Lincoln, Sumner, and Shakespeare

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1 hour 27 minutes 24 seconds

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American Politics | Political History | United States History


For Charles Sumner, human rights were the foundation of law and civil rights. They applied to national laws but also transcended national boundaries and underpinned the “law of nations,” as he said. It was the obligation of individuals and nations to base national legislation on human rights and intercede where those rights were violated. Slavery was the antithesis of human rights owing to its dehumanizing impulse. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a piece of national legislation, flagrantly violated human rights and was thus illegitimate. Abraham Lincoln, however, rarely invoked the term “human rights.” He understood natural rights as the foundation of government, but treated natural rights and law as separate categories, the former an ideal, the latter the reality. In distinguishing the Constitution from the Declaration of Independence, he famously revised Proverbs 25:11: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” For Lincoln, the principle of “Liberty to all,” and thus “free government,” as expressed in the Declaration, “was the word, ‘fitly spoken’ which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture.”


Lecturer: John Stauffer; Discussant: Daniel Pollack-Pelzner.

This lecture was part of the conference The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, which took place May 8-10, 2014 at Linfield College.

Sponsored by the Linfield College Frederick Douglass Forum on Law, Rights, & Justice, the Jereld R. Nicholson Library, and the Linfield College Office of Academic Affairs.