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Dr. Larry Arnn on the Fourth Lincoln-Douglas Debate

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HH: It is the final radio hour of the week on this June 26th, 2015. And we are talking with Dr. Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College in our most recent Hillsdale Dialogue about the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate. And I don’t know that we’ve ever had so timely meshing of the headlines and the history, Dr. Larry Arnn. What do you think?

LA: Gracious sakes. Isn’t it amazing what’s going on in the country these days?

HH: It is, and I’m just going to open it by telling people they can get all the Hillsdale Dialogues, especially on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, 1, 2 and 3 over at But Dr. Larry Arnn and I have been talking about slavery and about race in America, because that’s what Lincoln and Douglas debated for seven epic contests in the summer of 1858. And we are at number four. So Larry, before we plunge into number four, your reaction to what is happening in the aftermath of the Charleston Massacre and the basically de-legitimization of any symbol of the Confederacy, whether, for whatever reason put forward, which I am generally applauding. I haven’t seen anything that I don’t applaud, yet, but I reserve the right to at some point say this far and no farther. But I’m glad it’s happening. But what do you think about it?

LA: Well, it’s a different, well, so first of all, at least most of it that I have seen, I applaud. I can’t name anything right now I don’t. But it is worthwhile to remind ourselves that in the statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln, he was looking for forgiveness to the maximum extent he could get it. And I come from the South, and there are no slaveholders in my background. I’m a mongrel, and so I’m from the families that competed with the people who owned the slaves. But…and so a lot of people rallied to the Confederate flag who didn’t rally for the purpose of slavery, but to defend their home ground. Robert E. Lee is one of them. And so anyway, so we should be mindful of that. And we’re so censorious now, and so unwilling to forgive any error past or present that there’s a danger of that becoming dangerous.

HH: Now what was amazing in the aftermath of the slaughter by the domestic terrorist, and he was a racist, and everyone denounced him rightly and early. In fact, I was on Face The Nation on Sunday, and I said the flag will be gone, and it will be gone soon, because I just, I saw that it had become toxic. The level of toxicity around the flag on the Capitol grounds of South Carolina, which simply had become toxic after the murders in Charleston. Nevertheless, the most impressive thing were the families of the victims stepping forward. And you just mentioned Lincoln’s dedication to forgiveness, his second inaugural address all about forgiveness, and they demonstrated that on the Friday when they confronted the killer.

LA: Yeah, that’s right. And you know, I mean, we’ve got ourselves here a racially-motivated murder. And that man’s got to be condemned. But you know, Nikki Haley didn’t do that, the governor of South Carolina. And so she wanted that symbol gone, and good that she did. So what do you say? What you say is we’ve had a murder, and the only way, the only proper way to exploit that murder for political purposes is to hold up the standard that Lincoln held up, which is color doesn’t have anything to do with our operation as a human being or our rights as a citizen.

HH: Now that brings us to the fourth debate, and for those who are just wandering into the middle of this, tell us where we are and how the debate goes, because this is where Lincoln makes controversial remarks about race. I can’t believe how timely this is.

LA: Yeah.

HH: How goes the debating sequence at this point? He speaks first in this one, and that means an hour by Lincoln, and then an hour and a half by Stephen Douglas, and then 30 minutes by Lincoln. And we are again using clips from the great, epic redoing of the debates by David Straithern and Richard Dreyfuss, Straithern playing Lincoln, Dreyfuss playing Douglas. Where are we in history in 1858 by number four?

LA: Well, so this is the first debate where Lincoln emphasizes the things that he said that were the most controversial and the worst. And they’ve gone down to Charleston, Illinois, and that’s Democratic ground and not abolitionist ground, not as much as in the north of Illinois. And Douglas has been threatening all along that I’m going to take him down there, and he’s going to sing a different tune. He doesn’t sing a different tune, and he proves that, by the way, in the next debate. But he emphasizes and starts with the most troubling things he said about it, and we should spend some time thinking about those things and talking about them, because I think that they point to something first of all instructive for today, and also magnificent.

HH: Let’s play it, then. This is David Straithern playing Abraham Lincoln as he opens the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate with jarring words, cut number one:

DS (as Lincoln): 1. I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. [Cheers and laughter.] My understanding is that I can just let her alone. I am now in my fiftieth year, and I certainly never have had a black woman for either a slave or a wife. So it seems to me quite possible for us to get along without making either slaves or wives of negroes. I will add to this that I have never seen, to my knowledge, a man, woman or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between negroes and white men. I recollect of but one distinguished instance that I ever heard of so frequently as to be entirely satisfied of its correctness—and that is the case of Judge Douglas’s old friend Col. Richard M. Johnson.

HH: Now Larry Arnn, people will be shocked that that is Father Abraham talking.

LA: He did.

HH: And they will be shocked that he says things that jar and offend the sensibility of every American. But is he saying? And why do you think it points to something better than his times would allow him to say?

LA: Well, so I think these things. I think first of all, he does emphatically say all through these debates, and into the Civil War, that he does not favor what he calls the social and political equality of the black man or woman. And he, so the first thing to comment on that, it’s obvious that he has to say that. Now that doesn’t prove that he doesn’t mean it, but start with that, it’s obvious he has to say that. Why is it obvious? Well, in order to get to the principle that political and social equality would be afforded to the black man, which after the Civil War is written into the Constitution, Lincoln won this debate, and he won, the Republicans won the election of 1858. They won it overwhelmingly, but also narrowly, in a free state. And there are lots of places where you wouldn’t win that state. and then win that debate with just the arguments that Lincoln made, which denied that he’s going to have the social and political equality of the black man. Then the war comes, and the death tolls are the highest in American history, and they are several times higher per capita than any war we ever fought. And so a lot of water and a lot of pain had to go before anybody could stand up in public and say that they’re for this thing. and Lincoln does not say that. That doesn’t by itself prove that he doesn’t mean what he says, but it does prove that he had to say it. Now there’s a second point, and it’s an obvious mitigation, and that is all through these debates, the point on which Lincoln will never surrender is that the principles of the Declaration of Independence include people of color. And in the debates that still remain, we’re going to see that Douglas takes his assertion of that to prove that he is for what he calls the social and political equality of the black. And Lincoln will not surrender that point. He repeats it every time Douglas accuses him of a contradiction, because he says they are the equal, in their right to eat the bread from the sweat of their own faces, that they earn with the sweat of their own faces. And so Lincoln never gives up on the point that the principle of equality covers them. The third thing is that…

HH: Hold onto that. We’re going to go to a break.

LA: Okay.

HH: And I don’t want you to start the third point. This is important stuff, and people need to know what Lincoln believed and why Larry and I, who are both committed to the political and social equality of all men and women do not believe this is a disqualifying scar on Lincoln’s reputation, but more. Do not go anywhere, America. I’ll be right back with Dr. Larry Arnn and the Hillsdale Dialogue. Stay tuned.

— – – – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, we went to break, and we are meditating upon Abraham Lincoln’s words at the opening of the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate in which he says he is not for the political and social equality of the Negro with the white, and you say he had to say that, didn’t mean he meant it, but he had to say it.

LA: Yeah, it doesn’t prove he didn’t mean it, either. And so earlier talking with the very famous national program, Hugh Hewitt, I was saying that he had to say that, and that however he insists on protecting the inclusion of people of color in the principles of equality announced in the Declaration of Independence and never surrenders that. And then I was coming to my third point, which is this position by Lincoln is unsatisfactory. That is to say logically, it can’t continue indefinitely, whether he knows that or not, and I believe he did know it. And the reason for that is the Declaration of Independence says that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. If people of color are denied the right to vote, then they are not able to give their consent to the government. And so the point is sooner or later, if the principle of equality is admitted to apply to people of color, that problem has to be faced.

HH: And the reason, and I want to go to a Douglas clip now, because it tells us by the direction that Douglas bears in on Lincoln that everything you just said is absolutely true. He knows the weakness in Lincoln’s argument. Lincoln is trying to make a political argument by saying I’m not believing in political and social equality. And Douglas will have nothing of it, because Douglas knows the truth of what you just said, Dr. Arnn, where Lincoln is going.

LA: That’s right.

HH: Let’s play cut number three, not cut number two, cut number three. This is Richard Dreyfuss recreating the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate speaking as Judge Douglas, then a Senator from Illinois.

RD (as Douglas): Lincoln maintains there that the Declaration of Independence asserts that the negro is equal to the white man, and that under Divine law, and if he believes so it was rational for him to advocate negro citizenship, which, when allowed, puts the negro on an equality under the law. I say to you in all frankness, gentlemen, that in my opinion a negro is not a citizen, cannot be, and ought not to be, under the Constitution of the United States. I will not even qualify my opinion to meet the declaration of one of the Judges of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case, “that a negro descended from African parents, who was imported into this country as a slave is not a citizen, and cannot be.” I say that this Government was established on the white basis. It was made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and never should be administered by any except white men. I declare that a negro ought not to be a citizen, whether his parents were imported into this country as slaves or not, or whether or not he was born here. It does not depend upon the place a negro’s parents were born, or whether they were slaves or not, but upon the fact that he is a negro, belonging to a race incapable of self—government, and for that reason ought not to be on an equality with white men.

HH: That is the actor Richard Dreyfuss recreating, to great critical acclaim, by the way, the role of Judge Douglas in the 1858 debates. And in that passage, Larry Arnn, I think he proves your point about what Lincoln was up against, and he’s bearing down. This is why the dialectic reveals so much.

LA: That’s right, because of course, it won’t work. Finally, the position that Lincoln takes, Lincoln argues that the position that Douglas takes in the Lincoln-Douglas debates won’t work, because in the end, he says that Douglas’ position is going to lead to slavery everywhere. We’re going to go through him arguing that in detail in the debates that follow this one. But Douglas also argues that Lincoln’s position won’t work, and I think Douglas is right, and my opinion is that Lincoln knows it. Of course, he couldn’t say that he knows it, because if you’re going to admit that they’re covered by the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of Independence says that they may not be governed except by their consent. And nobody understands that document better than Lincoln. If Lincoln says that, the election is over. And so what Lincoln can do, and this is a point about political prudence, and I was eluding to it when you asked me the question about current events. Political prudence means that you do all that you can do. And you must do all that you can do for the principle of equality and justice. But to do more might forego all opportunity to do any. And so Lincoln is very aware of that, and often speaks that way.

HH: Now can I bring it to the moment? Nikki Haley in the debates of last fall was asked about the Confederate flag, and she said that’s actually never come up in any of my discussions with any CEO’s seeking to move a company to South Carolina, and I don’t think it’s a part of this debate. I’m paraphrasing. And then she leads the charge, rightly so, greatly so, to remove it, because it was not prudent to do so in November last, and it was not only prudent, but necessary to do so in June of this year after a horrible racist murder.

LA: Yeah, and think of the circumstances being different, right? So for no immediate cause, she lodges an insult against a lot of people who fought for that flag who were not racists or in favor of slavery. I think those people were misguided, but they were fighting for their homes. And so in no context whatsoever to lodge an insult against them, that’s one thing. But in this context, when a bunch of people have been murdered because of the color of their skin, that’s a different context. And so I think she did right, surely the second time. And as for the first time, anybody who’s thinking about this should go read Lincoln’s words at the end of the war, because he wanted it to be one nation. And he wanted it to bind up its wounds. And he thought the nation dedicated the Declaration of Independence, if it stayed together and continued to prosper, would be the greatest force on Earth for the equality of all.

HH: Which is why now, and it’s a minute to the break, and we’ll go to the break. I am disturbed by the politicization of the issue beyond the unanimity which was quickly reached.

LA: Yeah.

HH: I believe that that is an exploitation not designed to bring together, but to divide, Larry. Do you agree with that?

LA: And one suspects that somebody, that people are calling for a remedy beyond the one we’ve got now, which is that the law militates against racism and punishes it when it harms somebody. And do we want more than that? Do we want scouring people’s consciences? Do we want shutting people up? How far do we want to go?

HH: We’ll come back and talk about that after the break, and the solution that Douglas thought had to flow and which Lincoln rejected in the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate here on the Hillsdale Dialogue. Stay tuned.

— – – –

HH: By the way, another Hillsdale graduate turns out to be up in Montana advising the Attorney General there, Larry Arnn. I’m hearing from them wherever I go.

LA: Yeah, I can’t control them anymore.

HH: (laughing) They self-identify.

LA: (laughing) They may take over the country, and I just want everybody to know I didn’t do it.

HH: All right, here is Judge Douglas, and I want to go back a little bit in the debate so that we set up for the audience who are just walking in, we get new affiliates every week, they’re arguing about whither the country and what the heck happened to politics which changed overnight. Cut number two, this is Judge Douglas.

RD (as Douglas): 2. Now, let me ask, how is it that since that time so many of you Whigs have wandered from the true path marked out by Clay and carried out broad and wide by the great Webster? How is it that so many old line Democrats have abandoned the old faith of their party, and joined with Abolitionism and Freesoilism to overturn the platform of the old Democrats, and the platform of the old Whigs? You cannot deny that since 1854 there has been a great revolution on this one question. How has it been brought about? I answer, that no sooner was the sod grown green over the grave of the immortal Clay, no sooner was the rose planted on the tomb of the god—like Webster, than many of the leaders of the Whig party, such as Seward, of New York, and his followers, led off and attempted to abolitionize the Whig party, and transfer all your old Whigs, bound hand and foot, into the Abolition camp. Seizing hold of the temporary excitement produced in this country by the introduction of the Nebraska bill, the disappointed politicians in the Democratic party united with the disappointed politicians in the Whig party, and endeavored to form a new party composed of all the Abolitionists, of abolitionized Democrats and abolitionized Whigs, banded together in an Abolition platform.

HH: Stop right there. Larry Arnn, there are 14,000 people listening to this. And that’s Foghorn Leghorn, right? But Dreyfuss tried to recapture Douglas. And Douglas is trying to create a historical narrative to trap Lincoln as a conspirator against the Union.

LA: And he uses especially one of Lincoln’s heroes, Henry Clay. And his argument goes like this. When Lincoln says a house divided cannot stand against itself, quoting Scripture, he is revolutionizing and abolitionizing the country, because the founders themselves built that house. And Lincoln’s going to give his most beautiful, explicit answer to that in the next debate. But Douglas says they did build this house divided. It was half slave and half free, and they did leave it divided like that, and so Lincoln is rebelling against them. And Henry Clay, when he compromised in 1820, he was the main architect of the Missouri Compromise, he was just perpetuating the work of the founders which Lincoln is now undoing. And so Lincoln wants, Douglas wants to efface the tension over slavery from the founding, which resulted in this effect. One, that every senior person in the founding that I can find condemned slavery as a wrong and a violation of the Declaration of Independence, and they didn’t know how to get rid of it at the time, although they got rid of it in most of the Union soon after the founding. That’s, so Douglas’ point is, and see, Douglas is pointing to a new way to run the Union, calling it the old way. And this new way, he thinks, will mean that we never have to fight about fundamental matters. We’ll keep them local. And the Union can preside over a great area where there are widely differing practices all the time. And Lincoln shows later in two debates from now the contradiction that’s going to come up if manifest destiny plays out fully, and we take all or part of Mexico, because Lincoln will later ask Douglas okay, good, but most of the people down there are people of color. You’re going to let them decide?

HH: And on that question, when we come back from break, we’ll talk about how Lincoln is actually, even at the beginning of this debate, which was so jarring, he continues to pound on the hammer of the Declaration of Independence, and the nail of equality. Don’t go anywhere, America. I’ll be right back with Dr. Larry Arnn on the Hugh Hewitt Show. It’s the Hillsdale Dialogue.

— – – –

HH: And what no one has remarked upon, yet, Dr. Arnn, and I want your ideas about this, is that Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the site of the slaughter, is located on Calhoun Street.

LA: Yeah.

HH: Now I do not believe our current media and the Democratic Party is sufficiently attentive to detail to realize that they have much more politicization to make if they go after that street name than various, you know, Wal-Mart’s selling of fireworks with a Confederate brand on it. Both have their import. But the irony has not escaped me that they’re missing the guy who actually menaced the Union by introducing a contrary to the Federalists and the founders’ idea of what slavery meant.

LA: Yeah, Calhoun is the man who on the sort of Hegelian grounds brings up, brings, he’s the apostle of the idea, the chief theorist of the idea in American history that it would be an abomination for people of different colors to live together as equal citizens. They have evolved to be our inferiors. And we will corrupt ourselves and everything, and even them if we let that happen. And his idea, you know, his disquisition on government, large parts of which we read in the Hillsdale core curriculum, it lays all that out powerfully. And in his Oregon speech, his speech on the Oregon bill, which was to expand the Union, he is the one who really gives voice most prominently to the idea that blacks could not be equals to whites.

HH: And that, and he set the Union off on this course. He set the country off on the course where they had to decide. And he was for leaving, and they grabbed onto Calhoun repeatedly. Jackson denounced him. But he was the vice president, secretary of war, secretary of Treasury, great American. And his name is on the street on which that church is located. I just find it incredibly ironic.

LA: You know, I didn’t know that, Hugh. And let me say something else about Calhoun. Calhoun was a great Unionist. And he wanted a great nation. He was for internal improvements to bind the nation together. And so these contradictions that show up everywhere in regard to the slavery issue, and the change in opinion regarding it, all stem from the introduction of new ideas in America, which ideas, by the way, are very powerful still today. And help me remember, before we end, we have to talk about Lincoln’s reference to Col. Richard Johnson in the first tape we played.

HH: Let’s go do that now, because we’ve got about six minutes. And he did bring that up, and I neglected to mention that he scores a huge point against Douglas at that point.

LA: Yeah, and we have to remember in that quote that is, that was the first quote we played, that’s the most damaging thing to Lincoln’s reputation to this day that he ever said. He ends it with this. I will add to this that I have never seen a man, woman or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between Negroes and white men. I recollect but one distinguished, so remember he’s used the word perfect, and he’s used the word distinguished instance of this, and that is Douglas’ friend, Richard Johnson. Richard Johnson, it turns out, was vice president of the United States, he was a Kentuckian, and he was a famous duelist. And that’s important, because he inherited a family as property that included a woman his age, a young woman, a mulatto. And he fell in love with her. And he had his children by her. And he couldn’t marry her under Kentucky law, so he changed her name to Mrs. Johnson. He couldn’t leave his property to her and their children, who were quadrooned under Kentucky law, so he gave them his property before he died. And if anybody said anything about it, he shot them dead.

HH: (laughing) I didn’t know that.

LA: Now here’s another thing. A letter exists that he wrote about the death in his arms of one of their children. And it’s a poem of grief and love, and that this child was the fairest thing he ever saw. And so it’s important to understand that Lincoln ends this most damaging thing he said, which I have argued he had to say, with that reference. And he calls it a distinguished instance of an attachment of a perfect kind to the principle of equality.

HH: That’s an extraordinary thrust of a sword that not many would get. But what’s interesting, Dr. Arnn, as we close this out, is that you’re saying this is the most damaging thing that Lincoln ever said, the mark against his record. And yet this is the man who freed the slaves and brought about the war which would eventually come, so that even the greatest men have to make compromises with their times.

LA: Everybody does, and Lincoln’s point about that made so often is that anything else than a willingness to do that, a statesmanship that preserves the principle and works on it as fast as practically possible, is the only way to preserve free government and just government insofar as humans can have it. And so they’re both trying to show that the road the other indicates is destruction, and they’re both trying to show that theirs is the middle ground. And in the end, the distinction, I argue, comes to be this. Douglas would consign people of color to eternal second-class place, and Lincoln would not do that, nor ever admit any principle that would do it.

HH: And he always stands by the eventual citizenship. And in citizenship comes full voting rights. I mean, that’s why it took the Voting Rights Act…yeah…

LA: Later, later, Hugh, he stands for that. Here, he denies it. And that’s important, see, because if he’d said, you know, in the previous debate, Douglas begins by talking about how the second debate, Douglas begins by talking about how Fred Douglass, who was a friend of Lincoln’s, a runaway slave, you know, twice a visitor to Hillsdale College, I’m always proud to mention, had driven through that very town in a carriage driven by a white man. And if Lincoln gets his way, you’re going to be seeing that all the time. And people don’t want that. And that means that Lincoln has to deal with that public opinion, and if Lincoln is to be believed, there are, of course, always things in public opinion like that, and that have to be dealt with.

HH: Dr. Larry Arnn, a terrific Hillsdale Dialogue. The fifth Lincoln-Douglas debate next week. Stay tuned, America.

End of interview.


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