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Lincoln Our Contemporary

Lincoln, six feet one in his stocking feet,

The lank man, knotty and tough as a hickory rail,

Whose hands were always too big for white-kid gloves’

Whose wit was a coonskin sack of dry, tall tales,

Whose weathered face was homely as a plowed field-

Abraham Lincoln, who padded up and down

The sacred White House in nightshirt and carpet-slippers,

And yet could strike young hero-worshipping Hay

As dignified past any neat, balanced, fine

Plutarchan sentences carved in Latin bronze;

The low clown out of the prairies, the ape-buffoon,

The small-town lawyer, the crude small-time politician,

State-character but comparative failure at forty

In spite of ambition enough for twenty Caesars,

Honesty rare as a man without self-pity,

Kindness as large and plain as a prairie wind,

And a self-confidence like an iron-bar:

This Lincoln, President now by the grace of luck,

Disunion, politics, Douglas and a few speeches

Which make the monumental booming of Webster

Sound empty as the belly of a burst drum.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

Today is the 207th birthday of Abraham Lincoln.  Faithful readers of this blog know that I am an admirer of our sixteenth president.  My admiration is not a matter of mere historical antiquarianism.  I believe that many of the issues of Lincoln’s day are with us in our time under different guises.

  1.  Are all men created equal, or may we treat part of the “great family of man”, as Lincoln called humanity, as sub-humans, mere disposable property?
  2. Who should decide the great issues of our day:  the Supreme Court or the voters at the ballot box?
  3. What are the proper roles of the state governments and the federal union?
  4. Does God punish nations for sins?
  5. Are the Founding Fathers merely men of the past, or did they establish a movement that we should adhere to today?
  6. What is the meaning of freedom?
  7. Is this nation worth dying and killing for?
  8. Should the Constitution be amended to address the problems confronting us today?
  9. Are their evils like slavery that must be confronted no matter what the cost?
  10. Is a Republic a viable form of government long term?

When pondering these issues, I think Lincoln has much to teach us.

What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, our army and our navy. These are not our reliance against tyranny. All of those may be turned against us without making us weaker for the struggle. Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in us. Our defense is in the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism at your own doors. Familiarize yourselves with the chains of bondage and you prepare your own limbs to wear them. Accustomed to trample on the rights of others, you have lost the genius of your own independence and become the fit subjects of the first cunning tyrant who rises among you.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

12 Comments

  1. I agree with you wholeheartedly, except in one major respect. Lincoln held some views that were downright tyrannical. He did not believe in a premise of the Declaration of Independence, that government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. The concept that residents of the 13 colonies agreed to the Union, and this forever after bound subsequent generations is nothing less than a complete contradiction to many of his other, rightly praised, beliefs.

  2. “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.”

    Lincoln, First Inaugural

  3. I’m a rank layman in all this, notably the constitutional intricacies. Brace yourselves. I think the complicating feature (more so than sectionalism and slavery) of the American Republic was (note the past tense) the existences of sovereign states and the central government. Naturally, one would rise; the other decline.

  4. “Self governance and the right to overthrow for me, but not for thee, South.”

    The right of revolution Tom never comes for free, as the Founding Fathers understood. According to the criteria established by Mr. Jefferson in the Declaration, I think it is difficult to argue that the South had any cause to launch their revolution.

  5. Mere ipse dixit to say the South did not have a right to secede, or revolt to use the less precise term that Jefferson and apparently Lincoln at one time, would use.

    The whole point is that it’s not up to the *central government* or the tyrant (again to use the more old-fashioned word) to decide if the subject has the right to rise up. Under that logic, we never would have seceded from Britain, since they assuredly believed our complaints were not serious enough. And indeed, looking at the Declaration, they were pretty flimsy compared to say, now. Or compared to what the South believed its situation to be in 1861.

    Neither Jefferson nor Lincoln delimited the just cause for a separation to only those recognized by the ultimate “winner.”

  6. “The whole point is that it’s not up to the *central government* or the tyrant (again to use the more old-fashioned word) to decide if the subject has the right to rise up.”

    Correct. An objective standard should be referred to which is precisely what Jefferson created in the Declaration of Independence. The South had suffered not a particle of the wrongs that the colonists had incurred under the rule of George III. The simple fact is that secession was an act of madness precipitated by a purely phantom menace to slavery, Lincoln having pledged not to interfere with slavery in the slave states. Of course if the slave holding states had not seceded, virtually all legislation that Lincoln wished to pass would have been bottled up in Congress. By seceding, the slaveholding states dug the grave of their own institution.

  7. And to briefly in summary fashion answer your questions:
    1. Are all men created equal, or may we treat part of the “great family of man”, as Lincoln called humanity, as sub-humans, mere disposable property?
    Sorry, but the government is the *last* entity anyone should wish to make this determination. It’s what gave us the 20th century, full of states declaring people to be non-persons. And while the minority in the South who held slaves clung to that same determination about blacks, so did the north, so did Lincoln, who wanted to ship blacks off to Africa, and even when dissuaded from that, believed they could never be considered truly equal to whites. And the American Indians might have something to say about how the government led by Lincoln treated their humanity.

    2. Who should decide the great issues of our day: the Supreme Court or the voters at the ballot box?
    Lincoln certainly was willing to jettison the rule of law and the role of the Supreme Court when it got in the way of his war against the South, see, Ex Parte Merryman, and did not respect the ballot box when it interfered with his War, cf, his arrest of “Copperhead” politicians and journalists, and his suspension of the Maryland General Assembly when he feared they might vote to secede. Despite Maryland voting against secession, Lincoln hated that the G.A. wanted Maryland to remain neutral and forbid federal armies from traversing sovereign Maryland soil in order to invade other states. So he ordered legislators sympathetic to the South to be arrested. Popular will, indeed, but only on his terms. The entire invasion of the South was predicated on annulling the ballot box results of seceding states. And in the aftermath of the war, Reconstruction and Constitutional Amendments were cynically forced upon vanquished states in sham and manipulated elections which excluded by law voters who did not agree with the Republicans.

    3. What are the proper roles of the state governments and the federal union?

    Lincoln settled the question for the time by electing to invade a South that no longer wished to be in the Union. Lincoln’s choice was for a “union” maintained at the point of a gun and with over half a million dead men. He forever changed the nation from a limited federal Republic to a National state of vast powers, with states playing a substantially diminished role.

    4. Does God punish nations for sins?
    Of course, the war probably was, in my view, a national punishment of sorts; but this in no way justifies Lincoln’s policy choices. God’s wrath can, and many times does, manifest itself in the unloosing of evil political and social forces; the political forces are not thereby sanctified. Cromwell was a Divine punishment on a regicidal England. But Cromwell himself was nothing but a savage tyrant, even if God used him as a scourge.

    5. Are the Founding Fathers merely men of the past, or did they establish a movement that we should adhere to today?
    I doubt that Jefferson, Mason, Washington, and probably even Madison would have agreed that the federal government would ever be justified in forcibly compelling a state to remain in the union through military invasion and subjugation. We’ve long ago ceased to adhere to the limited constitutional Republic they established. Lincoln’s war and the 14th Amendment fundamentally re-ordered our nation.

    6. What is the meaning of freedom?
    The freedom of some should never be purchased by abrogating the freedom of others. And the quest to free some, even from a grave evil, is seldom justification to alter institutions, defy the will of the people, and engage in a horrifying and bloody war. We must always be cautious of those who crusade under the banner of “freedom.” Often, moral crusaders perpetrate the worst crimes.

    7. Is this nation worth dying and killing for?
    Certainly * both* sides had men very willing to offer their “last full measure of devotion” to their nation. Many Irish immigrants, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with Lincoln’s war of revolution, and viewed the idea of freeing black slaves as a grave threat to their economic livelihood. Enough so that they rioted violently against Lincoln’s draft.

    8. Should the Constitution be amended to address the problems confronting us today? Certainly an open question… much of the reason we face the need to consider this question is because of the damage wrought by the 14th Amendment, which was foisted on the country by the sham voting of only Republican southerners, former Confederates and sympathizers being excluded from the franchise during early Reconstruction. The 14th, which likely never would have passed if all Southerners had been allowed to vote, forever altered the relationship between the federal and the state governments, to the favor of the national government.

    9. Are their evils like slavery that must be confronted no matter what the cost?
    Sure, evil must be confronted. But beware the crusading ideologue who wants to, in the words of Thomas More, “cut down all the laws” to get at the Devil. As he supposedly said, few will stand in the winds that blow when the laws have been cut down. And in the specific context of slavery, even Lincoln knew he had no constitutional authority to invade states to abolish a practice specifically acknowledged and assumed lawful in the constitution itself. Yet he expressly changed his war aim to just that in 1862. Ask yourself: if enough of the public , except people in NY, somehow agreed that abortion was a grave evil that needed abolition would that fact give the federal government the right to invade NY? Not in our system of government, I would argue, and to do so would be lawless revolution, no matter the good end.

    10. Is a Republic a viable form of government long term?
    Self-apparently not, since as, mentioned above, we long ago ceased to be the kind of Republic our founders envisioned, one of strong state power and limited, enumerated, national power, and became a national government with severely limited state power.

  8. And frankly, it matters not whether the South was worried over a “phantom” threat to slavery (although the threat to it was decidedly not phantom, limits to slavery’s expansion and new states coming in as non=slave only would have drastically threatened the political power of the south)… secession is a lawful tool whenever the people want to invoke it, for any reason *they see fit.* That’s the whole point, it;s not up to some outsider to judge their reasons inadequate (George III would have judged our reasons inadequate). Self-governance means that the people decide when and if to remain in the “political bonds” that tie them to another.

    And as I’ve said before, slavery was not the issue that really set the war in motion. Virginia, without whom the Confederacy would have been stillborn, seceded only after Lincoln’s calling up of troops to invade the south. Virginia had expressly rejected secession over the issue of Lincoln’s election and the perceived threat to slavery. Only when Lincoln decided to resort to military invasion did Virginia secede.

  9. I don’t disagree with your analysis of the logic of southern secession, by the way. If I could have advised the deep south, I would have discouraged secession for the reasons you mention, which, by the way, were the primary reasons Virginia decided *not* to secede. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Lincoln had just waited, not called up troops, and thereby likely have kept Virginia in the Union. The Confederacy would likely have collapsed of its own accord without the wealthiest, largest state in their confederacy.
    But whether I think it was wise or not (and I think it was unwise), I can’t deny that under the constitution they have the right to secede, just as any New England state had the same right when they considered seceding 50 years before the south seceded.

  10. “And frankly, it matters not whether the South was worried over a “phantom” threat to slavery (although the threat to it was decidedly not phantom, limits to slavery’s expansion and new states coming in as non=slave only would have drastically threatened the political power of the south)…”

    Under Dred Scott there were no restrictions that could withstand Constitutional muster in regard to Congress forbidding slavery in the territories, the Taney Court thus taking away from Congress a power it had enjoyed since the days of the Founding Fathers. If the South had been concerned about the imbalance in slave vs. free states the Texas annexation treaty allowed Texas to be divided into five slaveholding states. There was absolutely nothing to justify revolution which, as Robert E. Lee pointed out prior to the War, was what secession amounted to.

    The Declaration set forth an objective standard for exercising the right of revolution because otherwise such an entity as the United States of America could not long endure. The Founding Fathers of the Confederacy understood this, since they voted down in their Constitutional Convention South Carolina’s motion to make a right to secession part of the Confederate Constitution, only South Carolina voting for it.

  11. “Sorry, but the government is the *last* entity anyone should wish to make this determination.”

    Oh, but it did in order to implement slavery. Slavery could not exist without a whole host of laws upholding it. From first to last slavery was an enterprise of the State, as emphasized during the Civil War when the Confederacy conscripted slaves for the building of field works and other projects supporting their military forces.

    “Lincoln certainly was willing”

    Objection, non-responsive. The Supreme Court, as in Roe, accrued to itself in Dred Scott the authority to “resolve” a national issue. The Civil War demonstrated how well they succeeded. All of Lincoln’s actions were confirmed by Congress and by the people at the ballot box. The Civil War came about because slave holders lost an election and decided to attempt to destroy the Union as a result.

    “Lincoln settled the question for the time by electing to invade a South that no longer wished to be in the Union.”

    By winning the Civil War Lincoln preserved the Union. The States had as much authority as they ever had, except to authorize the holding of parts of their population as chattel as slaves.

    “I doubt that Jefferson, Mason, Washington, and probably even Madison would have agreed that the federal government would ever be justified in forcibly compelling a state to remain in the union through military invasion and subjugation.”

    Actually they prevailed in a very long War where a good 20%-33% of their fellow Americans supported the other side, and they were not squeamish in using military force to suppress them, including the confiscation of their property and the suppression of their civil rights. This attitude towards those defying the new nation carried over into independent United States as the Whiskey Rebellion demonstrated. Of course, early Congresses gave to the President precisely the authority used by Lincoln against the Confederate states, most notably The Insurrection Act of 1807 signed by President Thomas Jefferson and which has this provision:

    § 332. Use of militia and armed forces to enforce Federal authority

    Whenever the President considers that unlawful obstructions, combinations, or assemblages, or rebellion against the authority of the United States, make it impracticable to enforce the laws of the United States in any State or Territory by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, he may call into Federal service such of the militia of any State, and use such of the armed forces, as he considers necessary to enforce those laws or to suppress the rebellion.


    “Of course, the war probably was, in my view, a national punishment of sorts; but this in no way justifies Lincoln’s policy choices.”

    Lincoln was as much controlled by events as controlling. Before he even took office the Confederacy had been created. War was inevitable once that was done, as demonstrated by the fact that even the weakest president in our history, Buchanan, could not countenance secession. The more intelligent Southern leaders, Davis for example, knew that a peaceful withdrawal from the Union was simply not going to occur. The North and the South had tolerated slavery for too long and the day of reckoning brought about a terrible Civil War to exact a dreadful price for that crime.

    “The freedom of some should never be purchased by abrogating the freedom of others.”

    Well said Tom! No abolitionist could have said it better! Slaveholders often claimed that slavery was an essential freedom for them, the rights of their slaves be hanged.

    “Enough so that they rioted violently against Lincoln’s draft.”
    And murdered hundreds of negroes in the draft riots of New York. The odd thing of course is that the Irish were rarely subject to the draft, voluntary enlistment, especially among the Irish, was steady and plentiful, making actual application of the draft a fairly rare occurrence in the North. Of the two million men who served in the Union Army only about 50,000 were draftees. In the South of course all white men were subject to a draft from 1862, with desertion and draft resistance severely hampering the Confederate war effort.

    “is because of the damage wrought by the 14th Amendment”

    Rather to generations of fairly lawless Supreme Courts. A Supreme Court which can read abortion and gay marriage into the Constitution needs no 14th Amendment to misconstrue.

    “Yet he expressly changed his war aim to just that in 1862.”

    In order to preserve the Union. Lincoln was not going to act as the guarantor of slavery and see the country go down the drain as a result. Lincoln was an adherent of reform through law. It was the Confederates who took the issue of slavery outside the orbit of elections and transformed it as a reason to dissolve the Union.

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