The participants for this year’s ISI summer program are being asked to contemplate a certain question regarding the fundamental nature of Lincoln’s “re-founding” – was it “a fundamental departure from the established constitutional order and national self-understanding, or was it rather a rededication to the American Founding as it was originally conceived?” Given the debates over Lincoln that have raged with ever more intensity during the past few decades, there are substantial bodies of thought on either side of this question. However, I wish to propose a different terminology than that of “departure” and “rededication,” because it suggests an opposition between divergence and return that can be conceptually limiting. Lincoln’s “re-founding” was neither a departure nor a return – it was a fulfillment. A model is available in the understanding of Christ as having come not to “abolish” but to “fulfill” the law (Romans 8:3-4); the law was not partially realized before He fulfilled it, the law was merely a theory before His arrival enabled its practice. When we refer to the principles “enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and enacted through the Constitution," it must be recognized that an enactment, by definition, is always subject to the relationship between theory and praxis, resulting in the greater and lesser degrees to which an ideal or principle is consummated by any particular action. Lincoln’s “refounding” managed to extend the application of those principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence but imperfectly reflected in the nation’s Constitution.
The reason this terminology is important, and the reason why I feel we might do well to consider abandoning the language of “return” in its more restrictive usages, is that the precedence given to history can subtly degenerate into a kind of textual originalism, whereby the words and motives of historical actors come to define the significance of those events and documents which we inherit. But a statement like “all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” expresses principles whose meaning is not tied to a particular set of historical actors at a given moment in time. Such words assert a truth grounded in the nature of the human condition; as Hamilton replied to the British (who were charging the Patriots with violating the positive laws of NY), "The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records; they are written as with a sunbeam in the whole volume of human nature by the hand of Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power."
There are indications that many of the Founders hoped future generations would more perfectly enact the principles of the Declaration by ridding the nation of slavery. Washington said of slavery that “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it,” and John Adams held that “Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States… I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in… abhorrence.” A historian recently argued that Jefferson’s alteration of the third item in the phrase “life liberty and property” to “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration stemmed from a desire to avoid using a term that could be misconstrued to support and thereby perpetuate slavery. Examples like these could be multiplied, but they shouldn’t have to be.
The Founders had human failings like the rest of us; what sets them apart from the march of history is that they exalted their principles, not themselves, as guides for others to follow. As important as our national heritage is, it must be remembered that the principles articulated in the Declaration can stand, and will only prevail, upon their own logic; it is a logic that requires a fresh articulation for every generation, and not something which must be “rummaged for among old parchments or musty records.” That is our challenge today, and it is formidable during an era that disputes the existence of “self-evident truth,” “the laws of nature,” and most of all, “nature’s God.” But it is a call which we must answer, for we ignore it at our peril.
Thomas DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln illustrates the dangers of privileging history over principle. He sets to work impugning Lincoln’s motives, discounting his anti-slavery “professions,” and exposing his “statist” economics. The “real” Lincoln, we are told, “decided that he had to wage war on the South” in order to advance “the old Whig economic policy agenda” and impose tariffs and domestic improvement schemes, which would expand the size of government -- with himself, conveniently, at the center of power. By quoting selectively and focusing on character flaws, DiLorenzo encourages a mindset in which the reader concentrates on everything in Lincoln’s life except the force of his natural rights arguments. But DiLorenzo is like the person in the old Chinese proverb who, when someone tries to point out the moon in the sky above, can only see the gesturing finger. Firstly, even if the ad hominem attacks upon Lincoln were correct (and most of them are not, as numerous reviewers have indicated), one might look to the fact that slavery was not in fact undergoing a natural process of extinction -- the Western part of the United States is now devoted to big agriculture, which would have offered an ideal breeding ground for the “peculiar institution.” More importantly, however, we cannot allow this argument to be resolved based upon the accidents of history. The substantive question was, and remains, whether the slavery practiced in the Southern states was in accordance with a “nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” (Gettysburg Address).
Lincoln’s logic was crystal clear, even if DiLorenzo believes his personal character was besmirched: “no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent. I say this is the leading principle—the sheet anchor of American republicanism… That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, DERIVING THEIR JUST POWERS FROM THE CONSENT OF THE GOVERNED’… the relation of masters and slaves is, PRO TANTO, a total violation of this principle” (original's caps, not mine).
Furthermore, this was a basis for governmental intervention because:
“The Constitution provides, and all the states have accepted the provision, that ‘The United States shall guarantee to every state in this Union a republican form of government.’ But if a state may lawfully go out of the Union, having done so it may also discard the republican form of government; so that to prevent its going out is an indispensable means to the end of maintaining the guaranty mentioned; and when an end is lawful and obligatory, the indispensable means to it are also lawful and obligatory.”
Lincoln makes it clear that the prevention of secession, in order to be just, cannot be for the sake of a merely formal Union but must be directed towards the preservation of republican principles. If the federal government were to become lawless and oppressive, the national covenant would already be broken, and any efforts to prevent secession would not be “lawful and obligatory.” Under those dire circumstances, nullification and secession would be theoretically justifiable. On this crucial issue, Lincoln was not a partisan advocate of either “big government” or “state’s rights”; he was a defender of republican principles wherever their infringement occurred. During Washington’s lifetime, that place was the British monarchy; during Lincoln’s lifetime, it was within the Southern states; in our own lifetimes, the threats may arise in new contexts – such as the federal government or unaccountable global entities intent on decimating national identities and their sovereign governments, which exist “to secure and protect” the natural, God-given rights of the people.
Any nation dedicated to such a “proposition” has recognized and affirmed a logic that surpasses the individual human flaws and circumstances surrounding its historic articulation and implementation. Lincoln understood that this nation was founded by mortal men who espoused a few immortal truths, which they were wise enough to memorialize in a national charter, i.e., the Declaration of Independence. Our problem today is that we have forgotten what it means to be “a nation dedicated to a proposition” – having lost all sense of the transcendent, it seems we are no longer capable of reading words written in sunbeams, as Hamilton so eloquently characterized the truths of the natural law. Therefore, it is unsurprising to find authors like DiLorenzo elsewhere in their writings defending an understanding of freedom tantamount to Calhoun’s conception of popular sovereignty (thereby repudiating the very principles which his analysis of Lincoln refuses to confront). The libertarian concept of freedom is a more recent relative of the older concept of license, a freedom identified with the exercise of the individual human will, irrespective of moral character (or, as Cawdry put it in the first dictionary of 1604, “licentious - taking libertie to do evill,” associated with “one that thinks he may doe what he liketh”). Nothing could be further from Lincoln’s understanding of liberty, according to which there can be no “right to do a wrong.”
Thus, the evasion of the merits of Lincoln’s arguments on the basis of logic is probably grounded in a more fundamental antipathy. Of course, the answer for us is not to swing like a pendulum to the opposite extreme, attempting to trade in the “mystic chords of memory” for the forms of abstract thought; but the moment we depart from the logic of the Declaration, or begin to entertain the notion that the Constitution expresses a majoritarianism divorced from any recognition of substantive right as assured by “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” we enter a field of misunderstandings from whose mazy errors mankind has only seldom been extracted.