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A Worthy Tribute to Lincoln’s Moral Heroism

A new online documentary calls to mind today’s universal moral questions that demand national attention.

Lincoln And Douglas Debate, IL, 1858.
(Getty)

Mention any major domestic dispute—from monopoly power to abortion and Drag Queen Story Hour—and a certain type of Beltway conservative is sure to shrug and say that it’s best “left to local communities.” If his political vocabulary is a little more evolved, he might justify his refusal to countenance national action by pointing to “subsidiarity,” a Catholic buzzword he imagines is interchangeable with “localism” or “federalism.”

Right Makes Might—a compelling new online documentary on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, handsomely produced by folks in the Claremont Institute orbit—is a potent antidote to such confusion. The film is also a fantastic primer on Abraham Lincoln and the Lincolnian tradition, desperately needed at a time when the book version of the New York Times’s factitious “1619 Project” is still topping the best-seller charts.

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The story of Right Makes Might will be familiar to students of the American nineteenth century. The film traces Lincoln’s and Stephen A. Douglas’s 1858 debating roadshow across Illinois, in which Douglas called for the slavery question to be determined by local popular sovereignty in the territories, while Honest Abe advocated a ban. The journey would catapult Lincoln to mass political stardom, even as it clarified the high moral and political consequences in the sectional disagreement threatening to tear apart the Union.

The charm lies in the high production value, including historical re-enactment that, shockingly, is not cheesy, and the erudition on display from such scholars as Lucas Morel of Washington & Lee University and Charles Kesler of Claremont McKenna College and Claremont Graduate University. The Claremont Institute’s programmatic insistence that Lincoln is the ideal thinker-practitioner of the American constitutional tradition forms the intellectual heart of the documentary, yet the broad lines of argument will appeal far beyond the circle of “West Coast Straussians.”

As Kesler puts it, Douglas’s position was ultimately that “might makes right.” The author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act would have put the right of human beings not to be owned as chattel to the test of local democratic will: Where slavery was endorsed at the ballot box or by local legislatures, there it could spread; where it was popularly disapproved, there it couldn’t spread.

Douglas hoped to curry favor with Southern opinion with these claims. But while he was making them, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its infamous decisions in Dred Scott, holding that Congress lacked the authority to ban the Peculiar Institution in parts of the Louisiana Territory, thus overturning the earlier Missouri Compromise. Lincoln, as the documentary notes, used this outcome to brutal effect in his debates with Douglas: Would Douglas, the champion of local popular sovereignty (who at the same time claimed to revere the high court), support the right of local democratic majorities to buck the Supremes in banning slavery in violation of what was now federal law? Yes, Douglas was forced to answer to his chagrin and the displeasure of pro-slavery opinion.

The larger point—Lincoln’s—was that if slavery is morally wrong on one side of an internal border, it cannot be right on the other. There could be no federalism on this question, lest the United States collapse under the weight of the internal contradictions created by men like Douglas.

The makers of Right Makes Might deserve applause for reminding us of the urgent wisdom lying in wait in the Lincolnian tradition. Without explicitly wading into contemporary controversy, the documentary raises the question: Which issues today must be subjected to a similarly unblinking moral universalism? Which other rights are so fundamental, they cannot be left to the vagaries of popular majorities?

Abortion and the right to life most readily come to my mind. But there are many other areas where a misplaced localism might just serve as an alibi for complacency in the face of evil—or at least, of problems that demand national attention. Indeed, in some cases, we have to seek broader solutions to crises precisely in order to protect the local things we cherish. If local government is powerless in the face of, say, an addictive, intrusive digital app like TikTok, it is the cruelest mockery to refer the problem to “localism” or “subsidiarity,” or fantasies of a new secession and national divorce.