Sovereign of a Free People
Abraham Lincoln, Majority Rule, and Slavery
American Political Thought
Sales Date: August 21, 2023
432 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in
- Published: August 2023
- Published: August 2023
When Abraham Lincoln was sworn into office, seven slave states had preemptively seceded rather than recognize the legitimacy of his election. In his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, Lincoln replied to the secessionists and set forth a principled defense of majority rule as “the only true sovereign of a free people.” His immediate purpose was to argue against the legitimacy of a powerful minority forcibly partitioning the United States because it was dissatisfied with the results of a free, constitutionally conducted election. His wider purpose was to make the case that a deliberate, constitutionally checked majority, though by no means infallible, was the appropriate ultimate authority not only on routine political questions but even on the kind of difficult, deeply divisive questions—like the future of slavery—that could otherwise trigger violent contests.
Sovereign of a Free People examines Lincoln’s defense of majority rule, his understanding of its capabilities and limitations, and his hope that slavery could be peacefully and gradually extinguished through the action of a committed national majority. James Read argues that Lincoln offered an innovative account of the interplay between majorities and minorities in the context of crosscutting issues and shifting public opinion. This story is particularly timely today as a new minority of dissatisfied voters has threatened and enacted violence in response to a valid election.
Read offers the first book focused on Lincoln’s understanding of majority rule. He also highlights the similarities and differences between the threats to American democracy in Lincoln’s time and in our own. Sovereign of a Free People challenges common assumptions about what caused the Civil War, takes seriously the alternative path of a peaceful, democratic abolition of slavery in the United States, and offers a fresh treatment of Lincoln and race.
“A lucid exploration of Abraham Lincoln’s democratic faith, rooted in the moral grandeur of majority rule tempered by frequent elections that measure the tides of popular sentiment and the conflict among our better angels. Timely and sobering, Sovereign of a Free People challenges Americans to keep Lincoln’s faith alive.”—Michael Johnson, academy professor of history emeritus, Johns Hopkins University, and editor of Abraham Lincoln, Slavery, and the Civil War: Selected Writings and Speeches
“James Read brings to bear his deep knowledge of majority rule and political power on America’s most-studied political figure. Sovereign of a Free People explores Lincoln’s belief in majority rule—and how the institution of slavery challenged his faith in the ability of the people to govern. Read’s thorough research and clear analysis show Lincoln wrestling with the strengths and challenges of majority rule and his belief that it should have led to a peaceful resolution of the slavery question. A thoughtful book on the vulnerabilities of democracy then and now.”—Christopher Childers, associate professor of history and chair of the School of History, Philosophy, and Social Sciences, Pittsburg State University, and author of The Failure of Popular Sovereignty: Slavery, Manifest Destiny, and the Radicalization of Southern Politics
1. “The Only True Sovereign of a Free People”
2. “We Divide into Majorities and Minorities”
3. “The Capability of a People to Govern Themselves”
5. “Aroused Him as He Had Never Been Before”: From Kansas-Nebraska to House Divided
5. “Of Strange, Discordant, and Even, Hostile Elements”: Building an Antislavery Electoral Majority
6. “The Plank Is Large Enough”: Lincoln on Race, Colonization, and Coexistence
7. “In Course of Ultimate Extinction”:; Strategy for the Peaceful End of Slavery
8. “To Declare the Right, so that Enforcement Might Follow": Lincoln’s Reconstruction of Natural Right