G. K. ChesteronOn Liberty and inequality. G.K. Chesterton would have been my kind of Union man had he been an American. While he faulted the English Socialists for denying the poor their humanity in the name of an ideal, he faulted the Tories for dong the same in the name of tradition’s accident.

Chesterton’s Edmund Burke was Lincoln’s John C. Calhoun – an “atheist” – in political theory, at least – who denied that we were all created in the image of God (Chesterton), that we were all created equal (Lincoln). From Part Five (The Home of Man) of Chesterton’s book What’s Wrong with the World:

A cultivated Conservative friend of mine once exhibited great distress because in a gay moment I once called Edmund Burke an atheist. I need scarcely say that the remark lacked something of biographical precision; it was meant to. Burke was certainly not an atheist in his conscious cosmic theory, though he had not a special and flaming faith in God, like Robespierre. Nevertheless, the remark had reference to a truth which it is here relevant to repeat. I mean that in the quarrel over the French Revolution, Burke did stand for the atheistic attitude and mode of argument, as Robespierre stood for the theistic. The Revolution appealed to the idea of an abstract and eternal justice, beyond all local custom or convenience. If there are commands of God, then there must be rights of man. Here Burke made his brilliant diversion; he did not attack the Robespierre doctrine with the old mediaeval doctrine of jus divinum (which, like the Robespierre doctrine, was theistic), he attacked it with the modern argument of scientific relativity; in short, the argument of evolution. He suggested that humanity was everywhere molded by or fitted to its environment and institutions; in fact, that each people practically got, not only the tyrant it deserved, but the tyrant it ought to have. “I know nothing of the rights of men,” he said, “but I know something of the rights of Englishmen.” There you have the essential atheist. His argument is that we have got some protection by natural accident and growth; and why should we profess to think beyond it, for all the world as if we were the images of God! We are born under a House of Lords, as birds under a house of leaves; we live under a monarchy as niggers live under a tropic sun; it is not their fault if they are slaves, and it is not ours if we are snobs. Thus, long before Darwin struck his great blow at democracy, the essential of the Darwinian argument had been already urged against the French Revolution. Man, said Burke in effect, must adapt himself to everything, like an animal; he must not try to alter everything, like an angel. The last weak cry of the pious, pretty, half-artificial optimism and deism of the eighteenth century came in the voice of Sterne, saying, “God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.” And Burke, the iron evolutionist, essentially answered, “No; God tempers the shorn lamb to the wind.” It is the lamb that has to adapt himself. That is, he either dies or becomes a particular kind of lamb who likes standing in a draught.

I was so glad this morning, reading this. The debate surrounding the equality clause isn’t only an American debate. Chesterton vs. Burke; Lincoln vs. Calhoun and Stevens; Jaffa vs. Rehnquist and Bork. A moderation founded on a theological understanding of the rights of man vs. a conservatism founded on tradition and historicism.

True poetry of possession

I am well aware that the word “property” has been defied in our time by the corruption of the great capitalists. One would think, to hear people talk, that the Rothchilds and the Rockefellers were on the side of property. But obviously they are the enemies of property because they are enemies of their own limitations. They do not want their own land but other people’s. When they remove their neighbor’s landmark, they also remove their own. A man who loves a little triangular field ought to love it because it is triangular; anyone who destroys the shape, by giving him more land, is a thief who has stolen a triangle. A man with the true poetry of possession wishes to see the wall where his garden meets Smith’s garden, the hedge where his farm touches Brown’s. He cannot see the shape of his own land unless he sees the edges of his neighbor’s. It is the negation of property that the Duke of Sutherland should have all the farms in one estate, just as it would be the negation of marriage if he had all our wives in one harem.

 – Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith). What’s Wrong with the World. 1910. Kindle Edition. Page 48.


Defied one,
think to hear:
people talk

the side of
enemies –
their own

other. They
mark their own
who love afield

triangular. Love is
triangular – true poetry
where garden meets garden,

where his touches
cannot see the shape
of his own harem.

Inspired by Dave Bonta’s erasure project at Via Negativa.


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.

The final video

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 is out.

Video 5 of my series to the American church entitled, “The Nature of Government.” The previous videos are at 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.)

That is cool.

3PictureRiskBoardShutting 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.

(I don’t know why Speaker Boehner, who earlier this year said that “trying to put Obamacare on [a budget resolution] risks shutting down the government,” now says this isn’t a game.)

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.

And when these expanded versions of gerrymandering and filibustering aren’t enough, some states’ rights leaders threaten to support their states’ secession from the Union, as Texas Governor Rick Perry has done, or vote to decimate the nation’s economy, as Florida Rep. Ted Yoho plans to do later this month.

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.

And stockpiling assault weapons for a potential rebellion against the federal government? Way, way cool.

P.S. – This week’s Time cover is a classic:



On “The basis of liberal-conservative rapprochement.” In his 1955 book The Public Philosophy, Walter Lippmann points out how progressives need conservatism:

. . . 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.

Riposte 5 (class)

“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.”

– Jill Lepore’s book review in this week’s New Yorker.

Prose to the Gettysburg Address’s poetry

1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam GoodheartLincoln 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 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.