Abraham Lincoln And The Constitution
by Stephen Zierak
This lesson is taught by Dr. Kevin Portteus, Assistant Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College. He is also the faculty advisor for the Washington-Hillsdale Internship Program. Dr. Portteus teaches courses in American political thought and American political institutions. He received his BA from Ashland College, and his MA and PhD in Politics from the University of Dallas. This lecture was posted on the internet April 9, and those interested may register at Constitution.Hillsdale.edu. There is no fee. There will be two more lessons, available weekly on Mondays.
A discussion dealing with all aspects of Abraham Lincoln’s views on the Constitution could fill the better part of a semester-long course. Habeas corpus, war powers, emancipation: all these would be up for consideration. However, this lecture deals with the central question that Lincoln was required to answer. Did the southern states have a Constitutional right to secede from the Union?
Lincoln cannot be properly understood without recognition of his view that the Constitution was always meant to fulfill the principles established in the Declaration of Independence. An unpublished diary entry helped him crystallize his thoughts: “All this is not the result of accident. It has a philosophical cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something is the principle of ‘liberty to all’—the principle that clears the path for all—gives hope to all—and, by consequence, enterprise and industry to all.”
Lincoln believed in American exceptionalism. We were a model for the world. The crisis was not simply about the fate of the United States, but whether any constitutional republic can maintain its territorial integrity against the machinations of domestic enemies. Hamilton had written in Federalist #1 that we would demonstrate that just government can arise from reflection and choice, that government did not have to derive from historical accident and force. Lincoln did not pick a fight with the South. Indeed, his First Inaugural Address was a model of conciliation. Yet, he had to respond to the attack on Fort Sumter. Congress was not in session at the time; Lincoln’s report to Congress upon their return to Washington explained his actions and reasons. Lincoln was determined to demonstrate that there was not an “inherent and fatal weakness” in republics. A government need not “be too strong for the liberties of its own people,” nor “too weak to maintain its own existence.” If self-government cannot work in the United States, where exactly could it ever work?
The Union is older than the Constitution. It was formed by the thirteen colonies in 1774, and matured by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It operated post-war under the Articles of Confederation. The purpose of the Constitution in 1787 was to “form a more perfect union.” The Declaration had established who we were as a people. We were united by a common commitment to the moral principle of liberty to all. By Lincoln’s time, half our country’s population had chosen America. We were Americans not just by blood, but by the acceptance of the American ideal. This citizenship by idea, rather than purely by blood, is what has always made us different from other countries and special among the community of nations.
The Constitution is the expression of how we intend to govern ourselves in conformity with the central moral principle of liberty to all. Those who stop short of embracing natural rights for all men also fall short of embracing the American regime as expressed in the Declaration. Slavery and freedom cannot be moral equivalents.
In Lincoln’s time, the Constitution had been turned against freedom in Dred Scott and elsewhere. Both southerners and abolitionists had come to see the Constitution as a pro-slavery document, as an instrument of slavery. Indeed, the Constitution does have several provisions that show an acceptance of slavery.
Lincoln noted that the moral principles inserted into the Declaration had not been required for the establishment of our independence. So, why were they placed there? The provisions were there for future use, as promises for the eventual end of compromises made from necessity. The founders realized that prosperity can breed tyranny. The Constitution had been turned against freedom, as had the Bible, and the only remaining defense of freedom was the clear language of the Declaration. This was the final stumbling block to a South now committed to the expansion of slavery.
Southern politicians understood the remaining power of the ideas expressed in the Declaration. John C. Calhoun specifically attacked the principles of the Declaration. He believed that liberty was a reward given to those who merit it. There are men naturally inferior who must be governed without their consent, in the interests of both the governors and the governed. To Calhoun, unalienable rights and liberty to all were nothing more than dangerous nonsense. Slavery was thought to be a positive good.
Lincoln not only opposed Calhoun, but also Stephen Douglas, the “Little Giant” of the Senate. Douglas’ idea of “popular sovereignty” would put the natural rights of men to a vote, establishing a tyranny of the majority that the founders despised and attempted to control through the provisions of the Declaration and the Constitution. The Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people are worth preserving not because they are our tradition, or because we happen to like them. Rather, they serve a higher purpose. God has allowed us to see a part of His law as expressed in the Declaration (God given natural rights), and this must guide us in how we choose to govern ourselves.
There are two legitimate methods to withdraw from the Union. The first is by the amendment process (which can also be used to change other government arrangements). The second is by revolution, a natural right of men when government systematically denies them their natural rights. Lincoln observed that the North was not seeking to deprive anyone, North or South, of any natural rights. The South was forming its own nation for the specific purpose of holding humans as chattel property. The South was arguing it had a Constitutional right to overthrow the Constitution for the purpose of sustaining a massive violation of natural rights. This was not revolution, but rather insurrection, armed rebellion against legitimate authority without any moral or legal foundation.
Alluding to Proverbs 25:11, Lincoln saw the principles of the Declaration as the “apple of gold.” The Constitution and the Union were the “picture of silver” that frame and adorn the Declaration’s principle of liberty to all. Lincoln was unwilling to invert the importance of each. Gold is more valuable than silver. Moreover, the Constitution and Union are valuable in themselves, but their values are enhanced as they are formed and shaped for the particular purposes of the Declaration. Lincoln would protect the unity of both apple and picture, and exhorted us to study and understand the dangers presented by those who sought to separate them.
In Lincoln’s time, America had drifted towards becoming two nations, one vaguely committed to liberty, the other holding slavery as a positive good. He warned that a house divided against itself cannot stand. He did not expect the Union to fall; but he did believe it was time to recognize that we would become all one thing or the other.
Today, we face a similar challenge. Our people are half committed to the founding and the Constitutional system, and half committed to the “progressive” vision of the modern state. We are clearly moving towards the principles of progressivism, and away from the liberty to all embodied in the founding.
What should we do? It is not friendly to liberty to allow violations of rights by our modern versions of Douglas’ “popular sovereignty.” The work to restore Constitutional government must be entrusted to true friends of Constitutional government. It is not just that we have a Constitution, but rather that we have a Constitution animated by a commitment to the principle of liberty to all. We will retain our Union. What is in question today, as it was in Lincoln’s time, is what kind of nation we will be. In the words of Ronald Reagan, it truly is a time for choosing.
The ninth session of this course will be available on line April 16. The topic will be: The Progressive Rejection Of The Founding, taught by Dr. Ronald Pestritto.