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.
Through wisdom is an house builded; and by understanding it is established: and by knowledge shall the chambers be filled with all precious and pleasant riches. – Proverbs 24:3-4 (KJV)
I’ll use Solomon’s continuum to summarize how American government could work again. Government is the house. Properly fitting conservatism with Lockean liberalism is wisdom. Lockean liberalism itself is understanding. And conservatism is knowledge. Or, as Professor Alexander Rosenthal puts it:
[L]iberalism by itself is not a self-sustaining source of values but must be undergirded by some more substantive understanding of the good, the true, and the beautiful. And where shall this understanding be found, if not in that broader religious, intellectual, and moral inheritance of Western civilization which traditionalists have sought to conserve?
On Tom Jones, Moderate. I loved it when I found Fielding and his editor, Martin Battestin, linking Calvin and Hobbes. Now I discover Walter Lippmann in his 1955 book The Public Philosophy linking Calvin and Rousseau. More strange bedfellows! (A philosophical ménage à trois?)
To Rousseau, as to John Calvin who lived in Geneva before him, men were fallen and depraved, deformed with their lusts and their aggressions. The force of the new doctrine [“Rousseau’s dogma of the natural goodness of man”] lay in its being a gospel of redemption and regeneration. Men who were evil were to be made good. Jacobinism is, in fact, a Christian heresy — perhaps the most influential since the Arian. (71 – 71)
Calvin’s person falls before he’s born, but Rousseau’s falls when he’s educated. (Wordworth stakes out a middle ground, I think: his person begins to fall when she’s born, “trailing clouds of glory.”) Calvin’s theology led his English followers to argue for a theocracy; Rousseau’s philosophy led his French followers to tear down classes and institutions. Idealism works well only when it works slowly. We Christians cannot point vaguely to secularism as the source of governmental ills. Lippmann is right: Jacobinism, still alive and well in concepts such as Robert Bork’s majority morality, is a Christian heresy.
A few people recently asked me for some good reads to start them into natural law, Lockean liberalism, and the equality clause. I oblige them here.
The Teaching Company’s Great Courses includes a thoughtful overview on the history and development of natural law theory. Joseph Koterski’s “Natural Law and Human Nature” course comes with a good “course guidebook” that has lots of suggestions for more reading.
One of those suggestions is Paul E. Sigmund’s book Natural Law in Political Thought. Here is the most approachable scholarly book I’ve read on the subject. Like Koterski’s course, Sigmund’s book traces natural law’s development over the centuries.
Sigmund’s book, in turn, mentions Walter Lippmann’s book The Public Philosophy. I’m reading it now. Unlike Koterski and Sigmund, Lippmann was not a scholar but (as Wikipedia puts it) a public intellectual and an amateur philosopher. He wrote The Public Philosophy in 1955, near the end of his reign as probably the twentieth century’s most influential American columnist. Lippmann’s book isn’t a history book; instead, it advocates that America readopt natural law as its public philosophy.
Three good primary sources would be Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay’s Federalist Papers, and Lincoln’s writings. Political Writings of John Locke has a long (115 pages) and excellent introduction by David Wootton. The introduction puts Locke’s works in the context of his life and times and explains his works’ appeal to the American revolutionary generation. The Signet Classic version of the Federalist Papers has a much shorter but equally thoughtful introduction, this one by Charles R. Kesler. Written in 1999, the introduction presciently demonstrates how pertinent the Federalist Papers are to us today: “The American Union is threatening to split up into separate confederacies of states, Publius argues, and each state is itself teetering on the brink of tyranny due to the danger of majority faction.” As for Lincoln’s writings, I use Lincoln on Democracy, edited by Mario M. Cuomo and Harold Holzer, and the Holzer-edited version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. My favorite intellectual biography of Lincoln is the very approachable Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President by Allen C. Guelzo.
Three good steps for finding free or cheap books: (1) showroom Amazon (many would say it’s only fair) using its customer reviews and its “Look Inside” feature where available, or Google Books, to see what you want, (2) look for free e-book downloads on archive.org’s texts section, Open Library, or Amazon’s Kindle store and the like (usually books out of copyright) (you can borrow many e-books at these sites, too), and, barring that, (3) shop for used hard-copy books, starting at bookfinder.com. And three guidelines for buying used books: (1) hardbacks are often way cheaper than paperbacks, (2) older editions are often way cheaper than newer editions, and (3) (contrary to all reason) well-marked books are often way cheaper than “clean” books.
Back in the day, Fairfax County Circuit Court had discernible terms, each of which were scheduled out on Term Day. That day saw most of the area’s litigation firms represented by a partner or associate, all of whom crowded into the building’s largest courtroom, presided over by the chief judge. We all sat in for the long haul.
Term Day was simple. The popularly elected Clerk of the Court himself would call out a case name. The chief judge would then ask the case’s lawyers how long they expected a trial to take, whether a certain date was acceptable to start the trial, and (if I remember this right) whether the litigants could settle the case. Those rather straightforward questions gave the lawyers a stage to show off their wit, and sometimes their invective, as they sparred to provide the court and a sizeable number of their peers with some essence, and maybe even a theory, of each case.
As a young lawyer, I had the sense of watching a kind of preening and camaraderie that computers and other pressures toward efficiency would soon dismiss from our local practice. But the repartee of some of the quickest and wittiest lawyers on Term Day got retold in conference rooms before depositions and in the courthouse cafeteria at lunch.
By the time I left off lawyering seventeen years ago, Term Day and its odd bonhomie were greatly diminished, thanks in part to our “differentiated case tracking program” and the telephone. Around that time, compiled results from surveys canvassing local lawyers bemoaned a fresh lack of collegiality. The friction was traced in most legal minds to around the time most trials had begun to be scheduled without a lawyer’s trip to the courthouse. The end of Term Day as we had known it wasn’t everything, but it was indicative of everything.
I remember reading about the riveting, and boring, but always well-attended Senate debates in Merrill D. Peterson’s book The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun and comparing those debates with my visits years ago to the House and Senate chambers. When I was there, a handful of lawmakers were milling around almost empty seats while one congressman was reading some remarks into the Congressional Record. The scenes reminded me of times when a lawyer, having lost an important evidentiary motion at trial, was left to spend his lunch hour alone in the courtroom with the court reporter, proffering into the record the evidence he would have presented had the judge ruled in his favor. In many cases, his words were never read by anyone save that lone reporter.
I wonder if the lack of real back-and-forth in Congress has lead to a permanently shallow public debate about most important issues and to an exceptional distrust between the two major parties’ congressmen. (I can’t say that it has contributed much to the pervasive gridlock because congressmen sat dutifully through seemingly interminable speeches in, say, John Quincy Adams’s day, and the Republican Congress then denied the Federalist president every thing he asked for.)
Back in the day, John Randolph of Roanoke could exchange pistol shots in a duel with Henry Clay, one of his archrivals, and still seek him out to wish him well when he (Randolph) knew that he (Randolph) had but days to live. Randolph could also say, “Clay’s eye is on the Presidency, and my eye is on him,” and then years later direct that his (Randolph’s) body be buried at Roanoke facing west so that he could still keep his eye on Clay.
Do we allow our adversaries – those whose stances block our progress as completely as a childhood brother’s – to work their way into us to this extent? Do we fight enough or even care enough to distinguish a special vintage of respect our souls pour only for an adversary?
° ° °
Virginia’s Deputy Attorney General has introduced me, as if at Term Day, to John Randolph. David Johnson’s 2012 biography (John Randolph of Roanoke) celebrates the force and wit of Randolph’s remarks from the outset of his long career in the House of Representatives. Randolph, when he wasn’t picking fights, or when his mental and physical illnesses or his distain for preparation lead him into hours of nonsense, made the House as lively as a good party.
Johnson pursues Randolph’s bon mots in debate, and if Johnson’s account is to be accepted, no opponent got the best of Randolph from the time he first entered the House in 1799 until he was recalled by the Virginia legislature from his U.S. Senate seat after just a single year in 1827. Here’s one of my favorite exchanges:
Tiring of these skirmishes [over the 1824 tariff bill], Louis McLane of Delaware, “appearing to be much irritated,” barked that Randolph had displayed a good head, but he would not accept that gentleman’s head, to be obligated to have his heart along with it.” McLane sat mute as Randolph replied that he “would not, in return, take that gentleman’s heart, good it may be, if obliged to take such a head in the bargain.” (199)
I knew that Randolph had been a thorn in Jefferson’s right side since early in his presidency, but I had forgotten what Dumas Malone, that greatest of Jeffersonian biographers, had written about Randolph’s motives. Johnson reminded me: he quotes Malone as describing Randolph as “’willful, capricious, [and] neurotic,’ displaying ‘excesses of arrogant belligerency . . . explained, in terms of modern psychology, as over-compensation for his lack of virility.’” Johnson, though, favors historian Russell Kirk’s conclusions. Kirk practically rediscovered Randolph in his 1941 graduate student paper, calling him “a genius, the prophet of Southern nationalism and the architect of Southern conservatism” (230). Kirk turned the paper into a book, John Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in American Politics, and included him prominently in his influential 1953 book, The Conservative Mind.
Two quotes from Randolph’s contemporaries, I think, might better sum up the chief strength and weakness Randolph presented on the House and Senate floors. Lewis Machen, secretary of the Senate, observed that “for cool, yet cutting sarcasm, severity of retort, quickness of reply, the play of fancy, and coruscations of wit, he has scarcely a superior” (171). James Monroe, an early Randolph friend and ally who became, in Randolph’s view, like most men of his party, a Republican In Name Only, found Randolph “a capital hand to pull down, but I am not aware that he has ever exhibited much skill as a builder” (193).
Three things, it seems, combined to give Randolph this Jeremiah-like calling Monroe attributes to him: his love of conflict, his strict conservative principles, and his constant willingness, at least after his support of Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, to choose those principles over expediency. Johnson twice quotes Randolph’s own summary of principles: “I am an aristocrat. I love liberty, I hate equality” (6 and 231). Randolph expanded on them a bit more during his loud and steady – and quite unpopular – criticism of the War of 1812. The Republican party’s principles are, he said:
Love of peace, hatred of offensive war; jealousy of the State Governments towards the General Government, and of the influence of the Executive Government over the co-ordinate branches of that Government; a dread of standing armies; a loathing of public debt, taxes, and excises; tenderness for the liberty of the citizens; jealousy, Argus-eyed jealousy, of the patronage of the President. (152 – 53)
Randolph’s stand against what he felt were the pernicious effects of equality was clearest in his opposition to the Virginia constitution proposed at the 1829 Richmond convention, which would have eliminated the property requirement for suffrage. The then-current constitution required free white males to own “a hundred acres of improved land, or twenty-five acres of land with a house, or an improved lot in town” (216 – 17). The land requirements disfranchised around 27 percent of the men in the eastern part of the state otherwise qualified to vote, but it did the same for nearly half of the men in the western part. Our state’s Deputy Attorney General believes that Randolph correctly foresaw that eliminating the property requirement would lead to two evils: universal, public education and the welfare state:
He had seen this tactic at the federal level and could not believe that the assembled wisdom in the room was “seriously and soberly” considering “[divorcing] property from power.” Again displaying the prescience that marked so many of his speeches, Randolph predicted the result of unchecked will and appetite, something he could describe but not yet name: the welfare state. (219)
Indeed, Johnson’s book seems fairly shaped by Randolph’s prescience. Anticipating supply-side economics, Randolph suggests that Congress roll back taxes in order to increase revenue (171). “In words that could be drawn from twenty-first-century headlines,” as Johnson puts it, Randolph warns Congress not to edge toward war against “the Moslems” in Turkey, calling it a “crusade” against a foe we hardly understand (194). Giving up, for once, an opportunity to spell out the connection with current politics, Johnson quotes Randolph’s 47% moment almost two centuries before Mitt Romney’s: “We shall be divided into two great but very unequal classes,” he wrote, “those who pay taxes and those who receive the proceeds of them” (165). Johnson seems to have updated Kirk’s biography of Randolph in part to draw lessons for a new generation of conservatives.
I was impressed with one of Randolph’s prescient statements: Randolph feared that the Missouri Compromise’s division of the Louisiana Purchase into slave and free territory “would spark a fanaticism toward slavery, with northerners fixated on abolition and southerners determined to protect the institution.” (Jefferson also predicted that it would be “the knell of the union” (184).)
Speaking of what Johnson calls only, without explanation or irony, “The War Between the States,” I was glad that Randolph lived long enough to weigh in on the nullification crisis. I shouldn’t have been surprised that he condemned both Calhoun’s nullification doctrine and Jackson’s strong response to it. Like his great enemy Madison (another RINO), Randolph drew a thick line between the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798, on the one hand, which declared a federal law unconstitutional but didn’t claim that a single state could overturn it, and Calhoun’s doctrine, on the other hand, which purported to nullify certain federal laws insofar as they impacted a state.
But Johnson believes that Randolph was also right to condemn Jackson for stating that “states had no rights to secede. Thus Jackson trampled not only nullification, but also state sovereignty, federalism, and states’ rights” (225). How sad that Calhoun’s doctrine of secession, inimical to majority rule as well as to our inalienable rights, is championed by one of my state’s deputy attorney generals.
Ironically, however, Johnson is wrong in one of the rare instances in which he criticizes Randolph – for using states’ rights to defend an aspect of slavery policy. During the Missouri Compromise debates, Johnson writes, Randolph “had resurrected the states’ rights argument but had linked it irreparably to the slavery issue. Thus he forever tainted states’ rights and virtually eliminated it as a future protection against centralization” (186 – 187). Johnson doesn’t argue that Randolph’s linkage is wrong – I say he can’t – he argues instead that the linkage was impolitic. I’ve come to believe that states’ rights and slavery were irrevocably mixed in the Constitution since that document gave slaveholding states specific powers free states didn’t possess. It only remained for Calhoun, who late in Randolph’s career switched from being his enemy to his unrequited admirer, to transform “the question of individual and minority rights into the question of state rights,” as Professor Harry V. Jaffa puts it (Jaffa, A New Birth of Freedom, 278). What John Locke and James Madison had written in the Second Treatise of Government and in the Federalist Papers, respectively, about the possibility of majority tyranny against the individual, Calhoun had transferred to an inherent majority tyranny in the form of the federal government against the minority of an individual state or group of states. In the process, of course, Calhoun denies the rights inherent in individuals asserted by Locke and Madison. Calhoun made clear in his famous Senate speech on June 27, 1848 that individuals qua individuals have no rights. Rights attach to individuals only as members of a race, and then only when that race earns those rights over the course of generations.
“I am an aristocrat. I love liberty, I hate equality” (6 and 231). What is the source of Randolph’s liberty? Not his standing before God as a son, as it is for Locke. Here’s a riff from a rather disjointed speech Randolph gave on March 2, 1826:
“Sir, my only objection is that these principles, pushed to their extreme consequences – that all men are born free and equal – I can never assent to, for the best of reasons, because it is not true . . . even though I find it in the Declaration of Independence . . . [I]f there is an animal on earth to which it does not apply – that is not born free, it is man. He is born in a state of the most abject want, and a state of perfect helplessness and ignorance, which is the foundation of his connubial tie.” (208)
Calhoun probably used Randolph’s remarks here, or similar ones Randolph may have made on another occasion, as an outline for his 1848 speech. (Johnson says only that “Calhoun listened hard” to Randolph’s March 2, 1826 remarks.) The two Congressmen’s speeches are strikingly similar. Of course, Randolph, like Calhoun after him, mistakenly conflates the metaphysical and foundational equality of Aquinas, Locke, and Jefferson with the economic equality he accused his political foes of fostering. One does not lead to the other.
Randolph’s claim to liberty, then, is not based on the proposition that all men are created equal, which Jaffa points out is nothing less than the premise for the laws of nature and of nature’s God (439). In this most succinct statement of his beliefs, Randolph prefaces his love for liberty with his identity as an aristocrat, or, more precisely, with his standing as a slaveholding member of Virginia’s landed aristocracy. As laudatory as many of Randolph’s political stances were, one can understand almost all of them as attempts to maintain this false identity by challenging every change.
And this is the problem I have with the foundation of what usually passes for American conservatism. It is historicism. It relegates eternity to death and religion. Lockean liberalism, on the other hand, is founded on an individual’s identity as God’s child. History, for Locke, is the story of how that eternal relationship plays out in societies and governments.
And certainly poetry is not the inculcation of morals, or the direction of politics; and no more is it religion or an equivalent of religion, except by some monstrous abuse of words . . . . On the other hand, poetry as certainly has something to do with morals, and with religion, and even with politics perhaps, though we cannot say what.
– T. S. Eliot, from his preface to the 1928 edition of The Sacred Wood
T. S. Eliot was a poet, but he was also a man, and I imagine and care about and defend the man, and do so without defending his religion or his politics or even his poetics, because of his poetry.
Eliot wouldn’t have liked that – I mean, the care I profess for him through his poetry. He could make no connection to himself through his published poems. If he could have in a given case, the poem in question would hardly have been worth publishing. That is (and to state the contraposition), Eliot’s successful poem entirely replaced the feeling that gave rise to it. The feeling was private, anyway, and is of no interest to anyone but the poet.
Particularly in Eliot’s case, however, the opposite was true. It seems as if everyone were interested in what Eliot was thinking and feeling when he wrote his poetry. Everyone, it seems, except Eliot. Although he thought highly of parts of The Waste Land, for instance, he said for him it was “just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.”1 He thought highly of his poem only in the context of the tradition it entered. There was nothing of him left in the poem to connect with as its creator.
Tradition alone is objective, Eliot thought, so poetry is tradition’s alone. To “surrender to the tradition,” as Frank Kermode explains it, Eliot was required to lose whatever emotional fillip first caused him to pick up his pen. Eliot approved of Gottfried Benn’s description of the poet’s process:
When the words are finally arranged in the right way – or in what he comes to accept as the best arrangement he can find – [the poet] may experience a moment of exhaustion, of appeasement, of absolution, and of something very near annihilation, which is in itself indescribable. And then he can say to the poem: “Go away! Find a place for yourself in a book – and don’t expect me to take any further interest in you.”2
Eliot’s poems left him to make their way in the world, or at least in the world of tradition, which for Eliot was the same thing.
Tradition fed Eliot’s aesthetics and made room for his poems, but tradition also gave Eliot a sense of himself as both a public and private man. Try to ignore the public Eliot, and the private Eliot will meet you at his door with ironic, mirthless laughter. Eliot insisted on his masks, and not just because he was a playwright. Masks make men – public men, anyway, and public men take the pressure off and even defend the private men they correlate to. Eliot’s “objective correlative,” then, is not just part of Eliot’s rather uncomplicated poetics. Just as a poem’s impersonality comes “at the expense of its correlation with the suffering of its author” (Kermode’s explanation)3, so the health of a man’s public persona comes at the price one pays to protect his private self.
Eliot’s tradition wasn’t merely a literary tradition. The tradition that permits greater means of understanding and evaluating Eliot’s poetry involves arts, letters, education, religion, and politics. He was driven to Roman Catholicism in part because of its catholicity. He was driven to conservative and imperialist politics in part because of what his poems required of him. Kermode explains that there was in Eliot “an element of mysticism also, and a scholastic sense of the complexities of time and eternity” that informed his religion and politics.4 Tradition is not just literature but also tradition’s public sphere and the public men and women who walk around it. No tradition, no poetry, and worse: no public man.
Though Eliot’s politics fail even as a guardian over an artistic tradition5, I’m drawn to his notion of poetry as “something to do with morals, and with religion, and even with politics perhaps, though we cannot say what.” Eliot hated the idea of a society of sequestered religious, literary, and political specialists, a problem that has steadily grown worse since he wrote about it:
And just as those who should be the intellectuals regard theology as a special study, like numismatics or heraldry, with which they need not concern themselves, and theologians observe the same indifference to literature and art, as special studies which do not concern them, so our political classes regard both fields as territories of which they have no reason to be ashamed of remaining in complete ignorance.6
Choirs are the great levelers. Who knew a lawyer or a programmer or a nightwatchman could sing? Who knew they'd wear the same clothes?
The sequestration of politics, religion, and art, he believed, is endangering the planet’s physical health:
For a long enough time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanized, commercialized, urbanized way of life: I would be as well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet. And without sentimentalizing the life of the savage, we might practice the humility to observe, in some of the societies upon which we look down as primitive or backward, the operation of a social-religious-artistic complex which we should emulate upon a higher plane.7
I brood a lot, as I guess my occasional screeds suggest. I’m no politician, theologian, or literary scholar. But as a lawyer I worked with politicians, as a church worker I had an interest in theology, and as an English teacher I’ve kept my hand in literature. Over the past number of years I find that my blog has divided itself among political, religious, and literary posts. Nothing could have pleased me more than finally finding some common ground among my three interests, as I reported recently in an update to an old post, “Our Sardonic Lord.”
I viscerally feel the lack of Eliot’s so-called “social-religious-artistic complex” if only because I feel torn among something like these three callings while something inside tells me I should hear them as one.
I am afraid to move: there is little left of a public sphere. “When the wicked rise, men hide themselves” (Proverbs 28:28). I like to hide; besides, I’m certainly no more talented than the next man. But the calling itself, whether it ever involves anything like action, is primarily a call to brood – to pray.
My heroes, too, are often brooders. I frequently picture three of them, and all of their actions or inactions I trace to their brooding. I have a primary brooder in each field – literary, political, and religious. It’s a good thing for me Eliot isn’t my literary brooder since he believed that he left nothing of himself in his poems.
Instead, my mind finds comfort in Robert Lax, the promising poet who left America in the 1960’s to become a hermit in Patmos until just before his death in 2000. I see him writing one, maybe two words, thinking about them for an hour or so, and then going down to the shore. Thomas Merton on his friend Lax:
. . . a mind full of tremendous and subtle intuitions, and every day he found less and less to say about them, and resigned himself to being inarticulate.8
(And Lax, like St. John, the surviving apostle now prophet, before him, living on the Isle of Patmos, opening cans of tuna for his cats.)
My political brooder is Lincoln. I’ve read loads of Lincoln books, but the scene that sticks closest to me is the one Stephen B. Oates, in his Sandburg-like biography With Malice Toward None, engenders:
In 1853, Lincoln was riding circuit when reports came of new Congressional skirmishing over slavery in the territories. It appeared that Senator Stephen A. Douglas was trying to organize a Nebraska territory out in the American heartland, but free-soil and proslavery forces were wrangling bitterly over the status of slavery there. Lincoln followed the course of Douglas’s territorial bill as it was reported in the Congressional Globe, and he became melancholy again. Friends who saw him sitting alone in rural courthouses thought him more withdrawn than ever. Once when they went to bed in a rude hostelry, they left him sitting in front of the fireplace staring intently at the flames. The next morning he was still there, studying the ashes and charred logs . . . . [ellipse original]9
 The furnace fires at an April dusk. A bucket of coal stars, and the musk of burning dust.
The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill the following year pushed Lincoln to act. “In a single blow, the bill had obliterated the Missouri Compromise line and in Lincoln’s view had profoundly altered the entire course of the Republic so far as slavery was concerned.”10 But rightly or wrongly, I trace back every action Lincoln took after Kansas-Nebraska to that all-nighter in front of the fireplace.
Ideals must burn low and long and locally. Lincoln was my kind of idealist. He understood the hell in his own idealism.
. . . the earth was wild and waste,
darkness over the face of Ocean,
rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters—11
Some translations have the Spirit in action – “moving” – and others have it brooding – “hovering.” But Fox captures for me the possibility of both, the “rushing-spirit . . . hovering.” Fox also captures best what for me is the next-most pivotal verse in scripture, the verse after which Israel, as slaves and without a public life, would slowly begin to emerge from Egypt:
God hearkened to their moaning,
God called-to-mind his covenant with Avraham, with Yitzhak, and with Yaakov,
God saw the Children of Israel,
Kermode, Frank. Introduction. Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. By T. S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, 1975. Print. At 17. ↩
He fears “an irresponsible democracy” as much as “a pagan theory of the State.” Holding Italy up as a positive example in 1939, he writes that the operation of such a pagan theory “does not necessarily mean a wholly pagan society.” He rejects democracy as potential home for a vibrant literature “unless democracy is to mean something very different from anything actual” (The Idea of a Christian Society). Picking up the spirit of his book title – mine might be The Idea of a Liberal Democracy – I might respond that American democracy means something very different from anything actual.
Eliot fears modern democracy because the community is solely a servant of the individual; he fears totalitarian states because the individual is solely a servant of the state (see his essay “Religion and Literature”). I fear both, too. The liberal notion of equality and its consequent majority rule held in check by reason and nature has been given a bad name by our tendency toward a Jacobin notion of unlimited majority rule that leads in time to one or the other extremes Eliot fears. Lockean liberalism requires God because it requires men and women with equal rights – none of them a god over his fellows. Locke’s equality leaves each man his property and, as a necessary consequence, makes room for his talents, artistic and otherwise. To showcase those talents it contemplates a vibrant public life; indeed, Madison’s overarching purpose for a separation of powers and a bicameral legislature was to model public discourse to the young nation.
Like a number of Catholic writers, Eliot seems receptive to the notion of natural law. He writes about mankind’s relation to nature and God as if he were pining for a return of Locke’s philosophy. In Christian Society, he points out an imbalance in the hierarchy among God, humanity, and nature:
. . . a wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God, and that the consequence is an inevitable doom. For a long enough time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanized, commercialized, urbanized way of life: I would be as well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet. . . . We have been accustomed to regard “progress” as always integral; and have yet to learn that it is only by an effort and a discipline, greater than society has yet seen the need of imposing upon itself, that material knowledge and power is gained without loss of spiritual knowledge and power. (We must) struggle to recover the sense of relation to nature and to God, (and) the recognition that even the most primitive feelings should be part of our heritage . . .
Locke’s natural law, of course, is mostly part of a tradition stretching back to Aquinas’s natural law, and from there back to ancient Israel and Athens. It has far more tradition associated with it than does the more modern doctrine of the divine right of kings. I like to think Eliot would have liked Locke had he read him. ↩
Eliot, T. S. “The Idea of a Christian Society.” 1939. Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, 1975. 285-91. Print. ↩
President Obama is now a Whig! I thought I was the only party member left. But Obama found the central structure and philosophy of his second inaugural address this week in the core Whig doctrine of equality.
Let’s first talk structure. Consider how Obama introduces the Declaration of Independence’s equality clause (“all men are created equal”). Obama’s introduction amounts to a restatement of the opening to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Both Lincoln’s and Obama’s openings say that American was founded on a concept (Lincoln, “proposition”; Obama, “idea”), they mention the number of years since the Declaration’s signing (Lincoln, “Four score and seven years ago”; Obama (rather more prosaically), “more than two centuries ago”), they mention the importance of committing to the concept of equality (Lincoln, “dedicated”; Obama, “allegiance”), and they quote the equality clause itself. Here’s a diagram of these similarities:
By the time Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address, of course, the Whig Party was defunct, and most Northern Whigs had joined the nascent Republican Party. But the Gettysburg Address’s focus on the equality clause was a posthumous vindication of the Whig Party and its two central ideas. The first is that America is a single nation and not a confederation of states subject to the states’ secession. The second is that the Declaration’s equality clause was the philosophical force behind America’s social and economic improvement.
I’ll start with the latter idea. Obama cited the equality clause in support of equal pay for equal work, gay marriage, removing barriers from voting, immigration reform, and child safety issues, including gun control. That’s a lot of social and economic change justified by a single clause in the Declaration of Independence. I’ll look at three of those issues (equal pay, gay marriage, and immigration reform) and examine what Lincoln, with his Whiggish political philosophy, might have done.
1. “All men are created equal” and economic fairness
Lincoln might have done much to require equal pay for equal work were he alive today. Equal pay for equal work is an issue of economic fairness, and, according to Lincoln scholar Allen Guelzo, Lincoln explicitly tied the equality clause to economics:
Lincoln also read the Declaration as promoting the critical Whig demand for economic expansion. The foundation of any worthwhile idea of equality was economic “betterment,” and that right was what Lincoln found first in the Declaration. “It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.” [Quoting Lincoln]1
Guelzo quotes a Whig newspaper’s editorial connecting the equality clause with internal improvements and greater education on the same “equal chance” line of thought. Indeed, according to Guelzo, “No part of the Declaration had more appeal for the Whigs than the controversial ‘equality’ clause, since equality in the Whig lexicon immediately translated into economic opportunism, and thus positioned the Declaration as an endorsement of the Whig political agenda.”2
Obama’s endorsement of equal pay for equal work, then, would seem like an extension of the Whiggish alignment of the equality clause with economic issues.
Obama was whistling Lincoln’s economic tune long before this week’s inaugural address, of course. When asked during the second debate what was the biggest misperception the American people had of him, Obama answered (in pertinent part):
I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk takers being rewarded. But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules.
Lincoln also was quick to point out that the equality clause called for economic opportunity and not for economic equality. The Declaration “does not declare that all men are equal in their attainments or social position,” Lincoln pointed out. But “all should have an equal chance”3 – the equivalent of Obama’s insistence that “everybody should have a fair shot.”
The equality clause was aspirational, as Lincoln also took Jesus’ injunction to “be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect”:
The Savior, I suppose, did not expect that any human creature could be perfect, as the Father in Heaven; but . . . He set that up as a standard, and he who did most towards reaching that standard, attained the highest degree of moral perfection. So I say in relation to the principle that all men are created equal, let it be nearly reached as we can. . . .4
2. “All men are created equal” and gay marriage
Lincoln, however, probably never conceived of the notion that the equality clause would aspire as far as gay marriage. The very term “gay marriage” suggests, though, that its proponents see the issue as one of equal rights. Those proponents would find more support from Lincoln once the Civil War had begun than they would before he was president. Before becoming president, Lincoln was not prepared to grant African Americans social equality:
Blacks, Lincoln insisted, may have to tolerate some measure of inferiority in their civil or social rights in an overwhelmingly white society, and the probability that this would remain a permanent feature of American life kept Lincoln proposing gradual emancipation and colonization rather than abolition as the ultimate answer. But “no sane man will attempt to deny that the African upon his own soil has all the natural rights” the Declaration “vouchsafes to all mankind.”5
Lincoln changed his mind, of course, about the applicability of the equality clause to African Americans in their home country, the United States. And, as my students pointed out to me today as we discussed Obama’s inaugural, each generation may find its own inspiration from the Declaration’s equality clause.
3. “All men are created equal” and immigration reform
Obama also tracks Lincoln by tying immigration reform to the equality clause:
Our journey [to equality] is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.
Lincoln believed that the Declaration, and particularly its equality clause, made immigrants just as “American” as the colonists who adopted the Declaration in 1776:
“But when [immigrants] look through that old declaration of Independence,” Lincoln believed, they find principles that rise above one’s place of birth . . . . “They find that those old men say that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men . . . and that they have a right to claim it as though they were flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration.”3
The universality of the equality clause – its self-evident application to every person in every nation – meant that, for Lincoln, immigrants had as much natural right as Americans in equality. If Lincoln agrees with Obama that “what makes us American is our allegiance to an idea” (i.e., the idea that all men are created equal), then the immigrant seeking equality and the economic opportunity equality envisions is as much of an American as I, a natural-born citizen.
The notion that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” (Lincoln) – the notion that what makes an American is her “allegiance to [the idea that all men are created equal]” (Obama) – is a radical departure from the usual concepts of love of homeland; fear of another race, religion, or nationality; and economic protectionism that in part seem to drive our immigration debate and decisions.
4. The Declaration of Independence and Secession
But beyond adopting Lincoln’s expansive and aspirational view of the equality clause, Obama’s speech adopts the Declaration of Independence itself as the document creating the country’s social contract. Obama’s stance is in harmony with the Whigs, who praised the Declaration “for creating a single unified nation, not the confederation of states that Calhoun found in the Constitution.”2 Obama stance about the nature of the union, reaffirmed by his frequent repetition of “We the people” from the Constitution’s preamble, was a philosophical shot over the bow of those who have threatened secession of late.
All this comes six months after I criticized Obama here for ceding the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to the strict constructionists:
Little that Obama or his campaign says or does is ever traced back in the public’s mind to a coherent theory of government implemented before, say, the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.
By adopting this week the old, Whiggish approach to the Declaration and its equality clause, Obama has made things interesting.
Guelzo, Allen C. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999. Print. At 195. ↩
More on the red-blue divide, this time focusing on gun ownership. The eleven states with the highest number of gun owners per capita are red; the nine states with the lowest number are blue. Of course, people own guns for many reasons; eight that come to mind are target shooting, hunting, shooting varmints, assisting in crimes, protection from burglars, collecting, reassurance in the face of impotence (defined broadly), and rising up in arms, if it comes to that, against the federal government1. The growing prevalence of concealed weapons makes me think my list is not nearly complete.
There’s a name for those gun buyers: Republicans. As the FiveThirtyEight blog noted Tuesday, the 2010 General Social Survey showed that 50 percent of adult Republicans owned guns, while only 22 percent of adult Democrats did. This gap in gun-ownership rates has swelled over the past 40 years: In the 1973 survey, 55 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Democrats had a gun at home. Polls suggest this gap will continue to widen: In the 2008 national exit polls, the percentage of Democrats with guns declined as the age cohorts grew younger, while the GOP rate of gun ownership was the same across all age groups. Increasingly, then, it’s our shrinking Republican minority that is buying guns.
Our next Congress won’t pass meaningful gun control despite the renewed popularity of such measures and despite what Fareed Zakariah calls the “blindingly obvious” link between gun control and reduced gun violence. The GOP-led House is becoming almost impervious to national opinion polls. Why? Even though this year more people voted for Democratic House candidates than for Republican ones, new redistricting favored the Republicans, who controlled more state governments during the latest census. Redistricting means the GOP keeps its House majority, and it also ensures that most congressmen won’t allow the kind of gun control that would help prevent massacres.
The political gap may keep us from making headway against guns, but it didn’t cause the gun gap. The gun gap and the political gap, I think, are both symptoms of a worldview gap. And as for the owners of these private magazines, I’m crossing off target shooting, hunting, shooting varmints, assisting in crimes, and protection from burglars.
(Previous red-blue divide posts focused on the new migration of people to states reflecting their political views and on the (not unrelated) new prevalence of state executives and legislatures controlled by a single party.)
“Gun Show” by Michael Glasgow. Used by permission.
As former U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle puts it, the recent increase in gun sales “tells me that the nation is arming. What are they arming for if it isn’t that they are so distrustful of government? They’re afraid they’ll have to fight for their liberty in more Second Amendment kinds of ways. . . . If we don’t win at the ballot box, what will be the next step?” ↩