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TCL > May 2009 Issue > Lincoln’s Legacy of Equality and Liberty

May 2009       Vol. 38, No. 5       Page  13
In and Around the Bar
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Lincoln’s Legacy of Equality and Liberty

About the Author

Russell E. Carparelli has been a judge on the Colorado Court of Appeals since 2003. Prior to his service on the Bench, he served on active duty in the U.S. Air Force from 1970 to 1990, and was in the private practice of law from 1990 to 2003.

The Our Courts program is a public education project co-sponsored by the Colorado Judicial Institute and the Colorado Bar Association. Participants in Our Courts may be available to make short presentations based on this essay. For information about scheduling a presentation or for more information about Our Courts, contact Carolyn P. Gravit at (303) 824-5323 or (800) 332-6736, or visit

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809. This year, throughout the nation, states and civic groups are commemorating the 200th anniversary of the man who has often been called our greatest President. In Colorado, Governor Bill Ritter signed an Executive Order creating the Colorado Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. This essay was written in collaboration with the Commission and Our Courts, a joint activity of the Colorado Judicial Institute and the Colorado Bar Association.

Although we do not speak of Abraham Lincoln as one of our nation’s Founders, we owe him an incalculable debt of gratitude for his commitment to the principles of equality and liberty stated in the Declaration of Independence and for transforming the Constitution to give those principles the power of law. This essay focuses on Lincoln’s commitment to those principles and how Lincoln guided our nation to move closer to the ideals of equality and liberty.

The Man Who Would Become President

Who was this man who was born in our young nation’s frontier, who was largely self-educated and became President at the beginning of the greatest crisis in our nation’s history? Perhaps we can better know him through the words of those who knew him, as well as through his own eloquent words.

Just Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln preferred to be called, simply, "Lincoln." Henry C. Whitney, one man who knew him well, said:

I never knew of anyone who [addressed] him as "Abe," I never knew of anyone who ever did it in my presence. Lincoln disdained ceremony, but he gave no license for being called "Abe." His preference was being called "Lincoln" with no handle at all.

. . . .

We spoke of him as "Uncle Abe," but to his face we called him "Lincoln." This suited him; he very much disliked to be called "Mr. President." This I knew, and I never called him so once. He didn’t even like to be called "Mr." He preferred plain Lincoln.1

Lincoln as a Young Man

We know that Lincoln was unique in his appearance. One biographer wrote:

Abraham Lincoln in his teens grew very fast, and by nineteen he was nearly six foot four. His weight was never quite proportionate to this. His ungainly figure, with long arms and large hands and relatively small development of chest, and the strange deep-cut lineaments of his face were perhaps the evidence of unfit (sometimes insufficient) food in these years of growth. But his muscular strength was great, and startling statistical tales are told of the weight he could lift and the force of his blows with a mallet or an axe.2

A friend who knew him in Illinois wrote:

Trials of strength were very common among the pioneers. Lifting weights, as heavy timbers piled one upon another, was a favorite pastime, and no workman in the neighborhood could at all cope with Mr. Lincoln in this direction. I have seen him frequently take a barrel of whisky by the chimes and lift it up to his face as if to drink out of the bunghole. This feat he could accomplish with the greatest of ease. I never saw him taste or drink a drop of any kind of spirituous liquors.3

In fact, Lincoln never did drink whiskey, wine, or beer.

Lincoln the Lawyer

Lincoln had a successful law practice with William Herndon and was viewed as scrupulously honest and one of the best jury lawyers in Illinois.4 However, with regard to his appearance:

He probably had as little taste about dress and attire as anybody that ever was born. [In chilly weather he wore] a short circular blue cloak, which he got in Washington in 1849, and kept for ten years. . . . His trousers were always too short, [and his hat was] faded and had no nap. He carried under his arm a worn green umbrella, which lacked a knob and was tied with string.5

Describing his courtroom manner, Herndon wrote:

When he rose to speak to the jury or to crowds of people, he stood inclined forward, was awkward, angular, ungainly, odd, and, being a very sensitive man, I think it added to his awkwardness. . . . Lincoln had confidence, full and complete confidence in himself, self-thoughtful, self-helping, and self-supporting, relying on no man. Lincoln’s voice was, when he first began speaking, shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant;

. . . .

Mr. Lincoln never beat the air, never sawed space with his hands, never acted for stage effect; was cool, careful, earnest, sincere, truthful, fair, self-possessed, not insulting, not dictatorial; was pleasing, good-natured; . . . was clear in his ideas, simple in his words, strong, terse, and demonstrative; . . . he used in his gestures his right hand, sometimes shooting out that long bony forefinger of his to dot an idea or to express a thought, resting his thumb on his middle finger.

. . . .

As Mr. Lincoln proceeded further along with his oration, . . . he gently warmed up; his shrill, squeaking, piping voice became harmonious, melodious, musical, if you please, with face somewhat aglow; his form dilated, swelled out, and he rose up a splendid form, erect, straight, and dignified;6

Referring to an image of Lincoln you have likely seen, Herndon said:

He frequently took hold with his left hand, his left thumb erect, of the left lapel of his coat, keeping his right hand free to gesture in order to drive home and to clinch an idea.7

Lincoln’s Humor

Despite a melancholy that stayed with him throughout his life, Lincoln’s ability to tell jokes and humorous anecdotes was well known in his own time. He said this about himself:

Others have been made fools of by the girls, but this can never with truth be said of me. I most emphatically, in this instance, made a fool of myself.6

When Stephen Douglas said Lincoln was two-faced, Lincoln responded:

I leave it to my audience; if I had another face to wear, do you think I would wear this one?9

When he was to leave Springfield by train to Washington to be sworn in as President, he was asked how it felt. He responded:

I feel like the man who was tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. To the man who asked him how he liked it he said, "If it wasn’t for the honor of the thing, I’d rather walk."10

Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence

When Lincoln arrived in Washington in March 1861, he was sworn in as the sixteenth President of the United States. The country had existed for more than seventy years, had grown from thirteen to thirty-four states, and faced an extraordinary crisis. Seven southern states had seceded from the Union and slavery was the most significant issue. Lincoln’s entire term as President—indeed, the rest of his life—was to be consumed with fighting a war to preserve the United States. This war resulted in more than 600,000 deaths from battle wounds and disease; this was more than any other war in our history.

Lincoln and Slavery

When Lincoln was born in 1809, slavery was permitted by the U.S. Constitution. Lincoln’s family strongly opposed slavery, and he, too, opposed it all his life.11 Lincoln believed that slavery would gradually become extinct.12

The Constitution did not include the words "slave" or "slavery." Instead, the Constitution referred to "persons who might be imported," and to persons "held to service or labor." It referred to slaveholders as parties "to whom such service or labor may be due."13 Under the Constitution, a slave who escaped to a state that prohibited slavery had to be returned to his or her master.14

Beginning in 1820, under the Missouri Compromise, slavery was outlawed in more than one million square miles west of the Mississippi River to Montana along the Canadian border, and stretching south through Kansas, including a large portion of Wyoming and Colorado. In 1854, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas introduced the Kansas–Nebraska Bill, which, if passed, would repeal the Missouri Compromise. When the Kansas–Nebraska Act did pass, Lincoln declared: "This nation cannot exist half-slave and half-free."15 Before speaking out against the Act, he researched congressional debates so that he would be able to clearly and accurately tell how slavery had come to and remained in America.16 He then set out to tell that story. In October 1854, speaking in reply to a speech by Senator Douglas, he said:

I cannot but hate [slavery]. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world, enables the enemies of free institutions with plausibility to taunt us as hypocrites, causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many good men among ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty, criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting there is no right principle of action but self-interest.17

Commenting on the Constitution’s euphemistic reference to slavery, Lincoln said the founding fathers had kept slavery hidden in the Constitution "just as an afflicted man hides away . . . a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death."18 He believed the Constitution’s acceptance of slavery was contrary to the famous words of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Before Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence was a symbolic document that officially severed ties with the British Crown more than a year after the Battle of Lexington and Concord; it did not have the stature of a law, and it had no binding effect on the populace. Its principles of all men being equal and their unalienable right to liberty also did not have the stature of law. The Constitution was the document from which the government drew its authority. It was the document to be consulted regarding the course of the country.19 The Constitution denied liberty and equal justice to the slaves.

Indeed, at the beginning of his presidency, Lincoln said he was bound by the Constitution the Founders had written and the states had ratified. As President, he was sworn to uphold that Constitution. However, the Declaration of Independence reflected for Lincoln the moral foundation of America. At Independence Hall in Philadelphia, he said:

I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here and framed and adopted that Declaration of Independence. I have pondered over the toils that were endured by the officers and soldiers of the army who achieved that independence. I have often inquired of myself what great principle or idea it was that kept the [colonies] so long together. It was not the mere matter of separation of the colonies from the motherland, it was the sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but I hope to the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight [of oppression] would be lifted from the shoulders of all men.20

Lincoln knew that most Americans at that time did not understand the words of the Declaration to mean that black men were equal to white men, but he believed that the Declaration expressed an ideal to be pursued and attained. He said:

I think the authors of [the Declaration of Independence] intended to include all men in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what respects they did consider all men created equal—equal with "certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.

They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.21

Lincoln did not practice any particular religion. But he believed all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. He said:

The battle of freedom is to be fought out on principle. Slavery is violation of eternal right. We have temporized with it from the necessities of our condition; but as sure as God reigns and school children read, that black foul lie can never be consecrated into God’s hallowed truth.22

Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation

It must be noted that Lincoln’s foremost goal was to preserve the Union. In a letter to Horace Greeley in late August 1862, Lincoln wrote:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.23

Earlier that year, Lincoln had twice asked Congress for a resolution to give federal aid to states that established a plan to gradually end slavery. Although Congress did not do so, it passed a bill that provided for the liberation of slaves and compensation of slaveholders in the District of Columbia, and later passed one that emancipated slaves of persons who engaged in rebellion. Although Lincoln had objections and concerns about the Constitutionality of the latter bill, he signed both into law.24

Battlefield reports had informed Lincoln that rebel forces were using slaves to support their war efforts. Lincoln concluded that if the rebels were deprived of that support and if slaves became free to fight with the Union forces, it would be a significant advantage for the North. Because he was committed to his oath to uphold the Constitution, he wrestled with the question of whether he had any authority under the Constitution to free the slaves. He finally decided that although he had no power to liberate slaves in loyal states, the rebelling states had withdrawn from the Union and the Constitution; the Union was at war with those states; and, under the War Powers granted to the President in the Constitution, he could emancipate the slaves in the rebelling states.25

What would become of the liberated slaves after the war? On this issue, Lincoln and others spoke of the creation of a separate colony of freed slaves. He decided that a proclamation of emancipation should support efforts to colonize African Americans, with their consent, in North America or elsewhere. Indeed, Lincoln met with African American leaders to discuss how a colony might be established in South America.

Lincoln did not want to issue the proclamation freeing the slaves while the South was enjoying considerable success on the battlefield, because it would appear that he was liberating the slaves out of desperation. Instead, he wanted to issue it in the context of Union victories as a demonstration of confidence, and so waited for such a victory.

It came in September 1862 at Antietam, Virginia. When it became apparent that the Union had won at Antietam, Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation liberating the slaves in the rebelling states as of January 1, 1863. On New Year’s Day in 1863, Lincoln issued the official Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves in the rebelling states free and declaring that able-bodied former slaves who wanted to join the Union forces would be accepted and assigned to garrison installations and to man vessels. More than 180,000 African Americans stepped forward and joined the Union forces.

In November 1863, at the Gettysburg battlefield, Lincoln again proclaimed equality and liberty as the founding principles of our nation. He began his address saying:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.26

In January 1865, after Lincoln had been re-elected for a second term, Congress proposed the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. Less than ten weeks later, on April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House. Lincoln knew the war would soon end, the Union would be preserved, and the Thirteenth Amendment would finally end the "monstrous injustice" of slavery. It was apparent to others that this knowledge brought him increased peace and hope.

After Lee’s surrender, in an impromptu speech from the White House balcony, Lincoln publicly endorsed the idea of giving the vote to black soldiers and "the very intelligent," and "giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white."27 John Wilkes Booth was in the audience and vowed it would be the last speech Lincoln ever made.28 Five days later, on April 14, 1865, Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. Lincoln died early the next morning.

Lincoln’s Legacy of Equality and Liberty

At the time of Lincoln’s death, the U.S. Constitution had been amended only twice in more than seventy-five years. In December 1865, eight months after Lincoln’s death, the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified by the required number of states, and slavery was forever abolished in the United States. In June 1866, eighteen months after his death, the Fourteenth Amendment was proposed in Congress, prohibiting any state from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, and guaranteeing all persons equal protection of the laws. It was ratified by the states in 1868. This amendment, more than any other, has served as the basis for the protection of citizen rights ever since.

In 1869, Congress proposed the Fifteenth Amendment, guaranteeing all citizens the right to vote regardless of race, color, "or previous condition of servitude." It was ratified in 1870. What had not been achieved in the seventy-three years of constitutional government before Lincoln’s presidency was achieved within five years of his death.

As we commemorate the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, let’s not forget that our country was founded on the principle that "all men are created equal," and that as long as slavery existed in the United States, that principle could never be a reality. It was Abraham Lincoln who navigated our country’s course through the greatest crisis ever to threaten the achievement of that reality.

At Gettysburg, Lincoln said those gathered could not dedicate or consecrate that battlefield because those who fought there had consecrated it. Then he said:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us.29

He said that task was:

[T]his nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and . . . government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.30

As we know, the principles for which Lincoln fought remained unfinished even after the emancipation of the slaves and passage of the Civil War amendments. Ending slavery did not end racism and it did not give women the right to vote.

Lincoln dedicated himself to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and he has inspired members of every generation since his time to dedicate themselves to the unfinished work of equality and liberty. As a result, Lincoln is honored as one of the greatest leaders the world has known.

With boundless gratitude to Abraham Lincoln, we can proclaim our shared and uniquely American dedication to the conviction that all men are created equal and that "they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."


1. Whitney, Life on the Circuit With Lincoln (Estes and Lauriat, 1892), reprinted in Abraham Lincoln, From His Own Words and Contemporary Accounts 9 (National Park Service, Source Book Series, No. 2, 1954) (emphasis in original).

2. Charnwood, Abraham Lincoln 8 (Dover Pub., Inc., 1997).

3.Letter from R. B. Rutledge to William Herndon (Oct. 1866), reprinted in Abraham Lincoln, From His Own Words and Contemporary Accounts, supra note 1 at 3.

4. Gienapp, Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America 42-44 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2002).

5. Id.

6. Letter from William Herndon to Truman Bartlett (July 19, 1887), reprinted in Abraham Lincoln, From His Own Words and Contemporary Accounts, supra note 1 at 15-16.

7. Id.

8. The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln: As Reflected in His Briefer Letters and Speeches 4 (World Pub. Co., 1965).

9. Id. at 41.

10. Id. at 38.

11. Goodwin, Team of Rivals 91 (Simon & Schuster, 2005), quoting Lincoln to have said he could not remember when he did not believe that "if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong."

12. Id. at 92.

13. U.S. Const. art. I, § 9, cl. 1; art. IV, § 2, cl. 3.

14. U.S. Const. art. IV, § 2, cl. 3.

15. Goodwin, supra note 11 at 164.

16. Id.

17. Abraham Lincoln’s Speech in Reply to Sen. Douglas at Peoria (Oct. 16, 1854), quoted in Moores, ed., Lincoln, Addresses and Letters 56 (Harvard College Library, 1914).

18. Speech at Peoria (Oct. 16, 1854), quoted in Morris, Jr., The Long Pursuit; Abraham Lincoln’s Thirty-Year Struggle with Stephen Douglas for the Heart and Soul of America 75 (HarperCollins, 2008), citing Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln 2:282 (1953–55).

19. Schulten, "Our Courts—The Legacy of Lincoln" (unpub. manuscript, 2009).

20. Charnwood, supra note 2 at 184.

21. Lincoln Springfield Speech (June 26, 1857), reprinted in Abraham Lincoln, From His Own Words and Contemporary Accounts, supra note 1 at 12-13 (emphasis in original).

22. Charnwood, supra note 2 at 126.

23. Mitgang, Selected Writings of Abraham Lincoln 217 (Bantam Books, 1992).

24. Goodwin, supra note 11 at 460-61.

25. Id. at 462-63.

26. Lincoln, Gettysburg Address (Nov. 19, 1863).

27. Abraham Lincoln’s Last Public Speech (April 11, 1865), quoted in Moores, supra note 17 at 221.

28. Goodwin, supra note 11 at 728.

29. Lincoln, supra note 26.

30. Id.

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