler adds that by studying Lincoln’s statesmanship, we can realize that we sometimes need “uncommon people to save” the nation.
“Right Makes Might” demonstrates how Lincoln’s statesmanship and prudence can help guide us today just as it did in the Civil War era.