On Prose to the Gettysburg Address’s poetry. “A writer’s new works are, more than most anything, new attempts to frame or answer old, nagging questions.” I wrote that in the context of Lincoln’s recurrent themes. Walter Lippmann, I just discovered, wrote the same thing in the context of philosophic writing:
Philosophies . . . are the very soul of the philosopher projected, and to the discerning critic they may tell more about him than he knows about himself. In this sense the man’s philosophy is his autobiography; you may read in it the story of his conflict with life.
And that’s what my “Marginal” writing is. I want to treat my blog like an ever-fattening book. I find new stuff that I would write in an old post’s margins. I can’t leave well enough alone.
I end my video series to Christians on American government. This video covers Constitutional hermeneutics, and it includes a rather lengthy series conclusion. A book containing a transcript of the video series as well as over two hundred footnotes that document and deepen the videos’ content is sold here.
Video 5 of my series to the American church entitled, “The Nature of Government.” The previous videos are at slowpress.com. The next and final video should be out in a week or two. (Sorry I tend to look down in these videos. The teleprompter is the laptop’s screen, which sits below the built-in web cam. It ain’t too professional.)
Shutting down the federal government, threatening to cause the nation to default, threatening to secede from the Union – it’s all so cool. As kids we used to call tactics like these “going sui.” One figured he’d lost the game, so he spent his remaining strength – be they armies in Risk or mortgaged houses and deeds in Monopoly – in suicide-bomber mode, taking down his chief opponent with him if he could.
But the threat of going sui can sometimes keep you in the game. Before the Civil War as well as today, the states’ rights crowd knows how to hold onto power as long as possible.
Look at the House of Representatives. Even before things really got rolling, the Constitution gave the South unduly high representation in Congress by spotting it 0.6 of a person in each census for every slave it could import or otherwise generate. Today’s gerrymandered districts similarly help out the conservative cause, so that losing the House by over a million votes last fall translated into a healthy Republican majority.
Look at the Senate. Before the Civil War, Congress was careful to keep a balance of power by granting statehood in batches that would maintain a slave-state – free-state equilibrium despite the free states’ greater population. Today, the expansion of the filibuster by both rule and practice means that almost nothing gets done unless a minority of forty permits it.
Lincoln dealt with this kind of extortion, and in his 1860 Cooper Union speech he compared it to a stick-up:
But you will not abide the election of a Republican President! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!”
Similarly (the argument goes), today’s Union defenders will have only their profligate-spending selves to blame if Tea Party people, one-upping the highwayman, succeed this month in burning down the fiscal house.
Majority rule, then, is of little interest to states’ rights adherents. But the reason isn’t simply tactical – isn’t something to ignore when you don’t win presidential elections, be it 1860 or 2012. Majority rule, along with its foundational premise that all men are created equal, is something that state-sovereignty believers have had an uneasy relationship with since their doctrine’s inception.
. . . no one generation of men are capable of creating for themselves the arts and sciences of a high civilization. Men can know more than their ancestors did if they start with a knowledge of what their ancestors had already learned. they can do advanced experiments if they do not have to learn all over again how to do the elementary ones. That is why a society can be progressive only if it conserves its traditions. (136)
While Lippmann here uses an example more suited for science or mathematics, the larger context of his claim is political or civil.
“I believe my dear sir, that a class is the greatest drawback in the world. You must do everything which the class does and nothing else.”
– John Randolph of Roanoke, while at Columbia University, to his stepfather St. George Tucker in 1788 (from David Johnson’s John Randolph of Roanoke, pages 21 – 22)
“[Woodrow] Wilson, though an excellent teacher, was not a very good student, in the sense that he had no real knack for learning from other people. ‘Everything of progress comes from one’s private reading,’ he said. He stopped attending class [at Johns Hopkins] and arranged to complete his [Ph. D. there] by studying on his own.”
Lincoln didn’t scribble the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope in a train or on a napkin at a diner on the way to Gettysburg, but “he wrote it fairly quickly.” Historian Adam Goodheart’s assessment is in line with other accounts I’ve read, but in his book 1861: The Civil War Awakening, he explains Lincoln’s quick work in a way that finally makes sense to me. He says that Lincoln did most of the thinking necessary for the famous 1863 address a couple of years earlier, when he was drafting his July 4, 1861 message to Congress justifying the Union war effort (360).
Lincoln worked hard then. He started writing the address over two months before its delivery, and by mid-June his secretary John Nicolay recorded that Lincoln was “engaged almost constantly in writing the message.” Goodheart presents evidence that “many Americans shook their heads in disbelief at how much time the president was spending on his message” (356). But the long work in 1861 made for short work in 1863:
Lincoln had already done the hard work of the Gettysburg Address, the heavy intellectual lifting, in 1861. The two intervening years would go to pare away the nonessentials, to sculpt 6,256 words of prose into 246 words of poetry. (361)
Goodheart’s insight rings true from what I know of writing. Writers write to understand what their preoccupations make of experience. Essentially, then, writers rewrite. A writer’s new works are, more than most anything, new attempts to frame or answer old, nagging questions.
So I reread Lincoln’s July 4, 1861 message in light of the Gettysburg Address. I used co-ment.com to mark up and comment on the latter address with portions of the former one. The result is a pdf file you can view and download here: GettysburgAddressJuly41861Message. (A link to the text of the entire 1861 message is here.)
1861 is one of the most engaging books I’ve read that recounts a year of American history. It weaves the stories of disparate Americans as the country transitioned from a long, uneasy peace to civil war.
The notion of popular sovereignty is old, older than the modern vote. When the Pope crowned Charlemagne emperor in 800 CE, for instance, he said that he “merely declared and exercised the people’s will.”1 But just as popular sovereignty was beginning to “imply the enfranchisement of the people,”2 the seceding Southern states ratified a constitution that opened with “We, the deputies of the sovereign and independent states.”3 Lincoln pointed to this language in his July 4, 1961 address to Congress, his unofficial declaration of war against the seceding states: “Why? Why this deliberate pressing out of view, the rights of men, and the authority of the people?”4
It’s a fair question. If European rulers were claiming the people’s mandate before the modern vote existed, why was it so hard for the South to mimic the famous opening to the United States Constitution, “We, the people”?
The division between state sovereignty and popular sovereignty was evident even while our Constitution was being debated and ratified in the late 1780’s. At Virginia’s ratification convention, Patrick Henry argued that the proposed constitution’s “We, the people” opening was error because sovereignty rested in the states, not the people. In her book Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787 – 1788, Pauline Maier summarizes part of Henry’s argument: “The people in their collective capacity were not the proper agents for entering leagues, alliances, or confederations; that was the work of ‘states and sovereign powers.’” Henry didn’t believe that the “people in their collective capacity” were sovereign.5
Henry’s argument against people’s sovereignty may have been associated with another argument he advanced, this one outside of the Richmond convention, against the proposed constitution: “They’ll free your niggers.”6 (Like John Randolph of Roanoke and John Calhoun after him, the author of Virginia’s famous “Liberty or Death” speech believed in liberty without equality.7) As Lincoln pointed out, the doctrine of state sovereignty was inimical to the rights of men.
Lincoln understood that the state sovereignty claim, cited by Henry, was the philosophical basis of the South’s secession. In his July 4, 1861 address to Congress, Lincoln described how, from an historical perspective, the states didn’t make the Union; instead, the Union made the thirteen colonies into states. Consequently, the states have no power – even no political existence – outside of that Union. The Constitution merely reserves to the states what is inherently local: “whatever concerns only the State, should be left exclusively, to the State” (emphasis original). While Lincoln accepted this limited definition of states’ rights, he demolished, in a lawyerlike manner, the notion of “state sovereignty.”8
Political scientist Harry V. Jaffa, founder of the conservative Claremont Institute, points out that the Revolutionary colonial assemblies declared union with one another and independence from Great Britain at the same time, and most of those declarations proclaimed the rights of man in language similar to the Declaration of Independence’s statement of inalienable rights. Their instructions to their delegates to the Continental Congress all contained but a single qualification: the new states would reserve police powers. “Thus [the new states] could, euphemistically, be called sovereign, but only in this limited sense,” Jaffa argues. He points out that each of the nine prohibitions on the states in the Constitution’s first article – “for example, the denial of the right to coin money – is a denial of a power regarded as an attribute of sovereignty by international law.” 9 This limited, “police power” notion of states’ rights grew to full sovereignty precisely when states’ rights were no longer associated with natural rights. Jaffa again: “The state rights that allegedly justified the ordinances of secession of 1860 – 61, and which served as the foundation of the Confederacy, had severed the connection with natural rights that had informed the generation of the Revolution.” 10
The Constitution’s ratification and the North’s successful prosecution of the Civil War were victories for popular sovereignty and aided the gradual movement to universal suffrage. They also established the falsity of today’s claims for state sovereignty and to a right of secession. States have “rights” to the extent of their police powers, but they are not, nor have they ever been, sovereign.11
Lippmann, Walter. The Public Philosophy. Boston: Little, Brown, 1955. Print. Pages 37-38. ↩
Texas is an exception, of course: it was once a sovereign state. But as Lincoln pointed out in his July 4, 1861 address, “even Texas gave up the character on coming into the Union; by which act, she acknowledged the Constitution of the United States . . . to be, for her, the supreme law of the land.” Lincoln, supra, at 220. ↩
I didn’t set out to write a book this summer. I had planned to write, but not a book, and to write fiction. But Michael, my dear friend, suggested in June that I teach what I’ve been learning about Lockean liberalism and equality.
I’ve been writing about liberalism here for years, but I’ve wanted to teach the church about it for over a quarter century. Up until about three years ago, I knew I didn’t know enough about it to write anything as comprehensive as a book would require. And my reading and writing this summer didn’t raise me from amateur status. I guess we all better be practicing amateurs at self-government, though with humility to hear out those who know more than we, not to mention those who think differently than we. Leaving government to the professionals, thankfully, isn’t in the American tradition, though either is humility.
Even after Michael’s suggestion, I didn’t set out to write a book. Instead, I wrote the script for six half-hour videos, and I filmed myself. But summarizing stuff to the point of comprehension makes me despair of comprehensiveness. I am more advocate than teacher, more adept at writing well-supported briefs than textbooks. So as soon as I finished the videos, I started the footnotes. By the time I forced myself to stop (school was starting in two days), I had written over ten thousand words of footnotes. The book took most of the summer to research and write.
Taken together, the book’s footnotes constitute a second and higher-level course on the video’s material.
My intended audience is Christian. It sounds exclusive to speak of an intended audience. But I have to pick an audience to have a chance at writing, even a chance at writing in my journal. I do think the book is accessible to people outside of the Christian faith, who, after all, may be interested in how I’d frame for evangelical Christians the material on liberalism I’ve been writing on this blog for over five years. And I was surprised how little different writing to Christians now feels from writing on my blog to everyone. That may be purely a function of how I’m beginning to see things.
I’m putting the videos on slowpress.com after their premieres at Michael’s place. The first three are available there now. I reckon the last three will be out in a month or two.
I self-published the book today on slow press. You can read a description of it here and the table of contents, a sample chapter, the works cited, and the index here.