Sovereign of a Free People : Abraham Lincoln, Majority Rule, and Slavery

Sovereign of a Free People : Abraham Lincoln, Majority Rule, and Slavery


Link to WorldCat

Find this book in the library


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.



Publication Date



University Press of Kansas


Lawrence, KS


American Politics

Sovereign of a Free People : Abraham Lincoln, Majority Rule, and Slavery