For the past few weeks RealClearPublicAffairs has been running what they are calling the 1776 series. I recommend reading them all. Here’s the description:
The 1776 Series is a collection of original essays that explain the foundational themes of the American experience. Commissioned from distinguished historians and scholars, these essays contribute to the broader goal of the American Civics project: providing an education in the principles and practices that every patriotic citizen should know.
This week’s discussion centers on the second essay: Lincoln, the American Founding, and the Moral Foundations of a Free Society, by Lucas Morel. Selected excerpts, with my comments:
Abraham Lincoln believed that the success of American self-government required the right ideas and the right institutions. He thought that the right ideas were found in the Declaration of Independence—specifically, human equality, individual rights, government by consent of the governed, and the right of revolution. A corollary to these bedrock principles was “the right to rise,” which Lincoln described as the duty “to improve one’s condition.” These ideas of the Declaration were so fundamental that Lincoln referred to “the principles of Jefferson” as “the definitions and axioms of free society” and “the father of all moral principle” in the American people.
Note that Lincoln, according to Morel, saw America’s promise was that every citizen have “the right to rise.” But to whom, in Lincoln’s day, did that right apply? Among some of Lincoln’s contemporaries, the answer was clearly not everyone:
Lincoln’s chief rival, Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of the state of Illinois, also claimed the mantle of the Founders for his policies. Douglas championed what he called “popular sovereignty,” a policy of congressional non-interference with slavery in the territories and states. “I go for maintaining the confederation of the sovereign States under the Constitution, as our fathers made it,” Douglas pronounced, “leaving each State at liberty to manage its own affairs and own internal institutions.” Illinois had decided not to enslave blacks but did not permit them to vote. Douglas was proud of his state’s decision but equally supportive of other states in their exclusive right to regulate the actions of what he called “inferior races,” whether it meant allowing black people to vote up North or enslaving them down South.
And on the other side:
The abolitionist editor of The Liberator, (William Lloyd) Garrison called for immediate, mass emancipation with inflammatory rhetoric that targeted the apathy of white northerners. “I have need to be all on fire,” he explained, “for I have mountains of ice about me to melt.” In addition to condemning southern slaveholders, he harangued northern citizens, whom he claimed were enabling southern slaveholding by upholding a constitution that compromised with slavery. He put the point plainly on the masthead of his newspaper, which declared, “No Union with Slaveholders.” He deplored the Constitution, with its requirement that fugitive slaves be returned to their legal masters. “The crime of oppression is national,” he intoned, “the south is only the agent in this guilty traffic.” One Fourth of July, he even burned a copy of the Constitution, punctuating the moment with the cry, “So perish all compromises with tyranny.”
Garrison sounds like he could be an
AntiProfa protestor today; unlike the Profa morons, he was on the right side of the argument, but like them, his presentation of his cause did the abolitionist movement inestimable harm. But back to Lincoln, here’s the onion:
Lincoln understood more deeply than any American since the Founding that America’s political development centered on the belief that might does not dictate right.
Did he, though?
Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus by Presidential dictate. He jailed journalists. Granted he held the Union together almost by force of personal will during the most critical time in the history of our republic, but he did things that would have a President today run out of the Imperial city on a rail.
In the face of these defective alternatives, Lincoln concluded his private note with the exhortation that Americans should “act, that neither picture, or apple, shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken.” By connecting the principle of human equality to the mechanisms of the Constitution and American union, Lincoln showed the necessity of political might to promote the common good and not just the self-interest of the many. In the end, to enjoy the exercise of what Americans possess in common required a measure of restraint. Lincoln was a consistent defender of acting within limits. He reminded the American people of their fundamental expression of that self-limitation—the Constitution.
Take a close look at that paragraph. It states that “…Lincoln showed the necessity of political might to promote the common good and not just the self-interest of the many…” and in the next breath, that “In the end, to enjoy the exercise of what Americans possess in common required a measure of restraint. Lincoln was a consistent defender of acting within limits. He reminded the American people of their fundamental expression of that self-limitation—the Constitution.”
I’d argue that the second half of that is incompatible with the first. If the government is to be restrained – as it should be, strictly – then it can not be allowed to “promote” the common good or the self-interest of many. It should concern itself with a very few, strictly defined distributed interests – some level of infrastructure, the military, foreign relations and so on – and otherwise keep the hell out of the citizenry’s way. The vast majority of us, incentivized to do so, can take care of our own damn self-interest.
Lincoln was certainly a man of parts. Read the entire essay, of course, as I’ve only given a few contentious thumbnails here. But while, yes, he did managed to see the country through the darkest time in its history, he also oversaw the first steps from the United States becoming a Constitutionally limited republic of states to the Imperial colossus it is today.