Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Abraham Lincoln’s birthday

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. We should celebrate this--as Hawthorne called him--"essential representative of all Yankees," and we should be glad that we know why we love him. He knew why the Union was worth saving, and he saved it. He could think and write and talk and laugh, even in the midst of bloody war. In this


Fragment on the Constitution and the Union he nails the connection between the Declaration and the Constitution. The Gettysburg Address enshrines in the American memory both the start and purpose of the Union, thereby clarifying our self-understanding as a people. And it shows that the self-evident truth has now become a proposition; one doesn’t have to be a Euclid scholar to know the large political implications this has for the future, or the military implications it had in 1863: the new birth of freedom would depend on a military vitory. The Second Inaugural is not only fitting and eloquent, but explains why the war came and why it may continue--even after the cause of it is gone--and touches on how man’s purpose and understanding may differ from the of God. Thank you Father Abraham, and happy birthday.

Discussions - 4 Comments

Thank you, Peter, for that ode to "Father Abraham" - in many ways, our great patriarch. I never appreciated the great depths and insights of Mr. Lincoln until I attended an Ashbrook teacher seminar over the summer and read the great studies of Lincoln by Harry Jaffa, Allen Guelzo, George Anastaplo, Lucas Morel, Herman Belz, etc. Lincoln in many ways was our greatest constitutional thinker and presidential practitioner. His arguments are highly precise, his words deeply moving, and his understanding and love of American self-government and Union almost unsurpassed. He was also a deeply principled man who understood right from wrong but also exercised the great classical principles of Aristotelian leadership such as prudence in his presidency. Lincoln is one of the greatest Americans whose words (found right here on the Ashbrook site) can be read again and again both for their insights into the American character as well as their touching of the human soul. His words are like "apples of gold" in frames of silver.

Though I have always been a bit of a southern sympathizer, sorry Professor Schramm, it does not mean I am a supporter of the ultimate southern cause. Politically speaking, the south was right. Were it not for the states there would be no union. The south was right in this regard. They, in fact based on the idea that the Constitution was a contract between the states, had the right to secede. History shows that secession was a subject debated about long before South Carolina actually did it. Though I believe the south was right theoretically, they violated their own understanding of rights by allowing slavery to exist. Furthermore, they then besmirched their the theory of states’ rights by using it as a front for slavery.

This is what makes Lincoln so important to our nation. He understood that a person could no more be a slave than a state could be, but at the same time he understood that it is the job of the Union to protect the interests of mankind by eliminating slavery. I know the arguments are many for the south; economics, religious,and history. But those arguments pale to the thought that one man can own another, and make the claim that he is free to do so. Lincoln understood the most basic human right to be free, and the hypocrisy in the southern argument. Still, Lincoln embraced a highly divisive matter and stood firm in the face of potential disaster.

Our nation currently is facing many problems due to its own lack of understanding rights and what it means to be free. But it is of no fault of Lincoln, who only understood too well the meaning of such things. On his birthday, we should thank the good Lord for an individual willing to stand up for all mankind.

Happy Birthday Abe, and many thanks.

There is a right to secession? I guess I missed that in the Constitution. As Lincoln said in his First Inaugural Address that the fundamental law of our country did not provide for its own destruction. He also noted that the Union preceded the Constitution, which was a "more perfect Union." Finally, he noted that our republic is rooted upon majority rule that did not allow for an insurrection of an armed minority.

Just because secession was debated did not necessarily mean that it was legal. Jefferson, in his Kentucky Resolution, and Calhoun, were simply wrong. The Constitution was not founded as a compact of states but rather as a Union of states based upon the ultimate sovereignty of the people. Please note that the Constitution was sent for ratification to the special conventions of the people of the states expressing their sovereign will, NOT to the legislatures of the states.

I’m not sure that the South did actually violate their principles. As you noted, and as Vice-President of the CSA proclaimed in his "Cornerstone Speech," the Confederacy was built upon the cornerstone or "great moral truth" of slavery and black inequality - he said that Jefferson and the Founders were simply wrong on the principle of equality. Jefferson Davis’s inaugural speech is also a stunning rejection of the principle of majority rule. The wholesale rejection of the Founders’ edifice by the South makes it impossible to believe that they were re-capturing the principles of the Founding of the republic.

Are you saying that states have no rights? I do not think Lincoln was saying that. If states have no rights, then why are there boundaries? Why not all America be under one boundary? I have not heard it said that one comes from St. Louis, America. Why not all boundaries be erased and call everything beneath the border of Canada, above the border of Mexico, and in between the two oceans, America? Why are there not snow trucks and plows, and salt provided for by the department of transportation in Florida? Why so in Ohio , but not fForida, or North Carolina?

It comes down to this. If you are an individual, then you have rights. Rights that are unalienable. The limits are exercising those rights within a framework of society, because everyone else has similiar rights. When a governing body has infringed on those rights, why do you not have a right to seek redress, and if possible a dissolution of the union with that governing power? This principal is the same on the state level, if it is not then we are not a constitutional republic. Instead, we are a pure democracy. Had we not exercised similiar rights better than 200 years ago we would still be under British rule. Why is this such a hard thing to admit? Because we have come to a point in society where certain things are taboo. Claiming states’ rights is one of those taboo’s. In present day America, racist is associated with states’ rights. Why? Because the south used states’ rights as a cover for slavery, and later as a cover against civil rights. Bingo, it is taboo to say that the state’s have rights.

You said the Constitution was not founded as a compact of states. Okay, then why does it say "We the people of the united States, in order to form a more perfect union...and establish this Constitution for the United States of America?" There is no need to mention states if this is soley the work of the people. Lincoln also traces the nations lineage back to the Declaration of Independence. What is the declaration, if not a plea for the separation of a union which had violated the rights of the colonies and their people? The very first line in the declaration says, "When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another." What is this, if not a plea for separation from tyranny? This is the same plea the south had. The trouble is the south used this as a cover for slavery. If everyone could have voted for whether slavery should exist, my feeling is that it would have been voted down. But it was never placed before the people, though one could argue the election of Lincoln may have been that vote.

My perception of your reply was that you favor majority rule. I hope that it is not really true. If we were governed by majority rule, then we would have had more 9-11’s to deal with today. Thank God, we have a republican format. Also you wrote that Jefferson was wrong about secession and then put him in with the Founders, of which you said that the south rejected the principles of the founders. So, which one is? Is Jefferson a founder or not? If so, is it not possible that the south could have embraced one aspect of the founders’ principal while rejecting the other aspects?

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