The condition of man under a free government, according to Lincoln, resembled that of man in the Garden of Eden. His freedom was conditional upon denying to himself a forbidden fruit. That fruit was the alluring pleasure of despotism. “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is not democracy,” Lincoln wrote on the eve of the joint debates. A democratic people must abide by certain restraints in order to be a democratic people. The moment they cast these off they cease to be democratic, whether a change takes place in the outward forms of their political life or not. Lincoln said he would not be either slave or master. But what was true of Lincoln’s will was a reflection of the conviction in Lincoln’s mind that “all men are created equal.” People could not be expected long to abstain from the forbidden fruit who did not believe that this abstention was in accordance with a higher principle than their own pleasure. If the pleasures of freedom come into competition with the pleasures of despotism, they cannot survive on the basis of their pleasantness alone. That, we have seen, was Jefferson’s and Lincoln’s explicit judgment and it would be a rash man who would deny that they were correct. Lincoln’s analysis of the problem of popular government in the Lyceum speech had long convinced him that if the choice of free government rested only on the appeal of such government to the passions — i.e., to the pleasure of the people — it would not long endure. The Lyceum speech demonstrated how the highest ambition of the loftiest souls, hitherto believed capable of gratification only in a monarchic order, might be achieved in the perpetuation of a democratic one. It recorded the discovery in the soul of “towering genius” that the highest ambition can be conceived as consummated only in the highest service, that egotism and altruism ultimately coincide in that consciousness of superiority which is superiority in the ability to benefit others. But what is true of the superior individual is also true of the superior nation; and Lincoln argues in the course of his debates with Douglas that the freedom of a free people resides above all in that consciousness of freedom which is also a consciousness of self-imposed restraints. The heart of Lincoln’s case for popular government is the vindication of the people’s cause on the highest grounds which had hitherto been claimed for aristocratic forms. In the consciousness of a strength which is not abused is a consciousness of a greater strength, and therewith a greater pride and a greater pleasure, than can be known by those who do not know how to deny themselves.
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The price of American freedom, of all civil liberty, was fidelity to the faith that “all men are created equal.” Constancy to this was as necessary to the preservation of the paradise of American freedom as the obedience of Adam and Eve to God’s single prohibition had been necessary to that other Eden. Both gardens, alas, had their temptations. The existence of Negro slavery and the discovery of vast profits to be made from it led Americans to believe that all men are not created equal, after all, but that some are born to serve and some to be served. But let this conclusion enter, and force and fraud will, in fact, determine who shall serve and who shall be served. The mere existence of slavery, according to Lincoln, was not a fatal transgression, for the American people were not responsible for its introduction. The spirit of the Revolution had placed the institution far along the road toward ultimate extinction; but the spirit of the Revolution had passed, and a new “light” had dawned. In consenting to the extension of slavery the American people had succumbed to serpentine temptation. And now Lincoln, no less than Moses or the prophets, insisted that a time had come when the question had to be answered by every man, “Who is on the Lord’s side?”
— Crisis of the House Divided, Harry V. Jaffa.