In 1854, Senator Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass delivered speeches about the newly passed Kansas-Nebraska Act. That law opened the Kansas and Nebraska Territories to slavery by extending popular sovereignty, the practice of letting territorial majorities decide whether to allow slavery in a territory, to them. Given before Dred Scott v. Sandford, the infamous case in which the Supreme Court ruled that Black Americans—whether freeborn, freed, or enslaved—could not be citizens of the United States absent congressional action or constitutional amendment, the speeches are worth revisiting. They focus on whether or how slavery should be limited, reflecting three different visions regarding slavery, freedom, equality, and the rights Black Americans might or might not enjoy if slavery were abolished. They are surprisingly relevant to the Supreme Court’s recent affirmative action decision.

The view expressed by Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln of a Constitution (and an America) that tolerated slavery and would allow a limited vision of rights for free Black Americans won over Frederick Douglass’s vision of a Constitution that fundamentally rejected slavery and requires full equality for all. The result, even in the wake of the Reconstruction Amendments’ guarantee of freedom and citizenship for Black Americans, was a society in which race mattered and in which a person’s life experiences would often depend significantly on the person’s race or color. The Reconstruction Amendments guaranteed freedom, but not full equality. That led to differing levels of inequality for citizens based in part on race. That past has resulted in the continued salience of race in American society, which is relevant to how the Supreme Court analyzes today’s race-inflected issues, such as affirmative action in university admissions.

This Essay briefly explores how the discussions of slavery, race, and equality in the Douglas, Lincoln, and Douglass 1854 speeches can help illuminate current discussions of affirmative action. The Essay considers how each 1854 speech addresses freedom and equality. It then considers how the speeches reflect each orator’s vision of the 1854 constitutional order and may help explain why race remains salient in American society. Last, it notes how the continued salience of race relates to life experiences Black and multiracial people often have, an issue especially important in how the Supreme Court recently addressed affirmative action in university admissions.

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