Another movie I watched recently is “Lincoln” with Daniel Day-Lewis. I admit that the movie was better than I expected, and I don’t have any complaints of it, except that I wish there was more of it. But I really want to discuss just one point of the movie, a point that I didn’t “get” until a couple days after viewing the movie. It is the point on which the whole movie rests. It deals with Euclid’s first common notion, which Lincoln quotes in the movie. If you didn’t understand this part of the movie, then you didn’t understand the movie at all.
Euclid’s first common notion is this: Things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other. That’s a rule of mathematical reasoning and its true because it works – has done and always will do. In his book Euclid says this is self evident. You see there it is even in that 2000 year old book of mechanical law it is the self evident truth that things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other.
What makes this quote significant is this: There were many people in the United States who saw black people as inferior, some even to the point of believing blacks were not truly human. On the other side of the debate were many Republicans who knew that blacks were equal to whites in all matters, and they fought vigorously for the rights of blacks and for true recognition of their equality with whites.
The problem for the people trying to end slavery was two fold. First, the thirteenth amendment would require 2/3s of the congressmen in the House of Representatives to vote in favor of the amendment. Second, the fight against the thirteenth amendment was more against what the thirteenth amendment implied. It wasn’t just that slaves would be freed, but attached was the fear that former slaves, black people, would by law, be considered equal to whites. So long as the politicians in favor of the thirteenth amendment insisted in the equality of blacks, the amendment was not going to pass.
It became necessary for the politicians to tone down their rhetoric concerning equality of the races, and make the amendment about something else, something that would allow certain politicians the room to deny equality of the races and yet end slavery once and for all.
Here, the Euclid idea comes in to play. By declaring blacks as equal under the law, and whites equal under the law, then in fact blacks and whites are, by default, equal to each other. That’s because two things that are equal to the same thing, are equal to each other. It’s that simple. I’ll say it again, since blacks and whites are equal to the law, they are equal to each other.
I imagine that most other politicians of the day had no clue of Euclid’s notion, or how it would apply in this instance, otherwise there would have been more objection, and the amendment might not have passed.
Basically, Lincoln was not only a foot taller, but just that much smarter than other people of his day. Thank God that he, and others leaders of the country held to an ethical standard that matched their intellectual prowess.
If only we had such politicians in our government today.