If Lincoln and Douglas Debated the Occupation

Gershom Gorenberg

A friend from America passed through Jerusalem and brought me a recent book of far-away American history, perhaps thinking that I should get my mind off the troubles a kilometer or two from my home. Allen C. Guelzo’s Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America was well worth the read, but it did not provide a vacation from thinking about Israel and Palestinians. Much as I am suspicious of drawing precise historical parallels, it wasn’t too difficult for me to imagine Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debating the occupation.

Let me brutally distill some of Guelzo’s key theses. First, Lincoln’s belief that “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” derived in part from his personal experience. When he was a boy, his father had hired him out as a farm laborer and pocketed the proceeds. It was a very small taste of forced labor. Someone else might have learned from this that it would be much better to be the taskmaster than the slave. Lincoln did not want anyone to be the taskmaster. The relationship itself was wrong.

For Douglas, however, the ethics of slavery were irrelevant. Douglas believed in “popular sovereignty,” the right of each state to decide about slavery on its own. In Guelzo’s distillation, Douglas’s view of democracy was that the procedure mattered, and nothing else.

Lincoln “had no objection to popular sovereignty. What he objected to was the notion that popular sovereignty provided the same authority to enslave other human beings as it provided to pass cranberry laws,” laws regulating how and where to grow a particular crop. Slavery was wrong. And no popular vote could give people the right to do wrong. Democracy was not just a matter of majority vote.

There was one more flaw in Douglas’s reasoning, one that apparently never came up in the debate, at least to judge from Guelzo’s telling. The people voting in Douglas’s “popular sovereignty” were not the people most profoundly affected by any decision on slavery. White males would vote on allowing slavery for black men and women. Perhaps Lincoln could not raise this point. He took enough heat for suggesting that the God-given rights of man enunciated in the Declaration of Independence were given to people of another color. How would the crowd have reacted if he suggested that those people should not only be free, but also vote?

So if Douglas and Lincoln were to be transposed to Israel today, if they were to debate in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ashdod and Modi’in about the future of the occupation? Douglas would argue that no land could be given up without a national referendum – a referendum in which Israelis would vote, of course, not the actual residents of the occupied land. If a majority of Israelis voted to keep the West Bank, with Israelis enjoying full rights there and Palestinians denied those rights – well, then, Douglas would say, democracy had decided.

Lincoln would argue from Jewish experience of oppression that people should be denied rights simply on the basis of what group they’d been born into. What Jews should learn from their history was not to become the overclass, but to create a polity free of such oppression. He would insist that no democratic vote could right the wrong of permanent occupation. He might well avoid mentioning that an Israeli vote on Palestinians’ future was undemocratic by definition. But he would insist that Israel could not be a democracy, or be true to Jewish history, while maintaining permanent rule over another people.

As I said, there are no precise parallels in history. Before any comments on this post, I could list 20 ways in which the situation here today is different from then, there. Nonetheless, a distant debate can shed light on one near at hand.

8 thoughts on “If Lincoln and Douglas Debated the Occupation”

  1. You said “Lincoln would argue from Jewish experience of oppression that people should (not) be denied rights simply on the basis of what group they’d been born into. What Jews should learn from their history was not to become the overclass, but to create a polity free of such oppression.” Exactly so! This has constantly been on my mind regarding the occupation. How could the Jews, of all people, be doing this?

    “this is our land” appears to trump “this is our experience”

  2. One could easily make the reverse argument– that regardless of ‘process’ it is immoral for a government to expel Jews from their land against their will, particularly given thier history of oppresion. (just saying…)

    Also, you seem to imply that the wish to abolish slavery on moral grounds was somehow at odds with democratic and federalist principles; a notion which Lincoln and the Republicans never held.

  3. Adam, I haven’t read the book, but I understand Gershom/Guelzo are saying there is no conflict between morals and procedure as long as you don’t allow the latter to supersede the former. If following procedure leads to immoral results then the procedure is wrong, or at least exceeds its due authority. For the same reason most of the world since Nuremberg doesn’t accept anymore “I was just following orders” as an excuse for war crimes.

    As for your other point, you forget that those Jews themselves got to settle on “their” land only because others were expelled from it, regardless whether every single square meter now occupied by settlers was formerly inhabited by a Palestinian Arab. Surely you aren’t saying it’s only immoral to expel Jews from their homes, but not goyim, or that a people’s history of oppression especially entitles them to act immorally, or that only Jewish history counts at all?

  4. Wasn’t President Lincoln the one who suspended Habaeus Corpus (sp?)? Didn’t he say that sometimes that portions of the Constitution had to be suspended in order to save the entire Constitutional system? Didn’t Lincoln, as part of his Presidential election campaign of 1860, agree to support a Constitutional Amendment GUARANTEEING slavery in the existing slave states as long as its spread was halted? Weren’t residents of the District of Columbia deprived of representation in Congress during Lincoln’s time (in fact, down to the present day) and the right to vote for President? (they finally got that in 1960).
    Apparently, there is no perfect democracy.

  5. I also might add that President Lincoln supported the creation of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel (that was an actual political issue dating back to the 1840’s when it was first suggested by CHRISTIAN Zionists in the US and Britain-you know, people sort of like Hagee). What did he think about the rights of the Palestinians?

  6. More apropos is what Lincoln say about partition?

    “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”

    Think about that Zionist secessionists, as both Israelis and Palestinians have become slaves to one another!

  7. Y. Ben David, you raise an important question that goes to the heart of the tragedy. Seeing the plight of Jews in Eastern Europe, who, from a moral perspective, would have seen a minority suffering persecution with ancient roots in the Holy Land, would not have agreed to the idea of a return to Zion–right up until they were faced with all the facts, all the methods of colonization, and all the consequences for residents with a very different narrative. The vast majority of Jews were never given all the facts, let alone Lincoln. Moral judgment that is decent changes and nuances with every new fact.

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