Liberals Choose Douglas Over Lincoln

In a typically impressive post on Power Line, Steven Hayward, summarizing his recent lecture at Yale, observes that “the popular leftist attack today on the American Founding and especially on the Declaration of Independence is ironically the exact same argument the southern defenders of slavery made in the 1850s.”

Stephen Douglas explicitly argued that Jefferson only meant white English men in his phrase “all men are created equal,” while other slave apologists called the Declaration a “self-evident lie.” But as most liberals today are historically ignorant, they are unaware of their affinity for the slaveholders’ position. (Or, you could say that the Democratic Party really hasn’t changed much since the 1850s. . .)

Hayward also notes that Harvard historian, and frequent New Yorker contributor, Jill Lepore has recently said the same thing:

The whole Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858 comes down to Douglas saying, Our forefathers founded this country for white men and their posterity forever. And Lincoln, following on the writings of black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and David Walker and Maria Stewart, says, No, that’s just not true! Lincoln read in the founding documents a universal claim of political equality and natural rights, the universality of the sovereignty of the people, not the particularity. Anyone who makes an identity-based claim for a political position has to reckon with the unfortunate fact that Stephen Douglas is their forebear, not Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass.

Liberals choosing Douglas over Lincoln is not unique, and should no longer be surprising. As I have been arguing here for fifteen years or more, today’s progressives defending racial preferences are unwittingly standing on the shoulders of dead racists. I’ve made this point too many times to link, but here’s one example:

It has often been said that in America conservatives stand on the shoulders of dead revolutionaries, but it is no less true that today’s liberals depend on the success of dead racists. In that regard, I have often pointed to the irony of contemporary liberals celebrating the failure of Reconstruction radicals to write colorblindess into the 14th Amendment and hence their (the liberals’) rejection of Justice John Marshall Harlan’s dissenting view, in Plessy, that “our Constitutution is colorblind.” (See, for example, here and here.) Further demonstrating the conservative roots of contemporary liberalism, the caste-like cultural confederacy called for by the multiculturalism so popular on the left — and that is in fact now emerging — must be making that great theorist of minority rights, John C. Calhoun, smile from down below.

Well, one more:

In the fight over the form the 14th Amendment would take, the Radical Republicans such as Wendell Phillips, who wanted a clear requirement of colorblindness, were defeated by the “moderates’ who wanted to protect the ability of states to engage in discrimination, such as segregating schools, that they thought reasonable. How ironic that the heirs of those dead moderates are today’s preferentialists, who must defend Plessy in order to justify preferences.

Really, finally, one more, this one from a recent post giving some highly unsolicited advice to Joe Biden:

In fact, the entire defense of the legality of racial preferences requires embracing arguments that former liberals detested. “Anyone who defends racial preferences today,” as I wrote here and here, “must reject Justice John Marshall Harlan’s stirring comment in Plessy that ‘our Constitution is colorblind.’ One of the oddest, saddest things about contemporary liberalism is that it has rejected the colorblind principle of its radical progenitors and stands on the shoulders, and repeats the arguments, of dead racists.”


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