Lincoln’s American People

“ . . .there are many single regiments whose members, one and another, possess full practical knowledge of all the arts, sciences, professions, and whatever else, whether useful or elegant, is known in the world; and there is scarcely one from which there could not be selected a President, a Cabinet, a Congress, and perhaps a court, abundantly competent to administer the Government itself.”

       Abraham Lincoln, Message to Congress in Special Session, July 4, 1861.

Introduction

Adam Goodheart’s insightful book, 1861: The Civil War Awakening (2011), makes particularly good reading this Fall as we wallow through the swamp of an interminable, pitiless presidential campaign. As it happens, the 1860 election holds lessons for 2016 and beyond. One section that caught my eye on pages 357-364 discusses President Lincoln’s laborious writing and dogged rewriting of his Independence Day message to Congress. People the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson wondered why it was taking the President so long and what the fuss was about.

I’ll leave it to the reader to get the book and read Goodheart’s excellent analysis and answer. While not a Lincoln scholar or competent historian, I can at least speculate on Lincoln’s concerns and suggest some applications of his ”solution” for us today.

Lincoln’s Concern

Here is a key paragraph in the message Lincoln presented to Congress on July 4, 1861.

“And this issue embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man the question whether a constitutional republic, or democracy–a government of the people by the same people–can or can not maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes. It presents the question whether discontented individuals, too few in numbers to control administration according to organic law in any case, can always, upon the pretenses made in this case, or on any other pretenses, or arbitrarily without any pretense, break up their government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth. It forces us to ask, Is there in all republics this inherent and fatal weakness? Must a government of necessity be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?”

This is an amazing paragraph in a message to a Special Session of Congress that the President called to report on events since his Inauguration and to request the mobilization of 400,000 more men and the appropriation of $400, 000, 000 for the war effort. The paragraph comes relatively early in the speech, after a report on developments over the past four months, including the fall of Fort Sumter, and frames the issue for the President’s decision to invoke the war power, which he cites in the very next paragraph.

Thereafter, the paragraph frames the long, detailed middle of the speech, dealing mostly with the situation in Virginia and the rights of citizens and states under the Constitution, to which is coupled like a bookend or capstone, this second astounding paragraph found near the end of his message.

“This is essentially a people’s contest. On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life. Yielding to partial and temporary departures, from necessity, this is the leading object of the Government for whose existence we contend.”

What is most remarkable about the frame paragraph is its ethereal, posterior viewpoint—as if glimpsed from the vantage point of an eagle looking back from a far-off future while flying retrospectively over the ruins of popular democracies. All democracies are threatened, he suggests, and democracy as a political form is in danger of disappearing from the face of the earth. Lincoln is worrying about and working through an answer to one of the heaviest of issues in all Political Science! But what’s going on? Isn’t the war about slavery?

Slavery is never mentioned in the speech, a fact abolitionist critics, in Goodheart’s reporting, immediately chastise him for following its deliverance. Yet, take a look at the second frame paragraph, the capstone paragraph, and notice the language “unfettered chance and a fair chance,” an obvious allusion to slavery overcome and ended. We contend, the President asserts, for our government in order to “elevate the condition of men!” The President’s eye is on the future of the nation after a successful completion of the war, slavery’s end, and restoration of the union. He wants to know how to prevent future rebellions on the same or other pretenses! He seems to fear civil wars of the future.

Lincoln’s Constitutional Problem

While neither the words “slave” or “slavery” appear in the Constitution, slavery’s existence is recognized in Article 2, Section 3, Paragraph 3, where, for the purposes of apportioning of representation and taxes to the several states, the number of “free persons” is to be increased by “three fifths of all other Persons.” The 3/5th “other person” is a slave.

By the time Lincoln took office, seven states had already seceded from the Union, and four more would soon follow. These states considered slavery a constitutional right; the 3/5ths reference established its legitimacy. Moreover, they considered themselves the aggrieved party whose rights and freedoms were threatened. In their own minds, they were the victims and guardians of freedom and the Union was the aggressor. Even today the war is called by some southerners “The War of Northern Aggression.” Outside of the abolitionist movement, more than a few northerners agreed. The confederates even claimed they were carrying on constitutional democracy!

The claims were illogical and the opposite of the truth. That was obvious to Lincoln. Slavery may be embedded in the Constitution, but it is the antithesis of freedom, and treason was the act around which the seceding states conspired and confederated. They gave up democracy when they abandoned the union. But Lincoln and the Union had a large legal and philosophical problem: where could they turn in the Constitution to find the high ground from which to flip the argument in the Union’s favor? No place is the answer. There would surely be an ongoing constitutional problem even after the war was won. It would take the 13th and 14th Amendments to finally resolve the constitutional crisis.

In response to his dilemma, Lincoln makes a brilliant intellectual and ethical decision. He builds his concept of a people’s government on the Declaration of Independence rather than on the Constitution, and thereby rewrites the story of American governance. He depends for his case on Section 2. of the Preamble to the Declaration. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In turning to the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln transverses the mental landscape from 1790 to 1776 and returns to the humanism of the Enlightenment. He thereby acquires a toolkit of inspiring and powerful concepts:

  • A free person beholden solely to a Creator God in nature acting beyond the authoritative reach of monarch and church, of King, Queen, and priest.
  • An inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • A union of such individuals acting by free choice to constitute a people, a polity, popular democracy, a republic—a government “for,” “by,” and “of” the people.
  • A faith in human betterment (which becomes for Lincoln “the substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men.”)

Lincoln saw clearly that the Declaration of Independence anticipated and foretold a world and nation where slavery had been abolished, where “artificial weights had been lifted;” where individuals were “unfettered;” where “a fair chance” existed for all; and “paths of laudable pursuit” had opened wide!

The rebels in seccession were no freedom fighters, lovers of liberty, patriots, or oppressed victims of their government. Slavery was evil, wrong; it was the monstrous antithesis of everything valued by the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln conveyed this in his message without ever raising the subject or asking a question about slavery.

Most important, Lincoln provided his fellow citizens with a clear, inspiring explanation of why they were fighting the war and what they were fighting for. As Goodheart points out, Lincoln never wavered after the speech on the question of whether the war was worth fighting. Goodheart also notes that the core ideas in the Independence Day message return to human ears as beautifully-crafted, eloquent poetry twenty-eight months later over the battlefield at Gettysburg. The earlier speech incubated the language for the latter. The language used at Gettysburg, it is important to note, included a reference to a nation that “shall have a new birth of freedom.” The sacrifice of the fallen soldiers hallowed their deeds, sanctified the battlefield, and immortalized Lincoln’s speech. The resolve of citizens to complete the unfinished work of winning the war was called upon and given.

While Lincoln’s language, phrases, and concepts of People’s government are familiar music to every American ear today, it is important to recognize that the President had reinvented the purpose of government in his Independence Day message to Congress in 1861, changed and improved upon the logic provided in the Preamble to the Constitution, committed the nation to an almost hopelessly idealistic vision of national destiny, told the rest of the world its future depended on the success of our crucial experiment, and that “We the People,” by alchemic formula, translated into government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” While the Constitution’s Preamble appealed to its signatories with the benefits of “a more perfect union,””justice,” “domestic tranquility,” “common defence,” “general welfare,” and the “blessings of liberty,” Lincoln gives his “People” a government whose “leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” He further asserted “this is the leading object of the government for whose existence we contend.”

We the American People

Who are we, I wonder when we talk about ourselves as “The American People?” This is a question that has long intrigued me, as exemplified by the blog essay I published in these pages four years entitled “The American People.” I don’t think we know the answer, I don’t, although we’re addicted to talking about it and making angry claims and assertions under its banner. We would like to be “We the People.” In some sense, perhaps many, we surely are, but the identity remains murky and undefined.

The dominant fact today—we’re authoritatively told—is that we’re split in half, with a full 47% of us contending for dominance over the other 47% of us, both sides appealing for help from the remaining 6% of us, whoever they might be.

We remain engaged, as Lincoln apparently foresaw, in some kind of ongoing civil war. In regard to the current low grade “war,” it is terrifying that even in the case of a landslide victory for the Democratic Party candidate in the 2016 Presidential election, near 40% of the eligible voters will end up having voted for a dictator-strongman style candidate whose democratic bona fides whiff of Stalin and Mussolini, and Berlusconi and Putin.

By the time Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had checked out of the union. Is it accidental that Donald Trump, the dictator-strongman style candidate, is expected to win six of these seven states in the 2016 election for President? Is the civil war Lincoln confronted in 1861 still running through our veins within the current civil war?

Has that nation and people rejoined in 1865 at war’s end, ever bought in to Lincoln’s concept of a government whose “leading object is to elevate the condition of men?”  Is that the nation for which we contend today?

Do we Americans even desire to become worthy owners and citizen exemplars of the “of” and “by” and “for” the “people” inheritance that President Lincoln and the Civil War combatants bequeathed us?

I fervently believe that fair readers of President Lincoln’s Address to Congress in Special Session on July 4, 1861 will decide that our wholesale problems as a people today are due not so much to supposed losses of Constitutional freedoms we hear complained of so often and shrilly, but rather are due to growing defections from the vision of the nation enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

We could, if we want, become “We the People” as called for by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and President Lincoln. Intent, care, empathy, humility, and courage would surely be required. Reconciliation would probably also require apology, forgiveness, respect, and reparations.

A good start would be agreement that every American is American, is “my” and “our”countrymen and countrywomen, that government, particularly our constitutional government, is an inestimably great and good thing, and that such a government is not only worth fighting and dying for, but worth paying taxes to so that the great purposes preambled in its Constitution can be accomplished, including, along with “justice,” “common defense,” “domestic tranquility,” “general welfare,” and  “blessings of liberty,” President Lincoln’s resolves to “lift artificial weights from all shoulders,” “clear the paths of laudable pursuits for all,” and “afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” We would thereby and by other means be contending for a government to “elevate the condition of men.” indeed, we would be contending to elevate the condition of people on Planet Earth.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

September 6, 2016

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

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5 thoughts on “Lincoln’s American People

Add yours

  1. This is a very nice essay. For me, the most essential comment you included concerning the parallels between 1861 and now is wrapped up in this paragraph, which you wrote: “I fervently believe that fair readers of President Lincoln’s Address to Congress in Special Session on July 4, 1861 will decide that our wholesale problems as a people today are due not so much to supposed losses of Constitutional freedoms we hear complained of so often and shrilly, but rather are due to growing defections from the vision of the nation enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.”

  2. This needs to be voiced to all peoples – do you have a box upon which to deliver this mesage to all Americans? Bring the visionary wisdom of Lincoln back – I would gladly elect Will Calender as president – it’s not too late! ~ Scottie

  3. Excellent Essay Dad!
    And coincidentally, Lilliana just this week had to write an essay on that very speech for AP US History! I’ll make sure she has a link to your essay!

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