Abraham Lincoln did all that he could to preserve constitutional rule by trying to teach his fellow citizens what it means to be an American.
The paradox of Abraham Lincoln’s appearance in the United States’ sectional conflict becomes manifest if one considers a passage written by James Madison in Federalist No. 10. In that paper, Madison, apologizing for the Constitution that he had authored, cautions his reader to resist the impractical expectation that in the clash of the interests that naturally spring up in the republic, prudent and “enlightened statesmen” will appear to resolve those conflicts. He explains that the Constitution is a contrivance of sorts which will control the effects of factions by blunting the worst tendencies of majorities. In doing so, the Constitution will obviate the need for the prudence of an “enlightened statesman” to solve conflicts of interest as they arise and escalate.
Madison, however, lived long enough to see the precursor of the sectional crisis and secession, the nullification crisis of 1832, precipitated by John Calhoun. He lived long enough to see that factious men were to arise in the republic who ranked their interests above the good of constitutional rule; factious men who sought a “union” in which the parts, the states, superseded the whole, the union of states. As those men rejected constitutional rule, they undermined the implicit remedies of the Madisonian constitution, at the same time as they speciously obfuscated what it meant to be an American citizen. It was into that turmoil that, Providence providing, the enlightened statesman, Abraham Lincoln, entered.
Lincoln’s leadership displays itself in that well-known political scene in which two crises intersect, the moral crisis of possible slavery expansion and the political crisis of secession. In the context of those crises, Lincoln agrees with Madison that factious men are the great danger to the republic. To counteract those factious men, Lincoln, from the time of his earliest speeches, takes on the role of a teacher. Indeed, leading by teaching, Lincoln, both before he became president and during his presidency, did his utmost to instruct the American citizen on what it means to be an American.
Three major tenets emerge as central in Lincoln’s understanding of what it means to be an American. First, one must be devoted to rule by law. This tenet, he sets out in that early and precocious speech, Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum, Springfield, Illinois. Second, according to Lincoln, the true American believes in universal freedom and a basic equality with respect to that freedom. The principles of the founders as they expressed them in the Declaration of Independence were meant to be principles of the nation going forward. Third and last, the true American believes that the United States is a perpetual union of states.
Lincoln’s own exemplary submission to the law is most easily discernable in his handling of the two great factions of the sectional crisis, namely, the radical Southern planters who claimed rights to be able to move their property in human beings everywhere in the Union, and the abolitionists, who wanted to abolish the institution immediately. Lincoln maintained against both sides that the law had to be respected against the factious impulses of each. While he was in agreement with the abolitionists that slavery was wrong, Lincoln argued against the abolitionists that the institution enjoyed legal protection in the states in which it existed. As the institution enjoyed the sanction of law, it had to be respected in those states. Against the Southern planters, Lincoln cited as precedent the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, in which the institution was prohibited in those territories. In his view, the same legal spirit that protects the institution of slavery also limits slavery to where it exists. Particularly in the factious times in which he lived, Lincoln believed that adherence and submission to the law was the most needful thing for the health of the republic.
In regard to the second tenet, that the true American believes in universal freedom, especially regardless of race, Lincoln’s view was mightily contested by Southerners—and not only radicals. As evidence of that contest, here citations from one speech must suffice, the so-called “Cornerstone Speech” of Alexander H. Stephens, an erstwhile “Union man” from Georgia. In a speech that he delivers in March 21, 1861, Stephens asserts the following regarding the principles of the Declaration of Independence:
The prevailing ideas entertained by Jefferson and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature, and that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically…. (T)he general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away… Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races… This was an error… Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.
In opposing those views and other similar views, Lincoln never seems very interested in such statements as philosophical or abstract statements. Rather, he contents himself with pointing out and instructing his hearers in the American way. In teaching that the true American is an egalitarian, he asserts the precise way in which he understands all men to be equal; at the same time, he likens the situation of the enslaved people to that of the revolutionary-era Americans. Here I cite from two speeches:
First, from the Kansas-Nebraska Act speech, at Peoria, Illinois, we have a statement which repeats in slightly different versions throughout Lincoln’s speeches.
I hold that… there is not reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge (Stephen) Douglas he is not my equal in many respects… But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of any living man.
Arguing in favor of universal equality, equality in respect of property-engendering labor, Lincoln rejects Douglas’ “popular sovereignty” doctrine that slavery in the territories should not be a concern of American citizens outside the territories. Lincoln maintains that the question of slavery was the concern of every citizen. Every American citizen should be concerned to keep slavery, the expropriation of labor and its fruits, on the road to extinction.
Second, from his debate with Douglas in Alton, Illinois:
It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world. They are the principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same that says, ‘You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.
Whereas Stephens understands the founders to be misguided in their adherence to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln maintains that these are the ideas and principles for the sake of which Americans shed their blood and gave their lives; these principles are the founders’ legacy to the republic for all times. He sets forth the view that the founders “meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.” The assertion that “‘all men are created equal’ was placed in the Declaration…for future use. Its authors meant it to be…a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism.” The principles, then, were not merely to be held but to be lived by. To repeat, the true American believes in universal freedom: That is what Lincoln taught.
The third tenet of Lincoln’s Americanism is the belief in the perpetuity of the union of the states in the United States. What that amounts to, as is known, is that there is no right of secession possessed by the citizens of the states. Lincoln saw the secessionist view of the nineteenth century as a rejection of the principle of majority rule. Lincoln agreed with Madison that restraints needed to be imposed on majorities in order to protect rights of minorities; however, he also believed that once those restraints were in place, the minority party must follow the lead of the majority or dissolution of popular government ensues on the basis of minority secession. Lincoln teaches that government of the people is government by majorities, properly restrained, not government of minorities over majorities.
There are those who might question Lincoln’s qualifications as a teacher of what it means to be an American. Lincoln was a man who had faults, and because of his general candor, visible faults. His views were at times what we would call today “racist” views. For example, he acknowledged the social inferiority of black people as a fact, and said that he was not inclined to raise their status, or change that state of affairs. Again and again, in dealing with black Americans, he catered to the feelings and prejudices of his white constituents rather than treat the blacks equitably. Repeatedly, he maintained that enslavement in the Southern states was legally sanctioned and protected although he believed and taught that the enslavement of human beings is both wrong by nature and un-American. In his speculations about emancipation, Lincoln for a long time favored the deportation of black Americans from the country. Charges such as these continue to be leveled by some who reflect on Lincoln’s career.
However, in the face of his faults and defects, Lincoln was a man with a true moral compass. Whatever he thought about the legality of enslavement and the necessity of upholding the law, he knew and over time persistently maintained that in itself it was wrong. Whatever he observed about the social equality of blacks and whites, he knew and repeatedly argued that politically, blacks and whites were all fundamentally equal—that is, that they all had rightful claims on the fruits of their own respective labor. And Lincoln, in accord with that true moral compass, knew that, as he put it once when referring to Douglas, a man “may rightfully change when he finds himself wrong;” Lincoln could and did change his mind.
If we come back to the matter of Lincoln’s attitude toward the black American, we can say the following: Twice Lincoln gave personal audiences to Frederick Douglass at the White House, once in the summer of 1863 to hear Douglass’ complaint about his (Lincoln’s) tardy response to the way in which the Confederates were treating captured black soldiers; and again a year later, when Lincoln wanted Douglass’ opinion on the lack of movement by the enslaved people who had been legally freed. Lincoln came to see that these United States were the true home of the latest posterity of those Africans forcibly transported here as long ago as 250 years. However tardily, he came to see that the Americans of African descent deserved to fight for their freedom. And thereafter, he saw, too, that the darker-skinned soldiers fighting to preserve the country founded on freedom and equality did not deserve deportation to some foreign land. Rather, they deserved citizenship in that homeland where through them and in them a new freedom was being born. It was in changing his mind in the ways that he did that Lincoln really indicts those who clung so tenaciously to what they knew to be wrong. At the same time, in doing so, he exhibited, as he so often did in his speeches, the kind of nobility that his most ardent opponents wanted to claim for themselves but could not.
In those exemplary ways discussed here, Lincoln did all that he could to preserve Madison’s constitutional rule by trying to teach his fellow citizens what it means to be an American. Paradoxically, he appeared on the earth in the right place at the right time to preserve and protect a constitution constructed to provide against the fortuity of prudence in human affairs.
Republished with gracious permission from the author and St. John’s College (Spring 2017).
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