At the Risk of Ticking Off Some of My Fellow Right-Wingers…

…check out this quote from Abraham Lincoln, which encapsulates a tendency among libertarian/paleocon circles that I’ve always found off base:

What is the particular sacredness of a State? I speak not of that position which is given to a State in and by the Constitution of the United States, for that all of us agree to—we abide by; but that position assumed, that a State can carry with it out of the Union that which it holds in sacredness by virtue of its connection with the Union. I am speaking of that assumed right of a State, as a primary principle, that the Constitution should rule all that is less than itself, and ruin all that is bigger than itself. But, I ask, wherein does consist that right? If a State, in one instance, and a county in another, should be equal in extent of territory, and equal in the number of people, wherein is that State any better than the county? Can a change of name change the right? By what principle of original right is it that one-fiftieth or one-ninetieth of a great nation, by calling themselves a State, have the right to break up and ruin that nation as a matter of original principle? Now, I ask the question—I am not deciding anything—and with the request that you will think somewhat upon that subject and decide for yourselves, if you choose, when you get ready,—where is the mysterious, original right, from principle, for a certain district of country with inhabitants, by merely being called a State, to play tyrant over all its own citizens, and deny the authority of everything greater than itself.

Happy Birthday, Mr. President

Today would have been the late, great Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday. Many rightfully remember him for his unwavering support of free markets, limited government, and those suffering under Soviet oppression, but here it seems fitting to highlight one aspect of Reagan’s philosophy of liberty that the Right may be in danger of forgetting. In 1983, Reagan wrote a stirring essay called “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation” which demands to be read in full by all who call themselves conservatives. A key excerpt:

Regrettably, we live at a time when some persons do not value all human life. They want to pick and choose which individuals have value. Some have said that only those individuals with “consciousness of self” are human beings. One such writer has followed this deadly logic and concluded that “shocking as it may seem, a newly born infant is not a human being.”

A Nobel Prize winning scientist has suggested that if a handicapped child “were not declared fully human until three days after birth, then all parents could be allowed the choice.” In other words, “quality control” to see if newly born human beings are up to snuff.

Obviously, some influential people want to deny that every human life has intrinsic, sacred worth. They insist that a member of the human race must have certain qualities before they accord him or her status as a “human being.”

Events have borne out the editorial in a California medical journal which explained three years before Roe v. Wade that the social acceptance of abortion is a “defiance of the long-held Western ethic of intrinsic and equal value for every human life regardless of its stage, condition, or status.”

Every legislator, every doctor, and every citizen needs to recognize that the real issue is whether to affirm and protect the sanctity of all human life, or to embrace a social ethic where some human lives are valued and others are not. As a nation, we must choose between the sanctity of life ethic and the “quality of life” ethic.

I have no trouble identifying the answer our nation has always given to this basic question, and the answer that I hope and pray it will give in the future. American was founded by men and women who shared a vision of the value of each and every individual. They stated this vision clearly from the very start in the Declaration of Independence, using words that every schoolboy and schoolgirl can recite:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We fought a terrible war to guarantee that one category of mankind — black people in America — could not be denied the inalienable rights with which their Creator endowed them. The great champion of the sanctity of all human life in that day, Abraham Lincoln, gave us his assessment of the Declaration’s purpose. Speaking of the framers of that noble document, he said:

This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. Yes, gentlemen, to all his creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on. . . They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity. They erected a beacon to guide their children and their children’s children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages.

He warned also of the danger we would face if we closed our eyes to the value of life in any category of human beings:

I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it where will it stop. If one man says it does not mean a Negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man?

When Congressman John A. Bingham of Ohio drafted the Fourteenth Amendment to guarantee the rights of life, liberty, and property to all human beings, he explained that all are “entitled to the protection of American law, because its divine spirit of equality declares that all men are created equal.” He said the right guaranteed by the amendment would therefore apply to “any human being.”

Today’s Snapshot of Conservatism in Crisis

Steven Ertelt at LifeNews reports that GOP presidential wannabe Mitch Daniels still hasn’t gotten the message on the “truce” crap:

“I guess two things,” Daniels added. “One is that, first, those remarks were directed as much to the aggressors on the other side of these questions — for instance, the proponents of gay marriage — as much directed to them as anybody with whom I’m in agreement.”

Asked if liberals have called a truce on social issues, Daniels responded, “No, obviously not. I said I was thinking of them as much as my own allies when I said it,” he said about the truce.

Wait – so you think a.) that liberals would be willing to accept a truce on social issues, and b.) that they’d be willing to do so for the purpose of enacting conservative fiscal reforms? Does anyone else see how mind-blowingly stupid this is? Mitch Daniels is unfit to be president simply for being so clueless.

“The major point, though, was something different, and it was just this: I believe…. that the arithmetic of our times says we are headed for Niagara Falls, fiscally. You cannot run any kind of enterprise — private or public — on a self-governing basis as deeply in hawk as we now are and are going to be,” Daniels added. “…. to change the whole size and scope of the federal government in a radical way, then we are going to need a very broad constituency in this country to do that…. so that’s all I meant, kind of a priority matter, first things first. Maybe we could just concentrate on that for a little while, because I think that’s the most immediate threat to the republic we’ve known.”

The fiscal crisis is already at the forefront of the conservative conversation. There are no social conservatives calling on economic conservatives to put spending, ObamaCare, or any other issues on the back burner for the sake of fighting abortion or preserving marriage. Congressional Republicans are letting us down on the fiscal front, but it’s not because they’re distracted by social issues; it’s because they’re inept and spineless across the board.

Later in the interview, The Hill transcript indicates, Daniels returned to the truce issue, saying fiscal issues should take precedence and social issues like abortion should be “muted” for awhile.

“I would like to think that fixing it and saving our kids future could be a unifying moment for our country and we wouldn’t stop our disagreements or our passionate belief in these other questions, we just sort of mute them for a little while, while we try to come together on the thing that menaces us all,” he concluded.

Let me try to explain something to you, Mitch: abortion isn’t controversial because it’s “sinful” or “distasteful.” It’s controversial because IT KILLS PEOPLE. 1.2 MILLION DEAD BABIES EVERY YEAR. It’s not just another political issue; it’s a human rights crisis. (You claim to be pro-life. There’s no excuse for you to not already get this.) And if you really understood what our Founders thought about the conditions necessary to maintain a free society, you’d see that the fate of marriage has profound implications for America’s fiscal state.

This response is dead on:

“We cannot repair the economy without addressing the deep cultural issues that are tearing apart the family and society,” said Andy Blom, executive director of the American Principles Project.  “The conservative movement has always been about addressing ALL issues—economic, social and national security—that are in need of repair.”

“It’s unfortunate Gov. Daniels doesn’t seem to understand the winning philosophy of Ronald Reagan that brought conservatism to victory by addressing all three issues,” said Frank Cannon, President of American Principles Project.  “If Mitch Daniels is planning to run for president by running away from social issues, he will face a grassroots revolt.”

“The national furor over the expansion of abortion coverage and efforts to re-define marriage demonstrates the resistance he will face.  There is no appetite among grassroots conservatives to run away from these critical issues,” said Mr. Blom.  “Mr. Daniels is only causing divisions in the movement by this talk of a ‘truce.’”

I often wonder how many people realize the full extent of just how screwed up the Right is these days. I’m reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s words in Peoria, Illinois. Speaking of a similar cancerous confusion over first principles, he lamented that our “republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust.” He said we needed to “repurify it,” to “wash it in white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution”:

Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. Let north and south—let all Americans—let all lovers of liberty everywhere—join in the great and good work. If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving. We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations.

Thoughts on Secession, Part 2

In Part 1, I responded to Robert Stacy McCain’s claim that secession is an important recourse against an overreaching federal government, and that states as meaningful entities basically cease to exist without it. Today we turn to the other part of McCain’s defense of secession.

Citing the Declaration of Independence’s language describing the newly-independent colonies as “Free and Independent States,” plural, McCain claims the Union was merely “a military alliance for mutual self-defense, since “[t]here could be no separate peace — the King and Parliament could not hope to enter into negotiations with Rhode Island or North Carolina, seeking a treaty that would break the alliance”; and observes that the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War, similarly recognizes the ex-colonies as “free sovereign and independent states.” He then recounts the debate over ratifying the Constitution:

This ratification was conducted in each state by a special convention, and the debate was quite intense. Patrick Henry, among others, was in the anti-Federalist faction, warning that the Constitution granted too much power to the national government. It was to allay these concerns that the Bill of Rights was adopted immediately after ratification. Among those amendments, the 10th gave especial protection to the states, limiting the government to those powers delegated by the Constitution, and reserving the balance to the several states.

Now, we must pay careful attention to a key point about the Constitution, namely Article 7:

“The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.”

Which is to say that as many as four of the original states might have, by refusing to ratify the Constitution, exempted themselves from that government.

The Anti-Federalists’ fears about the Constitution giving the feds too much power are just as immaterial to the nature of the Union as revolution’s dependence on the fortunes of war was in Part 1. The concept of America as a single, indivisible nation is hardly incompatible or inconsistent with belief in, or concern for, separating and protecting state prerogatives against federal authority within that nation. And I’m not sure how the fact that the states could have chosen not to become part of the new government proves that they could have withdrawn after it was formed.

Did the Union really begin as merely a temporary alliance of ultimately independent entities? Lincoln didn’t think so:

[W]e find the proposition that in legal contemplation the Union is perpetual confirmed by the history of the Union itself. The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured, and the faith of all the then thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was “to form a more perfect Union.”

But if destruction of the Union by one or by a part only of the States be lawfully possible, the Union is less perfect than before the Constitution, having lost the vital element of perpetuity.

And:

Our States have neither more, nor less power, than that reserved to them, in the Union, by the Constitution—no one of them ever having been a State out of the Union. The original ones passed into the Union even before they cast off their British colonial dependence; and the new ones each came into the Union directly from a condition of dependence, excepting Texas. And even Texas, in its temporary independence, was never designated a State. The new ones only took the designation of States, on coming into the Union, while that name was first adopted for the old ones, in, and by, the Declaration of Independence. Therein the “United Colonies’’ were declared to be “Free and Independent States’’; but, even then, the object plainly was not to declare their independence of one another, or of the Union; but directly the contrary, as their mutual pledge, and their mutual action, before, at the time, and afterwards, abundantly show. The express plighting of faith, by each and all of the original thirteen, in the Articles of Confederation, two years later, that the Union shall be perpetual, is most conclusive.

Having never been States, either in substance, or in name, outside of the Union, whence this magical omnipotence of “State rights,’’ asserting a claim of power to lawfully destroy the Union itself? Much is said about the “sovereignty’’ of the States; but the word, even, is not in the national Constitution; nor, as is believed, in any of the State constitutions. What is a “sovereignty,’’ in the political sense of the term? Would it be far wrong to define it “A political community, without a political superior’’? Tested by this, no one of our States, except Texas, ever was a sovereignty. And even Texas gave up the character on coming into the Union; by which act, she acknowledged the Constitution of the United States, and the laws and treaties of the United States made in pursuance of the Constitution, to be, for her, the supreme law of the land.

The States have their status IN the Union, and they have no other legal status. If they break from this, they can only do so against law, and by revolution. The Union, and not themselves separately, procured their independence, and their liberty. By conquest, or purchase, the Union gave each of them, whatever of independence, and liberty, it has. The Union is older than any of the States; and, in fact, it created them as States. Originally, some dependent colonies made the Union; and, in turn, the Union threw off their old dependence, for them, and made them States, such as they are. Not one of them ever had a State constitution, independent of the Union. Of course, it is not forgotten that all the new States framed their constitutions, before they entered the Union; nevertheless, dependent upon, and preparatory to, coming into the Union.

Makes sense to me, but something tells me most secession defenders won’t accept the sixteenth President as the last word on the subject. So let’s see what the Founding Fathers had to say about the nature of the American Union:

George Washington:

[A]s this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment, that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the Palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion, that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.

For this you have every inducement of sympathy and interest. Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of american, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the Independence and Liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts, of common dangers, sufferings, and successes […]

With such powerful and obvious motives to Union, affecting all parts of our country, while experience shall not have demonstrated its impracticability, there will always be reason to distrust the patriotism of those, who in any quarter may endeavour to weaken its bands […]

To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a Government for the whole is indispensable. No alliances, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute; they must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions, which all alliances in all times have experienced. Sensible of this momentous truth, you have improved upon your first essay, by the adoption of a Constitution of Government better calculated than your former for an intimate Union, and for the efficacious management of your common concerns. This Government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true Liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their Constitutions of Government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish Government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established Government.

James Madison:

The essential difference between a free Government and Governments not free, is that the former is founded in compact, the parties to which are mutually and equally bound by it. Neither of them therefore can have a greater right to break off from the bargain, than the other or others have to hold them to it. And certainly there is nothing in the Virginia resolutions of — 98, adverse to this principle, which is that of common sense and common justice. The fallacy which draws a different conclusion from them lies in confounding a single party, with the parties to the Constitutional compact of the United States. The latter having made the compact may do what they will with it. The former as one only of the parties, owes fidelity to it, till released by consent, or absolved by an intolerable abuse of the power created. In the Virginia Resolutions and Report the plural number, States, is in every instance used where reference is made to the authority which presided over the Government. As I am now known to have drawn those documents, I may say as I do with a distinct recollection, that the distinction was intentional. It was in fact required by the course of reasoning employed on the occasion. The Kentucky resolutions being less guarded have been more easily perverted. The pretext for the liberty taken with those of Virginia is the word respective, prefixed to the “rights” &c to be secured within the States. Could the abuse of the expression have been foreseen or suspected, the form of it would doubtless have been varied. But what can be more consistent with common sense, than that all having the same rights &c. should unite in contending for the security of them to each.

It is remarkable how closely the nullifiers who make the name of Mr Jefferson the pedestal for their colossal heresy, shut their eyes and lips, whenever his authority is ever so clearly and emphatically against them. You have noticed what he says in his letters to Monroe & Carrington Pages 43 & 203, vol 2, with respect to the powers of the old Congress to coerce delinquent States, and his reasons for preferring for the purpose a naval to a military force, and moreover that it was not necessary to find a right to coerce in the Federal Articles, that being inherent in the nature of a compact. It is high time that the claim to secede at will should be put down by the public opinion, and I shall be glad to see the task commenced by one who understands the subject.

John Jay:

Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people-a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.

This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.

Similar sentiments have hitherto prevailed among all orders and denominations of men among us. To all general purposes we have uniformly been one people; each individual citizen everywhere enjoying the same national rights, privileges, and protection. As a nation we have made peace and war; as a nation we have vanquished our common enemies; as a nation we have formed alliances, and made treaties, and entered into various compacts and conventions with foreign states.

A strong sense of the value and blessings of union induced the people, at a very early period, to institute a federal government to preserve and perpetuate it.

Alexander Hamilton:

A man must be far gone in Utopian speculations who can seriously doubt that if these States should either be wholly disunited, or only united in partial confederacies, the subdivisions into which they might be thrown would have frequent and violent contests with each other. To presume a want of motives for such contests as an argument against their existence would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious. To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent unconnected sovereignties situated in the same neighborhood would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages […]

An intelligent writer expresses himself on this subject to this effect: “NEIGHBOURING NATIONS. (says he) are naturally ENEMIES of each other, unless their common weakness forces them to league in a CONFEDERATE REPUBLIC, and their constitution prevents the differences that neighborhood occasions, extinguishing that secret jealousy which disposes all states to aggrandize themselves at the expense of their neighbors.” This passage, at the same time points out the EVIL and suggests the REMEDY.

Admittedly, Thomas Jefferson’s record here is mixed—he did condemn the danger and counsel against the wisdom of secession:

I can scarcely contemplate a more incalculable evil than the breaking of the union into two or more parts […] a separation of the Union, the most dreadful of all calamities […]

[W]ho can say what would be the evils of a scission, and when & where they would end? Better keep together as we are, hawl off from Europe as soon as we can, & from all attachments to any portions of it. And if we feel their power just sufficiently to hoop us together, it will be the happiest situation in which we can exist. If the game runs sometimes against us at home we must have patience till luck turns, & then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are the stake.

But he also spoke more sympathetically of secession elsewhere:

If any State in the Union will declare that it prefers separation with the first alternative, to a continuance in union without it, I have no hesitation in saying “let us separate.” I would rather the States should withdraw which are for unlimited commerce and war, and confederate with those alone which are for peace and agriculture […]

Whether we remain in one confederacy, or form into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that the Constitution makes “the laws of the United States […] the supreme law of the land,” with not only federal, but also state, lawmakers and judges bound to support the Constitution, and as I’ve pointed out before, the Constitution places quite a few restrictions on the states, making them far from “sovereign” or “independent.”

Considering the failings of secessionist rationale, the judgment of the Father of Our Country and the authors of the Federalist, and the implications of the Constitution itself, secession ends up looking a lot less like a valuable principle rooted in the American Founding, and more like a intellectual false lead that conservatives would do well to leave in the past, alongside the bloody conflict it spawned and the peculiar institution it was deployed to support.

Scott’s At It Again

Scott Feldstein says that”Being for slavery during the Civil War was a conservative position.” I shed a little light on his historical illiteracy after that comment, to which – surprise! – I got a lazy response that doesn’t even try to mount a meaningful defense of his false characterization of both history and American conservatism.

I guess we shouldn’t expect any better from the guy who thinks you should be able to kill a human being with a heartbeat, a fully-formed brain, and the capacity to feel pain “for any reason at all.”

(For more on the Civil War, click here.)

Lincoln Derangement Syndrome

Somebody named JD Longstreet is very, very upset that Southerners and Southern history are not given the respect they deserve in the media, schools and commentary class (hat tip to Ol’ Broad).  Given the Left’s infernal obsession with casting conservative views and traditional American values as racist, I would be inclined to sympathize with him…except for the fact that his post rapidly devolves into an unhinged, duplicitous tirade that is guilty of the very historical revisionism Longstreet claims to oppose.

Because I apparently didn’t have enough better to occupy my time with tonight, I decided to conduct a closer examination of this post.  Click on through to check out my findings – if you dare: Continue reading

The Wisdom of the Emancipator

It’s recently become increasingly clear to me that some conservatives have a troubling, distorted view of government as a sort of “virtue enforcement” weapon.  As the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln draws to a close, these conservatives would do well to re-read the Great Emancipator’s Temperance Address:

Although the Temperance cause has been in progress for near twenty years, it is apparent to all, that it is, just now, being crowned with a degree of success, hitherto unparalleled.

The list of its friends is daily swelled by the additions of fifties, of hundreds, and of thousands. The cause itself seems suddenly transformed from a cold abstract theory, to a living, breathing, active, and powerful chieftain, going forth “conquering and to conquer.” The citadels of his great adversary are daily being stormed and dismantled; his temple and his altars, where the rites of his idolatrous worship have long been performed, and where human sacrifices have long been wont to be made, are daily desecrated and deserted. The trump of the conqueror’s fame is sounding from hill to hill, from sea to sea, and from land to land, and calling millions to his standard at a blast.

For this new and splendid success, we heartily rejoice. That that success is so much greater now than heretofore, is doubtless owing to rational causes; and if we would have it continue, we shall do well to inquire what those causes are. The warfare heretofore waged against the demon Intemperance, has, somehow or other, been erroneous. Either the champions engaged, or the tactics they adopted have not been the most proper. These champions for the most part have been Preachers, Lawyers, and hired agents. Between these and the mass of mankind, there is a want of approachability, if the term be admissible, partially, at least, fatal to their success. They are supposed to have no sympathy of feeling or interest, with those very persons whom it is their object to convince and persuade.

Continue reading

What We Can Learn from Tocqueville & Lincoln

The following is a modified & abridged version of a paper I recently wrote after a week-long seminar here at Hillsdale College, regarding the wisdom of Alexis de Tocqueville & Abraham Lincoln.  Both men though deeply about human equality, individual liberty, and what it took to maintain a democratic society.  I think both are essential to a substantive, fully-formed political philosophy, especially today.

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Having lost his grandparents to the bloody French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville knew all too well how volatile the passions of a people intoxicated by newfound equality could be, and as a student of human nature, he knew that belief in freedom, the essence of which is independence from control, and passion for equality, which can manifest as a desire to level the conditions of all, could easily come into conflict.  In the United States, equality of conditions reigned, but curiously, America seemed largely unscathed by democracy’s dark side.

In America, Tocqueville found several political and cultural influences that kept Americans agreeable to one another and obedient to their government.  The French thinker noted that the United States government had strong governmental centralization (the necessary authority of the national government to decide national affairs), but almost no administrative centralization (federal influence over the affairs of states or individuals), yielding an effective government whose proper prerogatives were respected because it generally did not give the people cause for concern about their personal freedom.  Tocqueville thought increased administrative centralization would be the biggest threat to liberty in democratic societies, leading to a “soft despotism” under which the federal government assumed ever-increasing control over the people’s lives in the name of providing for them.

On the cultural side, Tocqueville hailed several “habits of liberty”—Christianity, which turns man’s attention to his responsibilities towards others; civic associations, which teach men to know one another and to better govern; marriage, which calms man and counters excessive individualism; newspapers, which also promote social cooperation; and the doctrine of “self-interest well-understood,” or the understanding that it is in the best interest of every man to respect the rights of his neighbors, that his own rights will be respected.

Abraham Lincoln rose to prominence as tension over slavery reached its breaking point, with numerous southern states threatening to secede from the union to preserve the “peculiar institution,” and secessionists such as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens dismissing “the assumption of the equality of races,” on which the American Founders based government, as “fundamentally wrong.”  In contrast, Lincoln hailed the Declaration’s principles as “the definitions and axioms of liberty,” which inspired all of his political thoughts.  For Lincoln, liberty and equality were simple: liberty was the right to govern one’s self, and equality meant that all have an equal claim to the Declaration’s promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” regardless of race.  Lincoln believed that the Declaration established timeless, unchanging moral principles, as evidenced by his observation that declaring human equality had no practical use in the revolutionaries’ struggle against Great Britain, but could eventually be used to free slaves, as it would remain true in the future.  To Lincoln, slavery was an obscenity; he noted wryly that nobody who called it a good would think it good enough for themselves, and confessed that “whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”

Despite this impulse, however, Lincoln refused to support or enact any emancipation efforts that failed to pass constitutional scrutiny.  Though he loved liberty, he also loved “reverence for the laws,” which he saw as the nation’s “political religion.”  Slavery was unjust, but ignoring the Constitution whenever it suited one’s political desires, however noble, would be dangerous, for it would undermine the legitimacy of constitutional government and endanger everyone’s liberty.  It was this belief in the rule of law that led Lincoln to wage the Civil War to preserve the Union.  Lincoln understood that America’s peaceful democratic system had established ballots as “the rightful and peaceful successors to bullets” in the transfer of political power, and secession—the idea that any state dissatisfied with democracy’s results could simply ignore them and forcibly resist their enforcement—threatened to undo that great advance, and, if carried to its logical conclusion, would lead to anarchy.

Today, America is governed by an ever-expanding federal government, proactive in every level of society; and progressive ideology, which views the Declaration of Independence as outdated and the Constitution as a “living” document to be reinterpreted by each generation, is very much in vogue.  Tocqueville’s fears about soft despotism and Lincoln’s fears that Americans could forget her founding creed have both come true.  But we need not lose hope: Americans longing to learn the principles liberty needs, and how to restore them, have all the tools they need in the wisdom of our forefathers; we just need a renewed focus on educating our countrymen in their timelessness.

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Further resources on Lincoln & Tocqueville:

Abraham Lincoln Online—has many of Lincoln’s writings & speeches

Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of America’s Greatest President by Thomas Krannawitter (review here)

Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville (full text available online here)