DL Fowler's Blog

Who is Right?

A recent post in this blog celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s declaration “Right Makes Might.” When I looked at who ‘liked’ that post on Facebook, I was fascinated by the contrasting political and religious opinions of those who gave it a thumbs up. I wondered, how can opposites claim to occupy the same moral high ground?

One hundred and fifty two years ago today, Abraham Lincoln raised the same question in his Second Inaugural Address:

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.

Now, before you say the answer is obvious … hear me out. Look carefully at the middle sentence. He wasn’t talking about only slavery.

He was talking about justice.

Throughout his life, beginning with his childhood … even before slavery was a tangible concept in his mind, Lincoln had a long list of ‘wrongs’ that he believed needed to be righted. Before he ever declared against slavery, he chastised childhood playmates and neighborhood adults for their bullying and their abuse of animals. He also resented his father for hiring him out as a laborer and taking his hard earned wages to pay off the family’s debts.

Later, when Lincoln encountered shackled slaves for the first time (1828 at the age of 19), he added slavery to his list of injustices. About the same time (1832 in his first political campaign), he endorsed women’s suffrage (decades before it became a movement). In a speech on temperance (1842), Lincoln called alcoholism a form of slavery. He often argued that injustices such as slave labor depressed wages for everyone—that free men would never be free to set wages for their own labor while injustices like slavery existed. In 1847 he declared that “To secure to each labourer the whole product of his labour, or as nearly as possible, is a most worthy object of any good government.” John Wilkes Booth’s associates claimed that Lincoln’s endorsement of voting rights for freed blacks (April 11, 1865) was the final straw that triggered his assassination three days later.

Wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces” was not a euphemism for slavery, it was a metaphor for injustice.  He used the phrase often over the course of his life. The phrase was his mantra, the North heading of his moral compass.

Lincoln’s admonition to “judge not, that we be not judged” was not a concession to the difficulty of discerning who is right. Never in his life was Lincoln uncertain about what justice looked like, and in his thinking, justice is the measure against which everyone should be judged.  In that light, his words are a warning to stop judging others as wrong, when justice says that they are right.

What do you think? Please join the conversation by leaving a comment below.


2 Responses

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  1. Jerry Wells said, on March 7, 2017 at 9:59 PM

    I’m finishing a biography of John Quincy Adams at present, and I’m struck by his sense of justice, which in many ways seems to parallel Lincoln’s–and, of course, his own father’s. His deep sense of justice and morality was both born of his religious heritage and his study if philosophy and great minds such as Cicero. Justice and morality were not negotiable. Like Lincoln, that steadfastness made life both simple and a constant painful struggle.
    I lament that there are too few men like them today—in part because our poisonous political system won’t allow them to survive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • DLFowler said, on March 8, 2017 at 7:31 AM

      In Lincoln’s early teens he was an admirer of John Quincy Adams. There can be little doubt that Adams influenced the shaping of Lincoln’s views. Adams was known as the Abolitionist President. Adams also pursued an aggressive infrastructure development agenda. Lincoln’s opposition to slavery is well documented, as is his passion for building roads, dams, canals, and railroads. Both men were ardent supporters of a centralized banking system. On the subject of justice, both aimed at treating people justly, whereas many people focus on “getting justice.” By the way, there’s a big difference between those perspectives on justice.


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