Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Slavery thrust America into a moral and legal dilemma. The Constitution and Declaration of Independence offered contradicting readings with regards to natural law and actual law. Slavery became representative of the gulf of interpretation between these two documents. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Lysander Spooner were moral refomers that attacked slavery by supporting the message of equality found within the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Dew and Rufus Choate were proslavery theorists who regularly used history as a means to legitimize slavery. William Henry Seward called for the support of a "Higher Law" than the Constitution that owes more to the verbiage within the Declaration of Independence than anything else. Daniel Webster offered a compromise over morality in an effort to stop the impending civil war, believing more in a whole union, though fractured and divisive, rather than an actual secession. Abraham Lincoln represents a conflicted politician who idolized the founding fathers and their political and moral ambition, yet felt obligated to uphold the law of the land. These figures and their respective beliefs came to a head in the period between 1830-1860. Though the war was inevitable, what was not clear was how to address the slavery issue. The tension between the Constitution and Declaration of Independence sparked a furious debate over slavery, morality, law, and America itself. Lincoln recognized this and, with the assistance of reformers Emerson and Spooner, and senator Seward, understood he had to fuse the moral sentiment in the Declaration of Independence with the lawful enforcement of the Constitution, thus making morality law.