Out-Lincolning Lincoln

My father and I spent this year’s Beach Week on each other’s history turf, he reading Doris Kearns Gooodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and I reading (or rather listening to – I’m a recent convert to Audible.com‘s unabridged readings) Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour. Each had read the other’s book, so we had a couple of good conversations, one based on each book.

Pop has read at least a hundred books on World War II, I’m sure, but I usually don’t take to them except for biographies. But the Founders and Lincoln – I love that stuff. And Citizens of London, though set in World War II, features a fellow Lincoln lover, a boarding-school teacher who has the lads over evenings to discuss Lincoln and Jefferson. Despite his shy ways – his audiences are always embarrassed for him because of his long, awkward pauses during speeches – Gil Winant also becomes a World War I fighter pilot, New Hampshire’s all-time favorite governor, the first head of the Social Security board under Roosevelt, and the head of the International Labor Office until 1941, when Roosevelt appoints him as Ambassador to Great Britain, a post he holds until 1946.

Winant, whom I had never heard of until this book, is Lincoln without the guile. Like his hero, Winant is a Republican who does as much as he can for labor, introducing legislation to limit factory workers’ hours and winning passage of a state welfare program that prefigures the New Deal. He even has Lincoln’s honest, keen face, his disheveled dress and hair, and his piercing gray eyes. Winant’s speechifying has the same effect as Lincoln’s at the end as well as the beginning, too: his audiences’ embarrassment usually turns to wild cheers after hearing out his honest and well-reasoned idealism. But, while Lincoln’s ambition is “a little engine that knew no rest,” according to Lincoln’s law partner Billy Herndon, Winant gives up his political ambitions by turning his support for Roosevelt’s Social Security program into a national crusade, to the consternation of his fellow Republicans. His unqualified support for Roosevelt’s New Deal ends the nascent movement to nominate him for president in 1936.

Winant becomes Britain’s all-time favorite American ambassador for the same reason he’s New Hampshire’s all-time favorite governor: he’s humble, hard working, and connects with common people. He sometimes puts off meetings with dignitaries in London so he can finish talking with the lowest classes of people there. When Britain’s war effort is threatened by a miners’ strike, its government calls on Winant, who convinces the miners to return to work. But he’s loved principally because he does not doubt Britain’s ability to fend off Hitler, he does nothing to avoid the hardships and danger associated with the bombing that London is subjected to for much of the war, and he does what he can to relieve their plight. He even goes broke giving his money away to the British poor. Along the way, he does what he can to support Churchill despite Roosevelt’s frequent coolness to the prime minister, and he champions the Mustang P-51B bomber, which turns the tide of the air war in Europe enough to help ensure a successful D-Day invasion.

I enjoy biographies of three or four people like Citizens of London and Team of Rivals (and two of my other favorites, Merton & Friends: A Joint Biography of Thomas Merton, Robert Lax, and Edward Rice and The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun). The author of such works usually contrasts her subjects to understand them better. Olson contrasts Winant (implicitly until the book’s end) with fellow Americans Ed Morrow, the CBS broadcaster who revolutionizes radio news during his nightly broadcasts from London and elsewhere in the European theater, and Averell Harriman, the son of a railroad robber baron who serves as America’s Lend-Lease administrator in Britain during the war. Murrow is almost as idealistic, almost as beloved in London, and just as uncaring about his personal safety as Winant. Harriman comes across as just has hardworking as Winant and Murrow, but he is more ambitious and cunning, marginalizing Winant before Roosevelt and doing what he can to look out for his own future.

Harriman blossoms in the tough, non-idealistic nationalism that takes hold of postwar America, emerging as a top-level negotiator and diplomat under Presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson. For Harriman, World War II is only a stepping-stone to a future in which he can finally escape the shadow of his father’s success and reputation. Neither Winant nor Murrow transition well to prosperity- and Cold-War obsessed America, though. Winant suffers aimlessness and depression, and he commits suicide in 1947. Murrow gets rich and eventually leaves CBS after it treats its news division as something like a hobby in the 1950’s, but he feels acutely the incongruity between the ideals and suffering he lived through in wartime London and the riches and insouciance of postwar America.

Citizens of London goes beyond its three principal protagonists, taking in many of the events and policies that define Anglo-American relations before, during, and after the war. It wasn’t until the end of the book that I understood the book’s entire scope, which should have been obvious to me from the title. The book is principally about London’s citizens: a people who make sense of class distinctions even as they fight hand-in-hand for six years to repel and defeat Hitler, and a people whose suffering serves as a kind of chorus to sort out not only the book’s protagonists but also Churchill, Roosevelt, and other actors in Europe’s wartime theater.

Posted August 9, 2010.

Why I’m a Whig

I am a Whig, perhaps the last member, after Jack Benny’s death, of the American Whig party that existed until the late 1850’s. A party of also-rans, a party that never got its real leaders elected president.

As much as I can relate to the Whigs’ political failures, I am a Whig mostly because I wish I could have been a Federalist. “Then why not say you are a Federalist, and be done with it?” I hear a reader ask rhetorically. “The Whigs are no less defunct.”

Yes, but the distinction lies with their respective projects. The Federalists built something, and they wanted to build more. Most Whigs just wanted to return to something the Federalists started. I have the latter political instinct – the instinct to look back and to recover. That’s the main reason I relate to and revere the Whig Lincoln more than the Federalist Washington.

“Then why not say you are a Democrat or a Republican?” you might ask. “One can see Federalist influences in both parties.” But I see mostly nineteenth century Democratic-Republican leanings in both of our current major parties. Today’s Democrat vs. Republican isn’t Hamilton vs. Jefferson, you know. It’s kind of Jackson vs. Calhoun, an intra-party squabble. The views of today’s dominant American political parties are mostly derived from what Madison in Federalist No. 10 called “interest.” But their ideologies – to the extent they have consistent ideologies – are similar; in fact, they complement each other. The Democrats’ historicism, which dominates the social science curricula in many undergraduate programs today, prepares us for the Republicans’ law-school positivism. At least with regard to the parties’ ideologies, I agree with George Wallace’s assessment: “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republicans and Democrats.”

So to explain why I’m a Whig, I must first explain why I wish I were a Federalist. My first fourteen reasons do that, and my remaining reasons explain why I like the Whigs without regard to the Federalists, too.


Most Federalists opposed the inclusion of a bill of rights in the Constitution. They did so neither because they didn’t recognize the rights (they did), nor because they were afraid that any enumeration of rights would limit rights to those recognized (though they were (afraid of just that)). Most Federalists opposed the adoption of a bill of rights principally because they believed that people would eventually come to see a bill of rights as the source of their rights.


It’s not the Federalists’ fault. It’s all the Federalists’ fault.


The Federalists were bumbling politicians, as a whole. They overplayed their hand following the XYZ Affair with the thirty-five bumbling arrests under the Alien and Sedition Acts. They were, therefore, the first party to nationally snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. I can relate.

The High Federalists lived in a shrinking sectional echo chamber. They made life miserable for the moderate Federalists living south of New York. I get that, too.


When I was growing up in Tidewater, Virginia, the whole state shared the same telephone area code – 703. Now my county alone has three area codes. Mine is 703.


The theme of the introductory Federalist essay reminds me of the theme of the Gettysburg Address:

. . it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government by reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

I think Madison, Hamilton, and Lincoln were the big names who were the most consumed with the central problem of our democracy, then and now: the capacity of a people to govern themselves. (Madison was a Republican, of course, but he was a Federalist when it counted most – when Hamilton adroitly applied the term to describe those in favor of the 1787 convention’s proposed constitution.)


Adams was as disheveled as Jefferson, but he had no instinct for PR. There’s an innocence about Adams that makes Jefferson look even more like a crocodile.


John Marshall.


Marshall gets two numbers. He’s one of those “but for” guys: but for Marshall, we might not have ratified our Constitution, and we might not have avoided war with France. He fought with great distinction under Washington and Daniel Morgan, but his father, Thomas Marshall, gets the earliest “but for”: but for his slowing Cornwallis at Brandywine, we most likely would not have won the Revolutionary War (Jean Edward Smith’s John Marshall: Definer of a Nation).

John Marshall, George Washington, and a few others gave Federalism a share in Virginia’s past, for which, as a Virginian, I’m grateful. Marshall was elected to Virginia’s ratifying convention and to Congress from a heavily Anti-Federalist district in Richmond because the people there liked him and cared more about his character than his views. I like that, too.

Marshall turned the Supreme Court from a national joke into a respected branch of government. In the process, he defined the Constitution’s relationship to law and society. Smith writes:

. . . the Marshall court established the ground rules of American government. The Constitution reflected the will of the people, not the states, said Marshall, and the people made it supreme. That Federalist concept provided the basis for the constitutional decisions of the Marshall era. It was bitterly contested at the time; in many respects it lay at the root of the Civil War.

(As John C. Calhoun did years later, Patrick Henry and other Anti-Federalists disliked the Constitution’s “We the people” preamble, preferring “We the states” instead. Even as early as 1788, nationalism was seen as a threat to states’ rights, and states’ rights was linked to slavery. Henry’s frequent refrain against the Constitution during the ratification debate was, “They’ll free your niggers.”)

Marshall took over a Federalist bench when he was appointed Chief Justice at the end of the twelve years of Federalist administrations. Twenty-four years of Republican rule later, it was still a Federalist bench, thanks to Marshall’s leadership skills, his legal acumen, and his insistence that the justices share living quarters during term. And all but a relative handful of the court’s opinions under Marshall’s long stewardship were unanimous. Imagine anything close to that today!

Marshall loved Jane Austin’s novels. I mean, he was the whole package.


Okay, three numbers. As Hadley Arkes points out in Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law (Cambridge 2010), Marshall sometimes went out of his way to base his Supreme Court opinions on natural law principles instead of on specific constitutional language. In other words, Marshall was no legal positivist. (A legal positivist believes only in the law posited by a sovereign.)

Marshall seemed to believe what most of the Founders seemed to have taken for granted:

If there is no natural law, there are no natural rights; and if there are no natural rights, the Bill of Rights is a delusion, and everything which a man possesses – his life, his liberty and his property – are held by sufferance of government, and in that case it is inevitable that government will some day find it expedient to take away what is held by a title such as that.

(From Harold R. McKinnon’s book, The Higher Law, 1946.)


Jefferson, not Nixon, pioneered the Southern Strategy:

. . . the prominence of slaveholders among the Jeffersonian critics of Federalism is more than an irony: slaveholding was, in fact, central to the preservation, not just of a racial hegemony, but of a ruling class among whites in the South after the Revolution, and that ruling class preserved itself in the face of revolutionary egalitarianism only by pretending that slavery had, in fact, created a kind of white egalitarianism. By equating the slaveholder and the rural farmer as “agriculturalists” and allying them together in a white racial alliance which ensured that enslaved blacks could never become the “equals” of whites, Jeffersonians like Randolph, Taylor, and Jefferson himself ensured the support of white farmers, who cared far more about keeping blacks in bondage than about leveling white elites. They looked, in other words, to slavery to preserve gentility; and then insisted that the presence of blacks made all white men, ipso facto, into gentlemanly equals. Hence, in the 1790s, rural farmers in Virginia and Pennsylvania found themselves lining up behind a slave-holder in order to oppose merchant “aristocrats”; and in the 1830s, Northern workers would oppose those same merchant “aristocrats” and pay the same price by following Andrew Jackson and acquiescing in Southern slavery.

(From Allen C. Guelzo’s article “Learning to Love the Federalists.”)


The Federalists believed in the political oversight of the market economy. Guelzo again: “[Jefferson] abandoned the Federalist goal of a strong mercantilist state and detached the economy from political oversight at just the moment in the great market revolution when that oversight might have done it some good.”


I don’t dislike Jefferson. Honest. While I spent my evenings sleeping in the library of the university he founded, Dumas Malone was two stories above me, almost blind by then, dictating the last of his six-volume biography of Jefferson. I joined my classmates in referring to “Mr. Jefferson” in hushed tones as if he were just out of earshot. You’ve got to visit Charlottesville and Monticello just to feel his presence.

Jefferson’s great enemy Hamilton paid him the highest and most accurate compliment, I think, describing him as “a man of sublimated and paradoxical imagination.” Anyway, I can’t figure the guy out, even after reading four and a half of Malone’s volumes.


The Federalists were the only actively anti-slavery party in America to hold power. (The 1850’s – 1860’s Republicans were anti-slavery, but in sentiment more than in policy. (I take Lincoln at his word on this.))


I’m a republican more than a democrat. (Small r, small d.) The threat of majority faction scares me more than the threat of aristocratic rule. Madison’s checks and balances have saved us more than either side in a given debate would ordinarily acknowledge.

The Anti-Federalists wanted a more democratic form of government, one that made the other branches more accountable to the legislative branch. They wanted more representatives per capita, they weren’t wild about bicameralism, and they wanted term limits.

But I agree with Madison in Federalist No. 10: direct democracy is not an ideal that the Constitution aspires to, or should. I prefer the Constitution’s representative democracy and its tensions between the branches to direct democracy for the reason Madison preferred them: direct democracy would lead to majority factions – permanent arrangements of majority oppression of minorities.


The last long stretch my political party has been in power was from 1789 until 1801. I don’t think the Federalists or Whigs or anything like them will ever be in power for longer than a term or two at a time. The reason comes down to this quote from Book 1 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:

. . . What it is that we say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action[?] Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise.

I’m not up for Aristotle’s class-structured government, and Aristotle’s teleological understanding of happiness is a tough sell in a democracy dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. But I agree with his teleological understanding of happiness, and I agree that, usually, “the many do not give the same account as the wise.” I think Lincoln agreed with both, too. In fact, I think he lived out this paradox. A democracy is blessed if its leaders, during a critical time such as our Civil War, demonstrate wisdom consistent with a high notion of what Jefferson called “societal happiness.”

In the late 1850’s, the Republican Party inherited the Whigs’ role of representing a kind of American aristocracy. The Whig Party’s notion of aristocratic duty was less class structured than Aristotle’s, and while it generally represented the country’s labor and mercantile interests, I think it sometimes rose to Aristotle’s and Jefferson’s notions of societal happiness.

Since Lincoln’s death, though, the Republican Party has frequently confused money for the wisdom Aristotle alludes to in my Nicomachean Ethics quote above. Americans themselves frequently confuse money and wisdom, which accounts for a lot of the Republicans’ success at the polls. The Preacher acknowledges the similarity but still insists on a distinction:

For wisdom is a defence, and money is a defence: but the excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it. [Ecclesiastes 7:12]

So, for me, small r, not big R.


The old battles are the only battles worth fighting, the ones that never get won: Jefferson vs. Hamilton, Jackson vs. Clay, Douglas vs. Lincoln. You get clarity today only if you can see a political fight in those lights. If you can’t, you can pretty much bet the problem will take care of itself or hasn’t really begun to manifest itself. Today’s movements – even the Tea Party – will fade if they don’t line up on one side or the other of an old battle. In one sense, a big political problem we have today is that we don’t understand any of the old arguments, that we don’t see anything in terms of the old fights.


Something about the Whigs’ aversion to territorial expansion resonates with me, even though it contradicted Madison’s reasoning in the Federalist that the bigger the territory, the better the republic, and even though Hamilton was the original advocate of something like Manifest Destiny. Jefferson through the Louisiana Purchase must have co-opted for the antebellum Democrats the Federalist desire to rule the hemisphere, leaving Lincoln to demand on the House floor (to general derision) that President Polk mark the exact spot where Polk had claimed American blood was spilt in his justification of the Mexican War.


President Webster. President Clay. You gotta believe.


I like to think I would have supported the temperance movement, the abolition movement, and the suffrage movement, as Lincoln did. These movements were easy targets for Democrats, but many Whig politicians kept uneasy alliances with them. These movements were end runs around Jefferson’s separation of church and state, and their takeover of “the goals of secular rationalism” made Lincoln afraid that “extreme expectations of worldly perfection would engender extreme political solutions” (Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided, at 244).

I suppose that, since the Founding generation, all successful national politicians have surfed some dangerous waves, and were I a nineteenth century politician, those might have been my waves of choice.


I believe in internal improvements. I also think we’re deliberately sabotaging passenger rail.  The Whigs wouldn’t have countenanced it.


Like many thoughtful Whigs, Lincoln found the best of Jefferson and made it his own. Under Lincoln, “all men are created equal” became the proposition that the nation was dedicated to.

I believe that, in reading the Constitution, one must distinguish between its compromises and its truths, and I believe that its truths are the truths of the Declaration of Independence. This view, enshrined in the Gettysburg Address, had been standard Whig doctrine for years, according to Guelzo in his Lincoln biography, Redeemer President. The Democrats back then didn’t subscribe to this view of the Constitution, and neither today’s “strict constructionism” nor its “living Constitution” is based on it.


Like Obama, I don’t get the Scotch-Irish, and they don’t get me.

My ancestry is largely British, and I grew up in Virginia’s Episcopal Church, which had a small following in my blue-collar, shipbuilding hometown. Bruton Parish Church in nearby Williamsburg wasn’t a tourist attraction for my family but a church – a religious touchstone, in fact.

“It is more than curious that all the greatest Whig names – e.g., Adams, Webster, Clay, Harrison and Tyler, Taylor and Fillmore, and Lincoln – were of predominantly English ancestry. . . . from Washington to Lincoln, the Federalist-Whig-Republican presidents are exclusively of English ancestry” (Jaffa, supra, 72 – 73).

But the Democrats were anything but British. “Jackson and Polk were both of Scotch-Irish descent, Van Buren Dutch, Buchanan Scotch, among the presidents. Even Jefferson traced his ancestors to Wales. Calhoun was of Scotch-Irish stock . . . Douglas, of course, bore one of the most famous of all Scottish names” (73).

The English betrayed the Federalist cause. They did it not so much by their belligerence leading up to the War of 1812 but by their persecution of the Scots and the Irish who moved to the American West largely as a result of it. Professor Wilfred E. Binkley believed that “The nucleus of Jacksonian democracy was an ethnic group, the Scotch-Irish stock. These were descendants of the unfortunates . . . harried from their Ulster homes and finding refuge in the American wilderness, where they nursed an undying hatred of their British persecutors.” Jackson lead them to victory at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 before they lead him to victory at the polls years later.

The Scotch-Irish resented the Whigs’ mixture of Northern mercantile interests and Northern evangelism. Today’s Scotch-Irish seem to support the Republican’s championing of big and small business, though, and they seem to have inherited, more than most other stock, the Whig’s mixture of evangelism and politics, though of a decidedly more politically conservative variety.

Jefferson and Jackson understood the Scotch-Irish, and the Scotch-Irish helped to make the Democrats the dominant political party for the decades before the Civil War.


I hate an organized party. (Oxymoron: party discipline.) The Democrats’ lock-step organization would spook the Whigs every time.


The most thoughtful Democrats read the Whig newspapers. Those papers were quite superior to the Democrats’ papers, I understand.


If you believe in the American Dream, you must consider the Whigs, which was the only party in history to have something close to a monopoly on it.  (The Democrats couldn’t do too much to support free labor: they were too tied to the “Slave Power.”)


Douglas and Lincoln both fought hard to keep the Union together, though each accused the other of hastening its division. Douglas’s impulse was to defuse the slavery issue by distracting America through territorial expansion and the export of republicanism (“Manifest Destiny”) and by making slavery the subject of territorial votes (“Popular Sovereignty”). I distrust expansion, particularly expansion tinged with evangelistic fervor, and popular sovereignty was a forfeiture of natural law to positivism.

Lincoln’s impulse was to face the slavery issue squarely, as he began to do in Peoria in 1854:

Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution . . . Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it . . . If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.

I suppose Lincoln is my apotheosis of the inward-looking leader, the leader who, unlike Jimmy Carter, could call for a national, or at least a sectional, soul-searching and still win an election.

Lincoln’s Peoria speech was Whiggery at its best. Befitting the Whig party, though, Lincoln, and the rest of the party’s leaders, would be gone within four years. It’s been lonely around here ever since.

Posted January 15, 2011.

Our sardonic Lord

I was reading Genesis’s account of creation through Everett Fox‘s translation this morning, and this verse made me grin:

At the time of YHWH, God’s making of earth and heaven,
no bush of the field was yet on earth,
no plant of the field had yet sprung up,
for YHWH, God, had not made it rain upon earth,
and there was no human/adam to till the soil/adama

If you’re used to Fox’s emphasis on both literality and expression, unique to biblical translations in English, you know from that last line that he wishes to get across in English the wordplay of adam / adama but can’t in a way that satisfies him. So you find the footnote, which says:

The sound connection, the first folk etymology in the Bible, establishes the intimacy of humankind with the ground (note the curses in 3:17 and 4:11). Human beings are created from the soil, just as animals are (v 19). Some have suggested “human . . . humus” to reflect the wordplay.

Wordplay. Perhaps some of the more humorless aspects of Protestant theology could be traced to the translations we Protestants have used for centuries. One can’t take more than a couple of steps into Fox’s bright jungle before being ambushed by wordplay, but one can speed over the paved surfaces of entire modern English Bibles without being jostled by one pothole of paronomasia.

Fox’s approach to translation, as he says in his preface to The Five Books of Moses, is “to echo the style of the original,” to present “the text in English dress but with a Hebraic voice.”  The approach helps counter centuries of favoring meaning over expression as if they were, in fact, separable.  Our English translations have quietly reinforced the idea that we can discard the stories and the way they’re told after we’ve extracted a doctrine or at least a lesson from them.

It’s hard to feel the fun in the above verse from the first chapter of Genesis and not feel also the ways its wordplay may shade the verse’s “meaning.”  Indeed, as accustomed as we Western Christians are to ferreting out meaning from even the most obscure biblical text, our blind eye to the Bible’s humor may deny us not only literary charm but also theological sense.  I remember spending an hour in debate with a friend over whether Jesus is being sardonic as he opens his explication of the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-13):

And I say to you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. (Webster’s)

To me, the parable preceding this explication is both simple and wickedly playful. One step ahead of his master’s reckoning, the unjust steward goes to his master’s debtors and liquidates his master’s loans for pennies on the dollar so he’ll have a job with one of his master’s debtors once he’s dismissed. The master, surprisingly, commends his steward’s cunning and duplicity, and Jesus, in the above quote, echoes the master’s commendation somewhat ominously as he transitions out of the parable proper.

My friend’s and my disagreement turned on whether the Lord was being facetious, a possibility my friend could not allow in principle. But the parable doesn’t work otherwise. My friend was left to spiritualize the steward whom Jesus labels “unjust.” Jesus, my friend said, anticipates that we, too, will “fail,” and he asks us to become like the grasping and dishonest steward – “wise as serpents,” as he puts it elsewhere in the Gospels. My friend therefore assumed that Jesus’ “everlasting habitations” amount to worldly prosperity and, finally, heaven. I hear Jesus hinting darkly at hell.

In my view, my friend’s refusal to recognize the Lord’s satire, his sardonicism, sucked the sharp elbows right off of the parable for him.

I enjoy the master’s rueful humor and the dark overlay Jesus, by echoing it, gives it, but I like also how Jesus’ commentary doesn’t explain the parable away as a Western sermon or literary critique might. Instead, Jesus’ explication, taken in full (I quote only its opening), adds more of the koan-like richness I find in the parable itself.

The Bible often draws lessons from its stories, but it doesn’t discard the stories in the process. Genesis itself, Fox’s version or otherwise, is almost devoid of commentary and rarely draws morals from its stories. The nearest thing I’ve found by way of commentary in Genesis is the conclusion to the narrative of Esau’s exchange of his birthright for his brother’s meal: “thus Esau despised his birthright.” The line seems incongruous to me in the lean body of Genesis’s narratives.

I don’t suggest that Jesus’ facetiousness would be any more apparent in the parable’s Greek, but I wonder if our translations’ usual emphasis on the original’s literal meaning over its means of expression, whether that expression involves sound or humor or the stories themselves, has served to make our theology humorless and overly theoretical – and sometimes just wrong. In other words (and I know this connection may be a bit attenuated), I suspect that our literal translations predispose us to an unnecessarily systematic and shallow or grim theology, and that our translations and the modern theologies that attend them combine to keep us from discovering and enjoying the Bible’s humor and playful expression.


We Westerners divorce the “what it says” from the “how it says it” not only in biblical hermeneutics but  also in political theory and in literary criticism. I’m beginning to see that examining this cheerless separation of sense and expression is a central preoccupation of my blog, uniting my frequent screeds on hermeneutics (part of my “Devotionals” section), political science (“Civil”), and literary criticism (my “Critical” section, mostly). One of my earliest posts quotes a favorite line from Robert J. Ray and Ann Ray’s The Art of Reading: A Handbook on Writing that attacks the separation of meaning and expression from a literary standpoint:

The best prose is that which is so thoroughly at one with what it expresses that one sentence generates another. The thoughts, so called, have their existence in the turn of a phrase and cannot be extricated from it.

I think that’s good biblical hermeneutics and maybe a good principle of statutory and constitutional construction, too.

The connections I see among religious, political, and critical overemphasis on literality may really exist.  I think Western civilization’s penchant for disembodied theology has lead to its similar weakness for disembodied political theory. Like the Southern secessionists before us, we have forsaken the Declaration’s grounding of mankind as children of God, equal in their Father’s eyes, and we have hewed out instead a blind adherence to the Constitution’s letter, as if the Founders had ever intended such a thing. I also wonder how much of the destructive twentieth-century political ideologies (communism, fascism) grew in part out of Protestantism’s overly systematic approach to theology. (The opposite is also quite true: in the West, theology mirrors philosophy. See Nancey Murphy’s Beyond Liberalism & Fundamentalism for a detailed description of how the liberal and fundamental strains of Protestantism fell into line with opposing philosophical responses to David Hume.)

Harry Jaffa has a point: modern philosophy is “unreasonably skeptical and unreasonably dogmatic.” (Crisis of the House Divided, preface at iv.) The same quote describes Western religious life, I think, if not its theology. I wonder if the skepticism and the dogma feed each other, the dogmatic reliance on extracted meanings serving to mask our unbelief – an unbelief fostered, in turn, by our failure to live in the stories.

Walter J. OngWhen we insist on seeing a piece of literature as an object, as New Criticism does, we cut it loose from historical and biographical accidents that may otherwise drown our ability to hear its sound and drink its sense. But New Criticism ultimately destroys a piece of literature by saving it. Objects, after all, are lifeless, and dead things invite scientific analysis. On the religious front, the objectified, dead text and the age of science have led to literalism, the Western religious mind’s answer to science’s objectivity. In Paul’s words, we have divorced the letter, which “killeth,” from the spirit, which “giveth life.” Wouldn’t it be better to risk experiencing the God behind the Bible’s words? Wouldn’t it be better to hear a poem as a cry, as Walter J. Ong insists we do – as a connection between a living, or once living, poet and a living reader or performer – as a potential intimacy?

A return to the Bible’s, the Constitution’s, or any poem’s text, then, isn’t a call to humorless literalism or to a strict constructionism that can’t distinguish between letter and spirit. It’s the slow and repeated enjoyment of a text that won’t be squeezed for, and then discarded in favor of, some dogma or other envenoming essence. It’s an emphasis on story and language and oral expression that might have us, like the Lord, speaking not in theories but in parables, and grounding ourselves in the serious play of prosody.

The repeal amendment

I sent the following letter to Virginia’s state senators and delegates today.

The Virginia General Assembly this month will be one of the first state legislatures in the Union to take up the proposed “repeal amendment” to the United States Constitution (hereinafter, “amendment”) under which two-thirds of the state legislatures may overturn a federal law or regulation. The amendment is impractical and inefficient, and it would overturn more than just specific federal laws and regulations. It would disrupt the carefully balanced governmental structure the Constitution’s Framers set in motion in 1789. Virginia’s legislature would be ill advised to approve the call for a constitutional convention to ratify the amendment.

Some of my fellow Virginians probably feel something like pride of authorship in the amendment, which has gained the support of key officeholders in at least twelve state governments. After all, some Virginians got the ball rolling by contacting Georgetown Law Professor Randy E. Barnett about the amendment, which he had proposed in a 2009 Forbes.com column. Mr. William Howell, the Speaker of our House of Delegates, co-authored the Wall Street Journal op-ed piece with Professor Barnett that first gave the amendment considerable national attention. Governor McDonnell and Attorney General Cuccinelli are both on record as supporting the amendment. But pride of authorship should have no part in your chambers’ respective deliberations over this amendment.

The amendment would shift the federal balance of power away from the people to the states. As a practical matter, two-thirds of the states hold less than a third of the country’s population. Therefore, a small majority in each of those smaller states could veto the will of the vast majority of Americans as expressed by their representatives in Congress. Virginia, of course, is the twelfth most populous state, so the amendment would lessen the voice of Virginians in a federal system.

State legislatures have no business deciding federal issues, and taking up federal issues would consume an inordinate amount of a state legislature’s time and resources. As you know from experience, Virginia’s legislature, like that of every state in the Union, has enough state and local issues to keep it busy each legislative session. Every federal law has its detractors, and the number and strength of those detractors would require that each federal law be the subject of rehearings before at least two-thirds of the Union’s state legislatures.  Imagine the time and expense of such a system.

Imagine also the uncertainty that would attend the passage of any federal law. Although every law is subject to repeal by the legislature passing it, few assume that the same legislative body passing a law would soon repeal it. The amendment, though, would put every federal law before fifty separate legislatures for consideration. The reliability of any federal law would never be settled, for a two-thirds vote might be obtained at any time after the law’s passage.

This uncertainty would extend even to federal administrative regulations and federal case law generated by the United States Supreme Court on down. To take their new role seriously, the state legislatures would have to gain expertise in the fields in which the federal agencies and federal courts practice. Upon obtaining that expertise, each state legislature would have to have each matter reheard. I assume rules would be promulgated and experts would be hired for this purpose.  Imagine the cost in the state legislature’s time and the cost to the taxpayers to have these matters reheard or relitigated, as the case may be.

The amendment would transform our federal system into something worse than the weak and inefficient Articles of Confederation the people of the United States struggled under for over a decade before ratifying the Constitution. The Articles of Confederation gave each state an equal vote on federal questions, and it required that nine of the thirteen states (around sixty-nine percent) vote in favor of most bills for them to become law. Although the amendment would require a much smaller percentage of states to approve of a federal law, it would give the final word on the law to the state governments and not to any form of federal government. The state legislatures would have the last word on every federal statutory law, case law, or regulation. The amendment would turn our federal government, including Congress, administrative agencies, and federal courts, into an advisory body – a kind of commission serving fifty separate legislatures – and its laws and regulations in the long run would amount to mere recommendations the states could choose to adopt or ignore. This arrangement may seem flattering to the state legislatures considering the amendment, but it does the people no good.

The amendment would be a boon for lobbyists, however. The federal lobbying industry would field representatives in all fifty state capitals as well as in Washington. And only the largest moneyed interests would be likely to afford to support or counter a Congressional act or an administrative regulation through the labyrinthine route to its eventual approval or repeal in fifty different statehouses. The voice of the people would be diluted.

It is worth remembering that the Founders saw the federal government as the product of the people and not of the states. Although the Constitution was ratified state by state, the Framers made a point of requiring a special convention in each state for the purpose of ratifying the Constitution so that the people, and not the state legislatures, would be said to have ordained and established the Constitution. In The Federalist Papers, James Madison made a distinction between the people and the states when he countered arguments that the Constitution would take away too much of the states’ powers:

Was, then, the American Revolution effected, was the American Confederacy formed, was the precious blood of thousands spilt, and the hard-earned substance of millions lavished, not that the people of America should enjoy peace, liberty, and safety, but that the governments of the individual States, that particular municipal establishments, might enjoy a certain extent of power and be arrayed with certain dignities and attributes of sovereignty? [Federalist No. 45]

As Professor Harry V. Jaffa, author of Crisis of the House Divided (Chicago 1959) and founder of the conservative Claremont Institute, has demonstrated, the compact that created the American people was the Declaration of Independence and not the various English colonies that the states became the heirs of. That people, and not the thirteen former colonies, ratified the Constitution. “We the people” was no opening flourish but was substantive language argued over during the ratifying conventions, including Virginia’s.

The amendment threatens democracy’s most fundamental expression of the people’s sovereignty – the principle of majority rule. Its deleterious effect on majority rule stems from its links to nullification and to secession.

The amendment, like every attempt at state nullification of federal law since the nullification crisis of 1833, is an attack on majority rule. Notice how similar the amendment is to John C. Calhoun’s South Carolina doctrine, as described by Jaffa in his book A New Birth of Freedom (Rowman & Littlefield 2000):

By virtue of the reserved rights of the states, South Carolina could “nullify” the tariff within its boarders. Of course, if South Carolina did not pay the duties, neither would any other state. This meant that the operation of the challenged law would be held in abeyance until a convention of the states, acting by a three-fourths majority (the same that would be required for an amendment), would decide upon its constitutionality. (278)

In essence, Calhoun’s doctrine differs from the amendment only in the preliminary injunction it grants against federal law pending the states’ decision.

The logic of allowing the states to nullify acts of Congress is the logic of secession. What Lincoln pointed out about secession during his First Inaugural Address applies also to the amendment:

Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.

If the lesser (state government) can nullify the greater (federal government), then majority rule is threatened. The amendment’s logic is secession’s logic downstream, too. Just as Union supporters asked the seceding states of the 1860’s if they would consent to having their counties and municipalities secede from them, so one may ask if the states are prepared to give as well as they get. May two-thirds of the governing bodies of a state’s counties and municipalities overturn a state statute? And, further, may individuals acting in their capacity as sovereign people then overturn municipal law? The amendment’s central idea is indeed the “essence of anarchy.”

Both nullification and secession are premised on Calhoun’s doctrine of concurrent majority: Congress and state governments both must pass on federal laws. “Stated in its simplest form, the concurrent majority gives to each minority entitled to consideration a veto over the action of the government” (432). Calhoun believed that the state’s right to nullify a federal law and its right to secede (or, practically speaking, to threaten secession) would protect minority interests. Madison, the Father of our Constitution, believed that a republic founded on natural law principles protects minority rights. Calhoun’s understanding of minority rights, however, was not founded on the natural law concept of a compact made by individuals. He found no individual rights antecedent to the creation of any government. Indeed, for Calhoun, the idea that all men are created equal and have rights antecedent to a government’s existence “is the most false and dangerous of all political errors” (407). There is no basis for the doctrine of concurrent majority on which the amendment is based in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Nor could there be, as the doctrine recognizes neither individual rights nor majority rule.

This is a long letter – the longest I have ever written to any of my representatives in Richmond or Washington – but I hope it suggests the difficult issues involved in considering this seemingly simple amendment. Unlike the constitutional amendments that have been ratified since the end of the Civil War, this amendment would fundamentally alter our federal system. In so doing, it would detach our system from the practical and philosophical moorings James Madison and other illustrious Virginians and Americans tied it to over two hundred years ago in Philadelphia.

Any pride some Virginians may feel in bringing this proposed amendment to national prominence should pale in comparison to the pride Virginians might take in the Commonwealth’s role in ratifying the original Constitution. The arguments for and against the Constitution’s form of federalism had their finest airing at Virginia’s ratifying convention in Richmond during the summer of 1788. Many of Virginia’s greatest patriots and statesmen, including James Madison, Patrick Henry, George Mason, John Marshall, George Wythe, Edmund Pendleton, Edmund Randolph, and James Monroe, were present to argue for or against the Constitution. It was a close vote, but the Constitution beat out the Articles of Confederation. The assemblage that would presume to disrupt the Constitution’s checks and balances in Richmond this winter would not look particularly distinguished by comparison.


Categorized as Civil

Torture & liberalism

This sadness feels Medieval,
locked in ice and dusk

— Lisa Russ Sparr, “Penance I”

[book cover] Rounding the century and having bested the last eighty years’ most malignant forms of government – fascism and communism – Western liberalism had only to fear problems stemming from the economic success its political success had fostered: pollution, global warming, and something about the computers all shutting down at the century’s stroke of midnight.  All of these problems stemmed from our not thinking about the future, the last of them – a failure to write computer script that would recognize years beginning with 20 instead of 19 – being perhaps the perfect analogy for our lack of forward thinking.

Nine months into the new century’s term, we realized what must have lurked in our collective subconscious all along – that we had rounded not only a century but also a millennium, and that our biggest contribution to our biggest problem was not a failure to look forward as much as it was a failure to look backward.  Our political response to radical Islam, we decided, must be rooted in something more millennial and seminal than the liberal notions that gave birth to our young governments.  Everything became negotiable to meet a new, ancient threat.

President Bush’s speech to an emergency joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001 seemed both eloquent as well as terribly naïve and misleading.  Within two minutes of beginning his speech, he claimed that terrorists attacked us because “they hate our freedoms.”  What could a movement based on a fundamentalist view of Islam care one way or another about modern Western political thought?  Surely the terrorists didn’t strike to take away political freedoms.

The nation seemed reassured, however, in the months following the speech as Bush’s War on Terror began to cross policy lines America had never crossed before, most notably in instituting a “preemptive war” and in torturing prisoners of war.  This is how one must respond to an ancient struggle employing twenty-first-century terror, we reasoned.  Our democracies are at once too new to comprehend the philosophical and religious underpinnings of radical Islam and too slow – too mired in slow notions like “due process” – to respond to new biological, chemical, and nuclear threats.

Writing in the street-level shadow of 9/11, Paul Berman contradicts all of this.  Radical Islam has less to do with the ancient struggle between Islam and Western Christianity as it does with twentieth-century totalitarianism that we never really defeated in the first place.  Islamic terrorism is not a combination of ideology that predates liberalism and a method of warfare that postdates it – a combination that would blow us away from ourselves and make us search for solutions that have nothing to do with liberalism, such as torture.

Berman’s 2003 book Terror and Liberalism examines the writings of radical Islam’s greatest and most influential thinkers, particularly Sayyid Qutb and his younger brother Muhammad – the latter a professor of Islamic studies who taught Osama bin Laden – and describes their similarities with the philosophies supporting the one-party states of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  The aesthetics of terror, the ideal of submission, the aggrandizement of suicide, the myth of racial or religious purity and Armageddon, the uniqueness of parochial interests, the divinity or near divinity of the strongman ruler expressed through his accepted madness, the cult of death, and the extreme and oft-expressed hatred of liberalism’s freedoms – all of these intellectual symptoms are as present in radical Islam as they were in Mussolini’s fascism or in Stalin’s communism, Berman argues.  Islamic terrorism has more to do with eighteenth century Romanticism than it does with a literal interpretation of Koranic passages.

An effective Western response, then, is not out of reach.  Radical Islam is no less modern than we are.  But we have to understand the philosophical underpinnings of liberal democracy more than we do of radical Islam to have a chance.  Implicit in Berman’s book is the notion that our failure to understand our enemy points to the less obvious and more dangerous failure to understand ourselves.  Berman does a fair job of this, comparing the historical and philosophical differences between American European liberalism.  His examination of liberal democracy is not nearly as detailed as his examination of fundamentalist Islam, however, and that is disappointing.

Berman is no pacifist, and he cites the Gettysburg Address in his book in support of his notion that liberal democracy must have a universal appeal and must be militant at times, as well as true to its values, to survive.  Berman is a chief philosopher of the liberal hawks, most of whom supported Bush’s 1993 invasion of Iraq, though Berman doesn’t address the relative merits of that invasion in his book.

Bush was right to describe the 9/11 terrorists as “the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century,” Berman argues, and Bush was right in certain other particulars, most notably in championing women’s rights in Afghanistan in the months following our attack on that country.  Berman establishes, however, that most of Bush’s actions in the “war of ideas” were pathetic, and he demonstrates that Bush was wrong, of course, to surrender the very ideals he said we were fighting for by adopting torture.

But what is liberal democracy?  And until we understand who we are, how can we trust our government to fight effectively and in accordance with whatever set of ideals we claim to possess?  In the resurfacing debate about torture that led to yesterday’s dueling speeches by President Obama and former Vice President Cheney, Berman’s book is important.


Texas’s successive secessions

[Photo of John C. Calhoun]

Texas Governor Rick Perry’s recent suggestion that Texas might feel obligated to secede from the Union over President Obama’s proposed tax plan brought the Civil War back to many Americans’ minds.  Seeming to confuse his wars, though, the governor made his remarks at the Austin version of a “tea party” rally, one of a series of “Taxed Enough Already” rallies popularized by Fox News and held on this year’s Tax Day.  (Hendrick Hertzberg has a great satire in this week’s New Yorker on Perry’s remarks, by the way.)

The governor broached secession by incorrectly stating that the “deal” admitting Texas to the Union in 1845 included a right to secede.  He went on to say:

My hope is that America, and Washington in particular, pays attention.  We’ve got a great Union.  There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it.  But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, who knows what might come of that.

The tax plan that would serve as the ostensible reason for Texas’s second secession would, starting two years from now, increase the top marginal tax rate for those making over a quarter million dollars a year from 35 to 39.6 percent.  The proposal also would decrease income taxes for Texans making under that amount, but the proposed tax cut didn’t get much play at the Austin rally.

Texas last seceded from the Union on March 4, 1861, the day Lincoln was first inaugurated.  The immediate cause of the Southern states’ secession was the election of the nation’s first “Black Republican” president, and based on exit polls showing Southern white males voting disproportionately against Obama this past fall, I wonder if the election of the nation’s first African-American president had anything to do with the governor’s thinly veiled threat.

Texas is a special case, I suppose, having being a sovereign nation for a decade preceding its admission into the Union.  According to the Hertzberg article, a recent poll shows that a third of Texans support secession, and without researching it, I suppose that the current percentage does not reflect a great increase in that sentiment since Obama’s election or his proposed tax cut.

Still, the concept of secession should be troubling to Americans, not just from a political point of view but also from a philosophical one.  Simply put, the argument in favor of a right to secede is the argument against a right to revolt, and the right of revolution – a right we must hold to now as much as we did in 1776 – is a basis of our political liberty.

The political problem with secession is simple.  If a state can secede instead of submit to the lawfully exercised will of the country’s majority, then majority rule is defeated and, as Lincoln put it at Gettysburg, a government “of the people, by the people, for the people” will have perished from the earth.  A state claiming a right to secede permits by its example any political subdivision thereof to follow course, and the result will necessarily be, as Lincoln pointed out during his first inaugural address, either anarchy or despotism in the long run:

Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.

Secession, then, doesn’t work well as a practical political doctrine.

Worse than the dysfunction inherent in secession, however, are its counterrevolutionary implications.  John C. Calhoun, the chief philosopher of secession, made the case for secession by discovering “state rights” in place of the individual rights, including the right of revolution, that were of utmost importance to the Founders.  As Harry Jaffa puts it in A New Birth of Freedom, “It was Calhoun’s writings . . . that transformed the question of individual and minority rights into the question of state rights” (281).

Calhoun’s attack on individual rights started with his attack on the Declaration of Independence’s ideals and on Locke’s ideas expressed in his Second Treatise that forms the basis for the “all men are created equal” in the Declaration and the basis for similar language in eight American colonies’ prolegomena to their Revolutionary-era constitutions.  Calhoun discounted Locke’s “all men in the state of nature are free and equal,” claiming that man, being a social animal, “cannot exist in such a state.”  Calhoun disagreed with Locke – and, indeed, with Aristotle – by recognizing no prepolitical state for humankind (Jaffa 410).

Calhoun’s choice, of course, was to view Locke’s “state of nature” from an almost anthropological standpoint, much as Rousseau viewed his concept of a “state of nature,” while the Founders, Locke, and Locke’s antecedents referred to man’s “state of nature” from an ontological standpoint.  Calhoun, then, did not believe that man entered into society by a voluntary association but by necessity.  Calhoun believed that the individual therefore has no rights that attach to her at birth:

Instead then of all men having the same right to liberty and equality, as is claimed by those who hold that they are born free and equal, liberty is the noble and highest reward bestowed on mental and moral development, combined with favorable circumstances.  Instead then of liberty and equality being born with man; instead of all men and all classes and descriptions being equally entitled to them, they are prizes to be won, and are in their most perfect state, not only the highest reward that can be bestowed on our race, but the most difficult to be won – and when won, the most difficult to be preserved.

As Jaffa puts it, “In [Calhoun’s] final analysis, whatever men lack in power, they lack in right” (418).

In his excellent introduction to Political Writings of John Locke, David Wootton points out that three political philosophers covered the gamut of arguments in favor of the Whig position just prior to the English Civil War.  James Tyrrel asserted that the king’s subjects might have to rebel, “but only, he believed, to defend the principles of the established constitution.”  Algernon Sydney argued the republican position that ancient Rome, Machiavelli, and Venice’s constitution were the best models of government in place of what was threatening to become an absolute monarchy.  And Locke asserted a set of inalienable rights that have become the foundation of liberalism (14 – 15).

The Declaration of Independence, of course, deliberately echoed sentiments current a century prior to it during the English Civil War in order to best assert its case against the crown and Parliament.  In writing the Declaration and the state constitutions asserting independence, the colonists were able to choose from the English constitutional theory of Tyrrel, the republican theory of Sidney, and the liberal theory of Locke.  They all deliberately sided with Locke, asserting his famous proscription against taxation without representation, and they avowed his theory of a right of revolution against the English king.

Calhoun did not believe in a right of revolution, however.  According to Calhoun, because people have no inalienable rights, people have no right to revolt.

In a sense, since 1800 we exercise an institutionalized right of revolution every time we participate in an election.  The election of 1800 – our fourth presidential election – was the first régime change in world history accomplished by a ballot.  It came two years after Jefferson threatened a revolution through the Kentucky Resolutions.  “One might even say that the victory of the Republicans in the election of 1800 came about because of the [revolutionary] threats implied in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions,” Jaffa opines (416).

Jefferson believed that “the right of revolution, and the threat to exercise that right, had throughout history been the only recourse of the people against the evils of tyranny,” according to Jaffa.  The treat of revolution still functions today – a threat not subsumed by our record of peaceful elections – should even a democratically elected government act against the safety of its people.  Calhoun would disagree – ironically, since the supporters of secession in Lincoln’s time tried to take the moral high ground by fashioning themselves as the defenders of minority rights against an oppressive majority.  Instead, they were, wittingly or unwittingly, the defenders of a brand of states rights that nullified individual rights, including the right to revolt.

Calhoun’s refusal to recognize individual rights apart from the state, including a right to revolt, led to his assertion of a state’s right to secede.  Calhoun developed a theory of “concurrent majority” under which any interested minority had a veto over the federal government’s action (Jaffa 432).  Significantly, the position that would lead to the veto would be based not on reason, which Locke and the Founders believed all men had access to, but on the narrow, mutual interests of the minorities involved.  Just as Calhoun looked to Rousseau’s more anthropological notion of the state of nature to counter Locke’s ontological version, Calhoun seemed to reach for Rousseau’s version of the will in the development of his concurrent majority theory:

Except upon prudential grounds, the governed may not consent to what is intrinsically unjust, as Lincoln argued against Douglas.  The reconciliation of conflicting interests must ultimately proceed from a conception of right that is independent of the interests themselves.  But Rousseau introduced into political philosophy the idea that political justice is to be found in the form of the will, rather than in the reason that informs the will.  More than anyone else, Rousseau is Calhoun’s intellectual progenitor. (432)

Under Calhoun’s theory, because no univerally recognized rights would be involved in a secession threat, and because reason (Locke’s law of nature) is not appealed to, the minority could have its way against the majority over relatively trivial matters.

Governor Perry’s opposition to Obama’s tax plan, for instance, seems to be based on interest – the interest of those making more than a quarter million dollars a year – and not on reason.  (Opponents of Obama’s plan could rightfully make a similar assertion against the plan, too, of course.)  Interests may help legislators craft an alliance to pass a law, but interest alone was never intended to serve as grounds for revolution.  (The Founders never envisioned secession under any circumstances.  Unlike Calhoun, who believed the Union began by contract in the form of the states’ ratification of the Constitution, the Founders believed that the Union preceded the Constitution.  “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union . . .” (emphasis mine).) (Calhoun faced another hurdle in the Constitution’s preamble, which doesn’t begin, “We the States . . .)

Calhoun’s exclusive reliance on positive law reminds me of denominations that rely exclusively on positive theology.  Without linking positive theology with a healthy, existential understanding of God through a “negative theology” – perhaps a more mystical approach to God – positive theology tends to separate us from God and from ourselves.  Similarly, Calhoun believed that people were in no sense human without government and had no rights outside of it:

In Calhoun, there is no doctrine of individual rights apart from the positive law of any given community.  He does not recognize any criterion outside the political process to which men can appeal to justify rebellion against tyranny. (Jaffa 418)

For Calhoun, man was made for the state, just as Jesus’ Pharisees believed that man was made for the Sabbath, and not the other way around.

This is the chief problem I have with most jurists who rely almost exclusively on what they call the framers’ “original intent” in interpreting the Constitution, particularly those jurists who see their support for “states rights” as a corollary to the support of that intent.  Lincoln and his Republicans were willing to enforce the letter of the Constitution, even to the extent of supporting slavery in the original states and enforcing the return of fugitive slaves, but “they insisted . . . upon a distinction between the Constitution’s compromises and its principles” (Jaffa 90).  Former Chief Justice Rehnquist, on the other hand, refused to recognize any principles antecedent to positive law.  “Rehnquist’s ‘original intent’ has less in common with the intent of those who ratified the Constitution than with the intent of those who ‘de-ratified’ it in 1860 – 61” (87).

Calhoun’s refusal to recognize natural rights was influenced, of course, by his philosophy that recognized slavery as a “positive good.”  Any recognized inalienable rights would attach to slaves just as they would to other South Carolinians.  Locke understood that his natural rights philosophy, if adopted, would spell the end of slavery, and Calhoun understood that, too.  For Calhoun to deny inalienable rights to slaves, then, he had to deny them to everyone.  And his twisted logic is still all that supports a state’s claimed right to secede from the Union today.

Calhoun’s first written support of states rights against the Union came in 1828 when, as the United States’ vice president, he anonymously authored South Carolina’s “Exposition and Protest” during the nullification crisis (Jaffa 278).  In doing so, Calhoun saw Jefferson as his model, since Jefferson had anonymously drafted the Kentucky Resolutions while he was vice president thirty years earlier (522).  Jefferson was not supporting a state’s right to secede based on positive law, however, but a people’s right to revolt based on natural law.

Governor Perry seems similarly confused.  By reintroducing a state’s right to secede during a protest modeled on the Boston Tea Party – a famous precursor to the American Revolution – Perry has indeed confused vastly different political theories as well as the wars that first tested them.  Let Perry endorse revolution instead of secession.  Let’s see what he’s got.

The mysticism of Abraham Lincoln

[book cover]When I was eight or nine, a relative gave me my first Lincoln book, The Abraham Lincoln Joke Book.  I loved how Lincoln folded himself onto the cover and how he held the book I held in his hands.  It drew me in: I figured that the Lincoln on Lincoln’s copy would also be holding a book with Lincoln on the front, holding, in turn, his own copy of Lincoln.  Ad infinitum.

It made me think about the recursive images of round frames my sister and I created afternoons at my grandmother’s apartment around that time by forcing her boudoir’s hand mirrors to face each other.  We reflected on eternity: was time involved?  It was hard for me to look into one of those paired mirrors without seeing myself seeing myself many times over, stretching out like mystic chords of memory.

You read enough Lincoln books and you start to see that the books are as much about the authors and readers as they are about Lincoln – that they provide more mirror than window.  The history of the history of Lincoln includes some mighty wide swings in several directions, though mostly from “revisionism” and back.  And no decent Lincoln book gets five stars on Amazon because a lot of people who favor the South’s cause in the Civil War give it bad reviews.

I think the relative who gave me the joke book would herself have given Lincoln about three stars.  Since growing up, I’ve discovered that she has ambivalent feelings about Lincoln, not uncommon for Virginians of her generation.  His party affiliation gives her some heartburn (she is a liberal Democrat, and I think you’d have to grow up here to understand how Lincoln’s Republicanism would be a strike against him even today), and her lineage, which is a large part of anyone’s self-understanding, includes some Confederate soldiers and officers.

But my relative’s ambivalence chiefly comes down to the war.  Although she fully supported the Civil Rights movement and has been a model to me of an active social conscience, she still justifies the South’s succession.

If you opt in, the argument goes, you can opt out.  She also invokes Jefferson – an authority who would settle things around these parts if he hadn’t been so conflicted about things that still bother us – who stated, rather ominously late in life, that “every generation needs a new revolution.”

Lincoln liked to quote Jefferson, too, but mainly to throw Jefferson’s most famous phrase into the teeth of his Democratic opponents, politicians like Stephen Douglas who saw Jefferson as their hero.  In an 1859 letter declining an invitation to speak at an event honoring Jefferson, for instance, Lincoln said:

All honor to Jefferson – to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.

Antebellum Southerners and Democrats didn’t know what to do with Jefferson’s “all men are created equal.”  Some rationalized it, and some, like John C. Calhoun, the great philosopher of secessionism, understood that “all men” included blacks and consequently attacked the Declaration’s equality clause as error.

But the clause was the center of Lincoln’s political thought.  He famously described the Declaration of Independence as the source of “all the political sentiments” he had ever entertained, and he saw the Constitution as mankind’s greatest attempt at bringing the Declaration’s “abstract truth” into a functioning government.  The Constitution was to be defended at all costs, despite its flaws, because the Declaration’s ideals would otherwise fall along with it.  Lincoln’s political moderation found its fullest expression in his strict adherence to the Constitution, including all of its flawed provisions, such as the one requiring adherence to laws requiring the return of fugitive slaves.

Leading up to the war, Lincoln struggled to hit the proper note between his idealism and his moderation.  Allen C. Guelzo’s excellent book, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America, is the story of how Lincoln worked out his idealism and moderation in the context of a political campaign and the polemics of Stephen Douglas, his talented opponent.  Early in his 1858 campaign for Douglas’s Senate seat, Lincoln tried his audience out on the equality clause’s racial ramifications:

“Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man,” as though there were no differences between men big enough to negate their natural equality.  Let us even discard all the blathering about “this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position.”  Instead, let us “unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.” (Guelzo 82)

Guelzo goes on to describe Lincoln’s audience’s reaction to this peroration as “a frozen burst of silence.”

Lincoln learned to dial it back, later emphasizing a distinction between natural rights, which included freedom from slavery, and civil rights, which included voting and marrying whom one wished to.  Douglas was railing, rather effectively in the racist society that existed in antebellum Illinois, about “Black Republicans” (all Republicans were “Black Republicans” then), “nigger equality,” and “amalgamation.”  Lincoln countered in his fourth debate with Douglas: “I do not understand that because I do not want a Negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone.”  But the political damage was probably done to his senatorial hopes, thanks to Douglas’s race-baiting as well as Lincoln’s own “house divided” remarks in accepting nomination for the Senate – remarks that reinforced Democrats’ claims that Illinois Republicans were abolitionists who would sacrifice the nation to pursue their cause.

Lincoln was usually more effective when he permitted his idealism to burn like a slow, invisible fuse as he defended his moderate constitutional views.  In his 1860 Cooper Union address, probably his best speech setting out Republican orthodoxy on the slavery issue, Lincoln made the historical and constitutional case for his party’s view that slavery should be restricted to the states where it existed and should not be brought into the territories.  The audience’s and press’s responses were electric, and the speech, more than any other single thing that Lincoln did, got him elected president.

Lincoln’s remarks about the Declaration’s equality clause served him much better in the war than they did during his 1858 campaign for the Senate.  As his Gettysburg Address demonstrates, the clause was the lynchpin that held together what had developed into two war aims: the explicit aim of preserving the Union, and the implicit aim – for the abolitionists, anyway, after the Emancipation Proclamation – of ending slavery.  Union men who cared not what became of slavery were fighting to make sure self-government “shall not perish from the earth,” and abolitionists, some of whom years before had supported the overthrow of the Constitution, which protected slavery, were fighting to further the proposition that all men are created equal that the Constitution was designed to protect.

The equality clause became more than the means Lincoln used (in his own mind, at least) to hold together the Union’s disparate war aims, however.  It also became the means by which Lincoln changed America’s view of itself.  The political and religious aspects of the equality clause became a pair of mirrors that allowed Americans to see themselves as both already and not yet – already a co-signer of the Declaration though not yet corporately a full partaker in its promise.  This view came in handy in subsequent struggles to give the equality clause fuller breadth – the women’s suffrage movement and the Civil Rights movement, for instance.

Lincoln was a mystic, I believe, in the sense that Paul the Apostle may be called a mystic. Paul’s genius, according to Albert Schweitzer in his book The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, was in suggesting to Christians disappointed in Christ’s failure to return in their generation that eternity began at Christ’s resurrection and that they now live, by virtue of their association with that resurrection and in a personal and broadly mystical sense, in both time and eternity.  Eternity, like Lincoln’s notion of equality, was both now and not yet.

Lincoln’s America faced a crisis similar to Schweitzer-Paul’s Christianity.  Just as Early Christians had been looking for their redemption on only an outward and a chronological level, antebellum Americans had been looking to advance republicanism over only time and territory.  Douglas believed America’s territorial advances through Manifest Destiny would help to spread republicanism over the world to the detriment of the world’s oppressors.  The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which rekindled Lincoln’s political ambitions in 1854, was, for Douglas, a way of settling the slavery question so America’s territorial expansion could continue without distraction.  Lincoln felt that slavery and its expansion under Kansas-Nebraska detracted from the moral force of American republicanism, and he said as much in his first speech concerning the Kansas-Nebraska act in the fall of 1854 in Peoria:

Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust.  Let us repurify it.  Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution . . . Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and the policy, which harmonize with it . . . If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.  We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations.

As Harry Jaffa says in his book Crisis of the House Divided, Lincoln believed that America’s “primary action on the international scene was to be moral, not political” (85).

Lincoln met republicanism’s darkest hour by expanding Jefferson’s notion of “all men are created equal” beyond a compact of citizens who lived fourscore and seven years earlier:

The “people” is no longer conceived in the Gettysburg Address, as it is in the Declaration of Independence, as a contractual union of individuals existing in a present; it is as well a union with ancestors and with posterity: it is organic and sacramental. (Jaffa 228)

Lincoln viewed the equality clause as affording each American a relationship, in an almost mystical sense, with the Founders through which he may, if he wished, see his signature at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence, just as Paul taught Christians that they were, in a mystical sense, crucified, buried, and resurrected in this present life by virtue of Christ’s resurrection.

By holding the book that Lincoln held, we hold the Founders’ book, too.

Lincoln’s concept of political religion didn’t start off so grand, but it matured over a quarter century.  Lincoln’s first prescription of “political religion” was in 1838, when he used the phrase to assert that adherence to law should be taught like religious precept.  I think his concept of political religion grew in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act just as Christianity grew out of Judaism.  The 1850’s amounted to political religion’s second act involving redemption for a nation that had violated the laws not just of man but also of nature.  The openly religious language of Lincoln’s second inaugural is his most famous expression of his more developed political religion.

The Gettysburg Address also expresses Lincoln’s mature political religion.  Its extended metaphor is that of birth, with early references to “brought forth,” “conceived,” and “dedicated.”  Calhoun and Douglas would have had no problem with “our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty,” but they would have balked as soon as the birth analogy took its religious turn: “and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  Lincoln’s audience knew that Jewish children, such as Jesus, were dedicated to God soon after their birth.  America’s Founders dedicated the new republic to a proposition, Lincoln was saying, and the blood spilled by the war dead – like Christ’s blood spilled on the cross – would lead to a second birth.  Lincoln concluded his address by referring to America’s political born-again experience as a “new birth of freedom.”

Lincoln’s political religion, then, added the concept of redemption and second birth to the political religion he received from the Founding Fathers.  After the war began, one might have updated Lincoln’s 1854 Peoria address, quoted above, to say that the Civil War dead, including those buried at Gettysburg, had washed the republican robe clean with their blood.

The Civil War was no “revolution” in Jeffersonian terms, then, but was the awful cost of a new covenant built squarely on the Founding Fathers’ ancient covenant.

Voters familiar with Paul’s epistles, particularly the Book of Hebrews attributed to him, would probably have been receptive, based on that familiarity alone, to the logic of Lincoln’s constitutional theory and to the force of his religious metaphors in its employment.

Lincoln’s and Paul’s “theologies” are similar in another major, related respect.  Paul described Jesus’ new covenant as an improvement over the earlier, flawed Mosaic covenant, and he associated the new covenant with the more prophetic and sketchy Abrahamic covenant that preceded the Mosaic one.  Lincoln did the same thing for America’s political religion: our second birth – our “new birth of freedom” – is a new covenant that looks back before our flawed but necessary covenant, the Constitution, to our original, sketchy, rights-affirming covenant, the Declaration of Independence.

The primacy of Declaration’s equality clause in Lincoln’s constitutional framework invites a full examination of the Lockean natural rights undergirding the clause, rights which presuppose a Judeo-Christian understanding of the separation and mutual respect among God, humanity, and the rest of nature. To this day, however, most liberals and conservatives believe natural rights are too religious a concept to serve as an aid for understanding American constitutional law.  Jaffa, a Declarationist, has attacked the constitutional philosphy of Robert Bork, William Rehnquist, and Antonin Scalia and has drawn fire from Bork in return.  Jaffa and other natural rights proponents say that, without a historical understanding of Lockean rights, we can become as disconnected from our national ideals as the South became as it radicalized in the quarter century preceding the Civil War and as the nation as a whole became under Manifest Destiny during the same period.

America is not a Christian nation.  Lincoln would never have found such a concept worth fighting for.  If one believes Lincoln, America is dedicated to a proposition and not to a god.  But that proposition requires a certain understanding of and respect for what the Declaration of Independence calls “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”  Our constitutional understanding, if seen through the lens of the Declaration of Independence, is, much more than are our laws, based on a Lockean understanding of our Judeo-Christian heritage.

All honor to Lincoln, born two hundred years ago today.  May we always have the courage to stick our heads between his dangerous mirrors when the need arises.

A slow president

Obama will win.  He will be an unpopular president during most of his term.  Republicans will gain seats in Congress during his administration. But Obama will help to reconnect our civic life with our constitutional values.  If he lives, he will be reelected.

Or he could lose this year.  Or win and be popular.  It just helps me to understand Obama by projecting him against a blank future.

Obama will be unpopular because he is chiefly concerned with reconnecting us with our national ideals.  This concern will cause him to take a very long time to make some important decisions, and many will view his protracted decision-making as evidence of a weak presidency.  His vacillation will be more pronounced in time of crisis, because he considers decisions politically (like all presidents), patriotically (like many presidents), and constitutionally (like few presidents).  By “patriotically,” I mean he cares how the decision will leave our nation in the long run.  By “constitutionally,” I mean he cares how the decision will leave our Constitution and our relationship to it in the long run.

Because our national ideals and constitutional values are often at odds with short-term politics, his decisions – when he gets around to making them – will often be unpopular.  But the process even more than the product will drive many crazy.

In other words, Obama will be unpopular because he will be slow.  But Obama might just be as slow as the best of them: Abraham Lincoln.

We’re familiar with most of the parallels between Lincoln and Obama, of course.  Both men are Illinois lawyers who never run anything, really, before becoming president.  (I refer to Lincoln in the present tense for ease of comparison.)  Both men grow up distant from their fathers, one emotionally and the other physically.  Both men are seen as theorists and orators whose talents arguably would be more suited for the legislature, but both men are drawn to the presidency not by ambition alone but by a desire to address fundamental discrepancies between what our nation was meant to be and what it is.  Before his presidential campaign really begins, each man becomes nationally known initially only for a single, electrifying speech he gives in the Northeast to party faithful.  The campaigns of both men emphasize their candidates’ humble origins and deemphasize their candidates’ careers in law.  Both men win their party’s nominations as dark horses against highly favored candidates from New York, favorites who many party leaders fear would be too divisive in a general election.  Each man benefits from running at the end of his rival party’s unpopular administration in an election year favoring his own party’s general prospects.

Some of these parallels are almost as meaningless as the ones I read as a child between Lincoln and John Kennedy (e.g., the myth that each had a secretary who shared the other’s last name).  For me, though, the most important parallels between Lincoln and Obama have to do with what makes them both slow executives: a driving desire to connect policy and public with constitutional ideals and broad principles.

Obama takes a long time to respond concerning important matters.  When he finally responds, he responds conceptually, sometimes to good effect and sometimes not.  He is slow to distance himself from Reverend Wright.  When he finally reacts to the public’s distaste for the clips of Wright’s sermons, though, it is in the form of a critically acclaimed speech that addresses race in America in fresh, constructive ways.  Then he is slow to respond to accusations that he is unpatriotic.  He finally reacts with a speech just before Independence Day this year that advocates a broader, less divisive concept of patriotism.  It is not a stirring speech, though, and it is not as well received as his earlier address on race.

Lincoln’s final speech is to a fired-up crowd that comes to the White House to celebrate the successful end of the Civil War.  Lincoln uses the occasion to offer an olive branch to the South and to outline a generous philosophy for admitting the succeeding states back into the Union.  Disappointed, the crowd starts to thin out before the speech ends.

Whether or not Lincoln’s and Obama’s more-important speeches are successful, they are usually theoretical in nature, connecting current events with broader themes.  Both Lincoln’s and Obama’s speeches generally make for terrible sound bites, since neither Lincoln nor Obama relies on cute turns of phrase.  Their rhetoric has a lawyerlike force that requires a longer attention span.  Fortunately, both men know how to keep their audience’s attention.  Both men are good writers, and one could use the best of both men’s writings as texts for teaching both rhetoric and prose.

But most of the force in both Lincoln’s and Obama’s speeches comes not from their literary and rhetorical skills but from the way they connect current events to constitutional values our government fails to live up to.  Indeed, both men know constitutional law well: Lincoln obsessively studied it late nights during the 1850’s in reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and Obama taught it for over a decade.

But this same felt connection to forgotten national values – values rooted in involved political and legal theory – that makes both men electrifying speakers also makes them slow executives.

Lincoln claims as president-elect that he “never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”  For sure, Lincoln is a political animal; Lincoln’s law partner and biographer William Herndon famously describes his political ambition as “a little engine that knew no rest.”  But Lincoln’s claim about his political thinking is a fair one.  As president, his decisions are generally made to advance a Whiggish view of the Declaration of Independence, a view that is best expressed in his Gettysburg Address. (See Allen C. Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President for an explanation of the Whig philosophy behind Lincoln’s political thought.)

At the war’s outset, the North has one goal: preserve the Union.  After the Emancipation Proclamation, the North adds the destruction of slavery to the original war aim of preserving the Union.  The Civil War amendments, bracing in their simplicity, accept African Americans as citizens.  And, long after Lincoln is dead, the Gettysburg Address helps the nation coalesce its constitutional thinking around “all men are created equal” as a guiding principle.  Lincoln takes advantage of a war he never intentionally prolongs to fundamentally change our relationship to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (not to mention the Northwest Ordinance and several other founding documents – heck, he helps change how we look at the Founding Fathers).  For Lincoln, a change in what we all believe is change you can believe in.

Lincoln is derided as slow and vacillating, and this perception is accurate.  During the first months of his presidency, for instance, he seems to take forever to decide how to respond to the South’s attack on Fort Sumter.  Like any president would, Lincoln considers his options from a political and military standpoint.  Like few presidents, though, Lincoln considers his options from a constitutional standpoint, too.  I do not mean only that he considers whether various actions he could take would be consistent with the Constitution.  Lincoln considers also whether his options would preserve the constitution and augment its role in our civic life. Changing a country’s constitutional viewpoint is slow work advanced only by an astute and principled politician with a cool temperament.

But his constitutional scruples make Lincoln come across as weak and slow.  Lincoln is slow by nature, too; someone who generally likes to weigh matters long past the time the country or the Congress wants him to act.  He is slow to fire generals and cabinet members, and he is slow to take offense, even when his failing, top general who despises him walks past his own study where he knew Lincoln is waiting to speak to him, and goes to bed.  He almost loses the war, and he almost loses the 1864 election to that same general who has a completely different view of the Constitution and of the North’s proper war aims than he has.

Obama responds to his opponents’ unfair attacks with preternatural patience – a patience that frequently drives me crazy.  Like Lincoln, Obama doesn’t respond in kind to many attacks, and he seems to believe that the public can be drawn to act by “the better angels of our nature,” to use Lincoln’s phrase.  Obama appears not to see the danger in his opponents’ unfair charges even though he frequently says that he does.  This vulnerability attracts a following of people who wish to protect him.  Together, they give millions of dollars each time one of his opponents attacks him in a particularly unfair and potentially effective manner.  Lincoln also frequently finds himself explaining his failure to strike back at opponents, and his inside people are insanely loyal and protective of him, too, according to one of Lincoln’s biographers, Stephen Oates. People who know Lincoln or Obama well often describe a certain vulnerability they sense.

So maybe Obama’s slowness comes from his need to sound out how each of his options may square with broader principles, as I suggest here.  Or maybe he’s slow because he’s a listener and a negotiator, a problem-solver and a consensus-builder (perhaps, like Lincoln, starting with his powerful cabinet – see Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln). Maybe Obama is slow because he’s stubborn: he’s not easily intimidated or goaded or tricked into reacting.  He could be slow also because he’s simply more comfortable weighing major decisions over a period of time.  He’s slow, though, for some or perhaps all of the above reasons.  Today even more than in the 1860’s, Americans seem to prefer a take-charge, decisive CEO-type in the White House, and that’s neither what they got with Lincoln nor what they’ll get with Obama.