DL Fowler's Blog

Right Makes Might

On February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln closed his address at New York City’s Cooper Union with the following words that turned an age old phrase on its head.

Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.

His speech at Cooper Union set him on track to win the Republican nomination for president. The world view he capsulized in this quote is what fueled his greatness.

The first English usage of the phrase might makes right was by American pacifist and abolitionist Adin Ballou. In 1846 he said:

But now, instead of discussion and argument, brute force rises up to the rescue of discomfited error, and crushes truth and right into the dust. ‘Might makes right,’ and hoary folly totters on in her mad career escorted by armies and navies.

Ballou’s sentiments were pessimistic. He lamented the ease with which power overwhelms integrity. Lincoln, on the other hand, believed justice prevails in the long run. The road to truth might be hard, but humanity as a whole can be bent in its direction, even if we resist along the way.

Artist Francis B. Carpenter, who stayed in the White House for six months during Lincoln’s presidency, recalled the following exchange between the president and a clergyman.

In response to a clergyman who ventured to say, in Mr. Lincoln’s presence, that he hoped ‘the Lord was on our side,’ the president replied, “I am not at all concerned about that, for I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.”

In an undated manuscript now generally known as Meditations on the Divine Will, Lincoln elaborated on the core value that led to his rebuke of the clergyman.

The will of God prevails — In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is somewhat different from the purpose of either party — and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect this.

Lincoln’s sentiment wasn’t just a fleeting idea. Five years and a few days after the Cooper Union Address, Lincoln elaborated on the inevitable triumph of right over might. He closed his Second Inaugural Address with the following words.

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.

The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

The irony of Lincoln’s allusions to scripture is that in his day, in many parts of America, the christian church and much of its clergy were morally corrupt. That vast element of the church had whored itself out to the Slave Oligarchy. For example, Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America, declared in a speech on March 21, 1861.:

The prevailing ideas entertained by him [Thomas Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

The same moral error that Stephens lauded in his speech had resounded for decades from most christian men and women throughout the South.  However, the voice of moral error did not carry weight with Lincoln, even when it came from a pulpit. On September 11, 1858 in Edwardsville, Illinois—two and a half years before Stephens’ speech—Lincoln gave an ominous warning to all those who champion might over right, oppression of some over liberty to all, who align with might over right.

And when, by all these means, you have succeeded in dehumanizing the negro; when you have put him down and made it impossible for him to be but as the beasts of the field; when you have extinguished his soul in this world and placed him where the ray of hope is blown out as in the darkness of the damned, are you quite sure that the demon you have roused will not turn and rend you?

What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, our army and our navy. These are not our reliance against tyranny. All of those may be turned against us without making us weaker for the struggle. Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in us. Our defense is in the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands everywhere.

Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism at your own doors. Familiarize yourselves with the chains of bondage and you prepare your own limbs to wear them. Accustomed to trample on the rights of others, you have lost the genius of your own independence and become the fit subjects of the first cunning tyrant who rises among you.

And let me tell you, that all these things are prepared for you by the teachings of history, if the elections shall promise that the next Dred Scott decision and all future decisions will be quietly acquiesced in by the people.

In his December 1861 Message to Congress, Lincoln asserted that the great struggle of right over might was not only for his generation, or just for his country.

The struggle of today is not altogether for today—it is for the vast future also.

Lincoln’s Edwardsville speech was a warning to all people of every generation. Mere power cannot make anything right, but right is power in itself.

As always, I look forward to learning from you. Please leave a comment and add your thoughts to the conversation.


2 Responses

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  1. Who is Right? | DL Fowler's Blog said, on March 4, 2017 at 8:01 AM

    […] recent post in this blog celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s declaration “Right Makes Might.” When I […]


  2. Who is Right? | DL Fowler's Blog said, on March 4, 2017 at 8:01 AM

    […] recent post in this blog celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s declaration “Right Makes Might.” When I […]


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