The Gettysburg Address: four dedications

1.  This comment pertains to the words “dedicate” and “dedicated” used throughout the address: fathers dedicating a nation in paragraph one, the speaker and audience dedicating a battlefield in paragraph two, soldiers dedicating their lives in battle, and the speaker and audience dedicating themselves to the unfinished work.

2.  Lincoln uses the rhetorical occasion of a battlefield dedication to serve as a metaphor that gets across and unites his version of history and his view of the Union’s war aims.  The occasion of Lincoln’s address is the dedication of the Gettysburg Battlefield.  The concept of dedication comes up in three other contexts, though: the dedication of the nation, the dedication of soldiers, and the dedication of the audience.

3.  Lincoln’s audience is conditioned by the speech’s occasion to hear the word “dedication,” but Lincoln first uses it metaphorically and out of the speech’s immediate context.  In his first sentence, Lincoln alludes to the King James Version of Luke 1 and 2 when he uses the terms “conceived” and “brought forth” as well as the idea of dedicating children.  Our nation was dedicated to a proposition found in its inaugural document, the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln implies, just as Jesus was dedicated at the temple to God shortly after his birth.  This attributes to the nation and to the Declaration a kind of holiness – a kind of God-given purpose – beyond the form of dedication that the audience had come to participate in.

The second use of “dedication” is its use in dedicating the battlefield.  It is in the context of the “Now” introduced by the second paragraph.  It juxtaposes the present occasion with the dedication he and the audience are participating in.  The comparison of almost mystical past in which fathers gave birth and dedicated a nation with the mundane, after-the-fact present, tends to make us see the fathers’ actions as greater than the audience’s is.  “They dedicated a nation, after all, and we are only dedicating a battlefield,” the audience may be led to think.

But Lincoln both reassures the audience and points it in a new direction.  “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this,” Lincoln assures his audience.  Now that the audience is assured in their relation with the past, Lincoln points it in a new direction – the future.  After closing the second paragraph with assurance, he begins the third with “But.”  The soldiers have already dedicated field with their lives, and we have but “poor power to add or detract” to that act or from it, respectively.  We cannot dedicate the field, as we had come to do.  We can only take the soldiers’ example and dedicate ourselves to the same purpose they dedicated themselves to the cause that this nation “shall have a new birth of freedom.”

Lincoln uses the occasion of the battlefield’s dedication effectively to move his audience from the mystical, grand past of our nation’s inception to the present occasion, and then to the audience’s future work.

4.  One of Lincoln’s rhetorical purposes is to increase his audience’s devotion to the Founding Fathers and what he believed they accomplished through the Declaration of Independence.  He does this by suggesting that they dedicated our nation to a proposition – an unproven and arguably axiomatic idea – that all men are created equal.  When the audience in paragraph two is made to feel how small the immediate dedication of a battlefield is compared to the dedication of a nation, the audience also feels how significant and exceptional the Declaration’s equality clause is.

Lincoln’s peroration involves the audience in the Founders’ work, however.  By dedicating themselves to the soldiers’ cause, the audience becomes co-laborers with the Founders.  While the Founders gave birth and dedicated the nation, the audience dedicates itself to preserving the nation so dedicated.

The Gettysburg Address: Lincoln’s selective history

1.  This comment specifically pertains to the text “Now we are engaged” at the beginning of the Gettysburg Address’s second paragraph, and it generally pertains to the text of the first paragraph as well as to the text in the second paragraph’s first sentence.

2.  My comment addresses Lincoln’s rhetorical strategy of invoking history in a seemingly objective but ultimately selective fashion.  Lincoln’s address starts off as a chronology, and, indeed, through the first two paragraphs he puts the events in chronological order.  But he’s very selective about what events are included: the signing of the Declaration of Independence (“the Declaration”), the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the dedication of the Gettysburg Battlefield.  My comment particularly concerns the first two events: the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Civil War.

3.  Lincoln obscures how selective he is by three means.  First, his address is very short, so he can’t be expected to put the country’s entire history in it.  Second, he ties the events together rhetorically.  He relates the Civil War to the Declaration’s signing by introducing the war in the address as the means of testing whether the nation conceived, birthed, and dedicated at the signing can last.  He achieves this by defining the war in terms of the Declaration.   The nation defended is “so conceived and so dedicated.” Third, he puts the Declaration and the Civil War in a life-cycle metaphor that extends over the entire address and parallels that life implicitly with Jesus’ life.  The Gospel of Luke, which Lincoln alludes to in the first paragraph, moves from Jesus’ birth and childhood to his three-year ministry while leaving out everything in between.  Similarly, Lincoln moves from our nation’s conception, birth, and dedication to its by-then three-year-old Civil War the same way.  “. . .  brought forth . . . conceived in liberty, and dedicated . . . Now we are engaged . . .” Nothing is said of the Constitution or of any event from 1776 to 1861.  If one questions Lincoln’s selective history, Lincoln seems to suggest, one might as well question Luke’s.

4.  By recounting our nation’s history through limiting it only the Declaration and the Civil War, Lincoln clarifies by simplifying.  He simplifies our history to emphasize what he sees as riding on the Civil War’s outcome – the existence of a nation, or any nation, founded on the Declaration’s principles.  The simplification also serves to reinforce Lincoln’s belief that the nation came into being at the Declaration’s signing.  This position was important for Lincoln for two reasons.  First, it gave the propositions in the Declaration – particularly that all men are created equal – outsize influence in reading the Constitution.  Second, it reinforced his belief that the people, not the states, created the United States.  If states created the United States, then it would boost the South’s case that individuals have no inherent rights but only those rights that a government recognizes as due to a segment of its population.

A short background of Lincoln’s short speech

I was thrilled to learn that I’d be teaching the Gettysburg Address this year!  I realized that, before we could give it a rhetorical analysis (AP Lang isn’t a history course), we’d need some historical, philosophical, and metaphorical background. Yay!  I gave students a famous section of Calhoun’s Oregon Bill speech in which he rails against Jefferson and the Declaration’s equality clause, Lincoln’s 1859 letter to a meeting of Boston Republicans on the occasion of Jefferson’s birthday ending with his “All hail to Jefferson” paragraph, portions of the King James Bible’s Luke 1 and 2 to account for Lincoln’s “brought forth” phrase and the rest of his birth metaphor, and excerpts from a couple of secondary sources.

Students considered open-ended questions about these documents, and now they’re beginning the exercise I introduced to you in my last post. I’m asking them to “comment on three parts of the Gettysburg Address.  Each comment should (1) quote the text it pertains to, including text not contiguous to the text highlighted by the comment, (2) describe a rhetorical device or strategy in the chosen text, (3) describe how that device functions in the chosen text’s context, and (4) describe how Lincoln used that device or strategy to advance one of his address’s purposes.”

I summarized our discussion of the address’s background in the following paragraphs so students could concentrate on Lincoln’s rhetorical devices and strategies.

Lincoln believed the young republic needed what he called in an 1838 speech a “political religion” to help keep order and enhance respect for law.  His concept of civil religion expanded thereafter to include reverence for the Founding Fathers and their work so that the ideas they cherished would be passed on to future generations (Jaffa, Crisis 226 – 232).

The Whigs and Democrats sparred for decades over the continuing role of the Declaration of Independence (Guelzo 192). Most Southern Democrats who considered the issue believed that the Constitution entirely superseded the Declaration. Southern theorists wanted the Constitution enforced with no distinction between any ideals it may share with the Declaration, on the one hand, and its political compromises found in its provisions protecting slavery, on the other (Jaffa, New Birth 87 – 88). Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, though, wanted to do away with the Constitution because it protected slavery (Guelzo 196 – 197). Lincoln disagreed with both Southern theorists and abolitionists. Instead, he chose to read the Constitution through the lens of the Declaration.  He believed that protecting the Constitution offered the best hope of someday extending the Declaration’s ideals (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) to more than just white males (197 – 198; Lincoln, Democracy 198; cf. Diggins 23).

Lincoln and most Whigs (and Republicans, who largely replaced the Whigs when that national party disintegrated in the late 1850’s) believed that the people of the United States became a single society at the signing of the Declaration of Independence and that the people formed our federal government with the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Most secessionists, though, believed that the states, not the people, formed the U.S. Constitution and that the states, therefore, were implicitly free to secede from the resulting union (Jaffa, New Birth 269 – 271). (Secessionists argued that the states ratified the U.S. Constitution; Unionists countered by quoting the famous “We the people” phrase in the Constitution’s preamble and by pointing out that the ratification process was assigned not to the state legislatures but to a specially convoked convention in each state (Smith 451.)

Most Whigs agreed with John Locke and Thomas Jefferson that people have inalienable rights by virtue of their status as human beings (Lincoln, Lincoln-Douglas 63).  Democratic theorists, led by John C. Calhoun, believed that no inalienable rights existed because people were first and foremost members of societies and not individuals.  According to Calhoun, rights do not attach to individuals but only to members of particular societies or races that have evolved enough to earn and defend them (Jaffa, New Birth 282 – 283, 403 – 471).

Lincoln didn’t see any analogy between the colonists’ position in the Revolutionary War and the South’s in the Civil War. Lincoln found the secession counter-revolutionary (to use today’s language) since its leaders did not recognize what the Founders recognized as natural rights, applicable to all people at all times (277 – 282).  Further, Calhoun, who was the South’s most influential political theorist, recognized no right of revolution, as Locke and Jefferson had, since Calhoun believed that no rights attached to individuals qua individuals (414 – 416).

Lincoln believed that the South’s rebellion was a threat to democratic government because it contradicted the principle of majority rule and contained the seeds of anarchy.  How did he believe it did so?  The immediate cause of the South’s secession was Lincoln’s election.  If the losing side of a democratic election could split off from a political entity such as a nation, state, or county, Lincoln reasoned, then elections – the foundation of representative democracy – could always be undermined.  Representative democracy would “perish from the earth” (278 – 280; Lincoln, Democracy 206).

Although he hated slavery, Lincoln believed a U.S. president had no authority to harm that institution in the existing slave states (Lincoln, Lincoln-Douglas 63). He ran for president on a Republican platform that did not seek to end slavery but sought to keep slavery out of new American territories (Jaffa, New Birth 216 – 218).  Before the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, Lincoln believed that the North’s war aim was to preserve the Union with or without the abolition of slavery (Lincoln, Democracy 253 – 254). Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves only in the slave states that had seceded from the Union, and Lincoln signed the proclamation only as an express exercise of his war powers as Commander-in-Chief (Goodwin 459 – 472; cf. Oates 319).

Works Cited

Diggins, John P. On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000. Print.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Print.

Guelzo, Allen C. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999. Print.

Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008. Print.

Jaffa, Harry V. A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. Print.

Jaffa, Harry V. Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1982. Print.

Lincoln, Abraham, Mario Matthew. Cuomo, and Harold Holzer. Lincoln on Democracy: His Own Words, with Essays by America’s Foremost Historians. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Print.

Lincoln, Abraham, Stephen A. Douglas, and Harold Holzer. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.

Oates, Stephen B. With Malice toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Print.

Smith, Jean Edward. John Marshall: Definer of a Nation. New York: H. Holt &, 1996. Print.

The Gettysburg Address, now annotating

Blogging is text oriented, but imagine a site that allows visitors to easily identify and discuss selected portions of posted texts.  The comments are visible when other visitors select the text portions commented on. My AP students are using it to analyze rhetorical strategies of short passages, such as the Gettysburg Address and my favorite “I went to the woods” paragraph in the second chapter of Thoreau’s Walden.

Want to try it?  I’ve created a Gettysburg Address page just for us.  You can see my sample comments by clicking “dedicated” and “Now we are engaged” in the address.  Highlight some text and click the comment button to the left of the text to record your own responses to that text.  The comments are threaded, too, so discussions can develop around a single word or phrase in the posted text. It’s like Google Docs, but more like blogging meets Google Docs.

(If you’re reading this on my blog’s home page, you may want to click this post’s title to experience a wider version of the field.)

Try mousing over the embed’s buttons — a nice selection. And the people are very friendly. They responded to (and solved) a technical issue I emailed them about within an hour on a weekend.

A friend of mine and I opened another account for an online writers’ group we started.  It just feels extra stupid to say, “Nice post.  You writing here changed my life.  Keep up the good writing!” and the like.  You almost have to get specific.

Idealism: the hell & necessity


Ideals must burn low and long and locally.  Lincoln was my kind of idealist. He understood the hell in his own idealism.


Lincoln thought the winning ideals in 1783 and 1865 were the same, though few on the winning sides would have agreed on the ideals or were even idealists.


The moderation I want is not a Hegelian dialectical synthesis. It is the test of ideals through subordination and patience.


Eschatology – the ultimate ideal – leads to moderation, so Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith is a tax collector, unrecognized.


An ideal eschatology leads not to fanaticism but moderation. “Let your moderation be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.” – Phil. 4:5


After the cock crew, Peter’s idealism was sublimated into moderation. He became “a new creation.”


Only a few idealists have the highest moderation, but no one else does.


Moderation may be an idealist’s highest ideal, subordinating her other ideals to the rule of reason.

Collaborative writing

[Photo of William Seward]Bill and I were kind of chuckling via email about the current covers of Newsweek and Time, the former reflecting my fixation with comparing Obama and Lincoln, and the latter picking up on Bill’s suggestion that our times may eventually cause a president to consider policies as drastic as some of Franklin Roosevelt’s.  (Bill was pointing specifically to “the 1933 Executive Order 6102, which required everyone to sell their gold to the government.”)

Bill expressed his surprise at Newsweek‘s claim that the lines quoted by Obama last week at Grant Park taken from Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address (“We are not enemies, but friends. . . . “) weren’t Lincoln’s but William Seward’s.  That didn’t ring true, so I reread my history and found that Newsweek had oversimplified things.

The words are Lincoln’s, but he was working off of a revision sent to him by Seward, Lioncoln’s chief rival for the Republican nomination the year before and his choice for Secretary of State.   Seward’s revision: “I close. We are not we must not be aliens or enemies but fellow countrymen and brethren.” Lincoln’s revision of Seward’s revision: “I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”

Lincoln had sent his first draft to Seward originally, and Seward worked long and hard to take the bellicosity out of it.   Lincoln accepted Seward’s approach wholeheartedly.   Their collaboration on the speech produced one of the finest perorations in history.   Here’s Seward’s revised ending:

I close. We are not we must not be aliens or enemies but fellow countrymen and brethren. Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly they must not, I am sure they will not be broken. The mystic chords which proceeding form so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.

Here’s Lincoln’s revision of Seward’s revision:

I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

And that was the beginning of a beautiful relationship, both political and personal, between the two men.   I think it’s also a testimony to the power of revision and of collaborative writing.

(I found this information in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, pages 324 – 326.)



Political religion

[Barack Obama]President-Elect Obama started and ended his train trip to Washington Saturday, emulating the last leg of President-Elect Lincoln’s train trip to Washington.  Most Civil War era reenactors I know don’t care too much for Lincoln, but this guy Obama channels him, even to the extent of choking up on the day he left Illinois for Washington.

Lincoln, for his part, practically channeled Christ at Gethsemani when he boarded his train and left Springfield for Washington.  Standing on the back platform of the train’s rear passenger car, “his voice choked with feeling” according to Harold Holzer in his book Lincoln: President-Elect, Lincoln could hardly get out his masterful farewell address to the town’s citizens:

To-day I leave you; I go to assume a task more difficult than that which devolved upon General Washington.  Unless the great God who assisted him, shall be with and aid me, I must fail.  But if the same omniscient mind, and Almighty arm that directed and protected him, shall guide and support me, I shall not fail . . .  (299)

Lincoln’s law partner, Billy Herndon, testified to Lincoln’s conviction at the time he left Springfield that he would never return:

Not only was he sorrowful at the prospect of leaving home, he was convinced, he whispered, that he would never return alive.  Herndon implored him to abandon such thoughts.  It was not “in keeping,” he argued, “with the popular ideal of a President.”

“But,” Lincoln replied icily before saying goodbye, “it is in keeping with my philosophy.” (Holzer 294)

* * *

From that time Jesus began to make it clear to his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem, and endure great suffering at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and scribes; to be put to death, and to be raised again on the third day.

At this Peter took hold of him and began to rebuke him: ‘Heaven forbid!’ he said. ‘No, Lord, this shall never happen to you.’

Then Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Out of my sight, Satan; you are a stumbling block to me. You think as men think, not as God thinks.’  (Matthew 16:21-23, REB)

* * *
What “philosophy” would have lead Lincoln to believe that he wouldn’t make it back to Springfield alive?  Was it his depression?  Was it his fatalism, that underground, life-giving river that caused him to quote morose poetry and helped him to make some sense out of his children’s early deaths?  I think Lincoln’s fatalism may have led to his premonition that he wouldn’t return to Springfield, but I think his fatalism in this instance was also reinforcing an important aspect of his political philosophy.

[Holzer book cover]It has been fun reading Lincoln: President-Elect, Holzer’s almost-day-by-day account of Lincoln’s four months as president-elect, during Obama’s mercifully shorter term as president-elect.   Despite Obama’s choking up and his train trip, and despite the two visits he has already made to the Lincoln Memorial in the short time since his move here last week, the comparison of the two presidents-elect that the timing of my reading has led me into has brought to mind more of the differences between Obama and his times, on the one hand, and Lincoln and his times, on the other. Polls show, for instance, that the vast majority of Americans are upbeat about what Obama may accomplish, while the public, North and South, was generally pessimistic about Lincoln’s chances of holding the Union together against the steady stream of succeeding Southern states.  Obama has turned down several offers to put our economic downturn on a par with the Great Depression, while Lincoln, as quoted above, claimed that his job would be more difficult than Washington’s.

The two train trips served vastly different purposes, too.  Obama wanted to honor Lincoln, his chief political inspiration and the Great Emancipator whose work, in one sense, has reached another milestone with the election of the first African-American President.  Lincoln, though, wanted to introduce himself to Northern states who had seen little or nothing of him before.  He also used frequent opportunities for speeches the trip afforded him to try out themes that would make their way into his Inaugural Address.

Most of those speeches were poorly thought through, and a few got Lincoln in some trouble.  The wording of one Ohio speech was overly lawyerly and unduly provocative to the South, confirming, on its face, some of the South’s worst fears by suggesting that Lincoln might go beyond his oft-stated position of upholding slavery where it existed and of disallowing its further expansion.  The next day, he was too conciliatory, agitating some of his Republican allies in the North.

Lincoln seemed to hit his stride towards the end of his train trip, though, particularly when he got personal and when he referred to George Washington, as he had done when he had left Springfield. Lincoln did both while speaking at Trenton’s state house, which was across the street from where Washington was bivouacked during his victory against the English.  After referring to Washington’s struggle there, Lincoln said:

I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle. (Holzer 373)

Holzer points out that Lincoln was onto something in Trenton that he would return to in some of his later, greater orations: a “civil religion” that might help Americans connect the impending struggle for Union with the Founders’ initial struggle for independence.  This connection figures largely, of course, in the Gettysburg Address.

Lincoln was saying, Holzer believes, that Americans perhaps “were still but ‘almost chosen people’ . . . because they had not yet endured the pain required to sanctify what [God] had granted them.  The test, Lincoln implied, was yet to come” (374).

How much did Lincoln see himself as a type of Moses or Christ, a deliverer or a redeemer who would lead the United States towards the promise prophesied by the Founding Fathers?  A lot, I think.  But Lincoln’s belief had less to do with a Messiah complex (something Obama has been unfairly accused as having, too) and more to do with an aspect of his political theory rooted in Aristotle and in the Federalist Papers.

[jaffa book cover]This salvific aspect of Lincoln’s political theory is set out in a speech he gave in 1838 before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield.  By “civil religion,” Holzer was referring to Lincoln’s advocacy in that speech for a “political religion” to counteract mob violence that had been recently committed locally and in neighboring states.  In his essay “The Teaching Concerning Political Salvation,” Chapter 9 in his book Crisis of the House Divided, Harry V. Jaffa uses Lincoln’s Lyceum speech to show that Lincoln didn’t believe that the American people had demonstrated the capacity to govern themselves (209).  Lincoln spoke at Lyceum of a coming crisis that would threaten American democracy and test its capacity for self-governance.  A “towering genius” along the lines of Alexander or Ceasar had yet to test the young republic, a genius who, with ambition and superior talents, would rise to leadership and eventually usurp republican democracy:

[The towering genius] thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freeman. (210)

Such a figure, according to Aristotle, would have to be ostracized in order to save the community (214).

Laying the philosophical groundwork for his Springfield departure speech twenty-three years later, Lincoln at Lyceum suggested that the Founders’ role was minimal compared with the leader who would have to take America through this crisis:

That our government should have been maintained in its original form from its establishment until now, is not much to be wondered at.  It had many props to support it through that period, which now are decayed, and crumbled away. (205)

The Founders’ danger was outside – England – but the future danger would be internal, since the towering genius would come from among us.  Lincoln believed that America had learned through Jefferson to assert its rights, but that it had not yet learned that a majority – as central as majority rule is in a democracy – could become as despotic as Caesar.  Jaffa states:

The people must be taught, as Jefferson taught them, to assert their rights.  But they had not yet learned to respect what they had asserted.  The people had not yet learned to be submissive in the presence of their own dignity. (225)

If Americans were to accept Stephen Douglas’s doctrine of popular sovereignty, for instance – the doctrine that left to the legislatures of individual territories the decision of whether slavery would be permitted there – the American people collectively would become as Caesar:

The doctrine of popular sovereignty . . . was a base parody of the principle of popular rights.  It implied that whatever the people wanted they had a right to, instead of warning the people that the rights which they might assert against all the kings and princes of the old world were rights which they must first respect themselves.  (224)

The Kansas-Nebraska Act, popular soverignty, and the Dred Scott decisiton demonstrated that America’s self-governance at the time of the Civil War was fundamentally flawed, and Lincoln believed America’s self-governance required a kind of political redemption.

Political redemption followed from Lincoln’s concept of political religion, a concept that had at least two levels for Lincoln.  Lincoln’s concept of political religion was – on the surface, which is an important place in politics – an attempt to unite the two main, antagonistic strands of American “thought and conviction”: the “Puritan religious tradition” and the Enlightenment.  On the Enlightenment side, he agreed with Jefferson’s position on the primacy of the Declaration of Independence’s proposition that “all men are created equal.”  On the religious side, he spoke in biblical (and, yes, in Platonic terms as well) about birth and rebirth, as he did in the Gettysburg Address.  In this deeper sense of a political and religious unity, Lincoln expanded Jefferson’s notion of “all men are created equal” beyond a compact of citizens at any given time:

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. (228)

Leaning on Plato, The Federalist suggests that, because we are not a nation of philosophers for which an appeal to “enlightened reason” alone is sufficient, appeal should be made to “examples which fortify opinion [that] are ancient as well as numerous” (230).  According to Jaffa, “A regard for ancient opinions is a peculiar necessity and a peculiar difficulty for free popular government.”  Lincoln provides these ancient opinions by adding to the Declaration’s compact.

In this political religion, the Founders provide the ancient opinion and, eventually, God provides redemption through the Civil War.  The peroration of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address focuses on our connection with ancient opinion, appealing to “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart.”  A full third of Lincoln’s earlier Cooper Union speech is a refutation of the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision through a masterly historical argument that the Founders would never have countenanced the extension of slavery. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, however, focuses on redemption, finding religious significance in the war’s protracted horror:

Yet, if God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

To be precise, it is Lincoln’s well-developed political religion and not Christianity or Judiasm that he espoused here, though he was relying on his audience’s strong connection with biblical concepts and quotes in selling it.

All this is muddled, and not reinforced, by Lincoln’s premonition that he wouldn’t return to Springfield alive and by his assassination on Good Friday of 1865.  As Allen C. Guelzo points out in his book Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, clergymen all over the country rewrote their Easter sermons the day they heard of Lincoln’s death.  “. . . [A]lmost irresistably, [Lincoln] was compared to Jesus Christ.  Had not Lincoln come to set his people free?  Had he not entered into Richmond in the same triumphant spirit, close to Palm Sunday, that Jesus had entered Jerusalem?  Had he not been slain on Good Friday?”  (440) (Never mind that he was shot laughing in a theater – not a particularly martyrish venue that many clergymen of Lincoln’s day had condemned from the pulpit.)  As the days and years went by following Lincoln’s death, the circumstances of his death seemed to put his religion in controversy.  Christians and the more secular segment of the public each tried to appropriate Lincoln as one of their own.  I think the latter had the better case, but my point is that the political religion that Lincoln had fostered fell apart again, at least on the outside; Jaffa’s “two main currents of thought and conviction” – the Puritan’s spiritual descendents and the Enlightenment’s spiritual descendents, if you will – went back to their separate corners and were both trying to tug Lincoln’s legacy along with them.

I guess that’s all right.  If, after reading Jaffa, whom I do little justice to here, you find that he works for you as he works for me, then I guess you’re just glad that it was safe after the war for those two fighters to have resumed their cyclical struggle.  By that time, we Americans had become God’s chosen people, after all, according to Lincoln’s political religion – not through Lincoln’s death, but through the mighty scourge of Civil War.

But I wonder if Obama feels as if America’s democracy has been entirely purged of its collective towering genius, that is, of its tendency to make a minority’s fundamental rights the subject of a majority’s will.  Our heritage of slavery demonstrates, I think, that American democracy may still struggle with submitting to the presence of its own dignity.

Lincoln biographies

In a comment to “A Slow President,” maggie writes:

I would love to know what Lincoln biographies are you’re favorites. I haven’t read anything on Lincoln in a LONG time, but would love to read something fresh on him.

Maggie, I’ve been waiting a long, long time for someone to ask me that.  Some of this might not be “fresh,” since I’ve included one book almost as old as I am.  Well, let’s get started!

[book cover]A good reintroduction to Lincoln might be Stephen B. Oates’s With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, which came out in 1977.  I’ve read it twice, mainly because it’s such a good story.  Oates’s Lincoln is a bit romanticized, kind of an updated Sandburg version.  If you can find the unabridged, recorded version, you’re in for a treat.

The least romanticized Lincoln may be David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, which was published in 1995.  It’s a fine biography with lots of good detail.  Lincoln plays the part of a political operator, which he was, but one gets the feeling that the Lincoln here is a bit the product of late-twentieth-century America.  Too much the callous C.E.O.

My favorite Lincoln biography is Allen C. Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, which was published in 1999.   Quoting from my own customer review on Amazon: “Like a typical biography, Redeemer President goes through its subject’s life.  But unlike most biographies, Redeemer President centers on the maturation of its subject’s thinking.  Guelzo shows how some of Lincoln’s most famous ideas, such as his reliance on ‘the proposition that all men are created equal,’ were part of Whig orthodoxy.  To trace Lincoln’s development takes nothing away from his genius, of course.”  The book examines the maturation of Lincoln’s religious thinking, too.

The most recent Lincoln blockbuster, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, is a lot of fun.  It gives a brief biography of Lincoln and his three chief rivals for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination up to that year’s party convention.  Then it follows the men through Lincoln’s presidency.  William Seward, the odds-on favorite for the party’s nomination in 1860, becomes Lincoln’s closest friend in his cabinet after Lincoln earns his respect.  Salmon P. Chaise is made out to be a vain opportunist that Lincoln must expend lots of energy managing during his first term.  The book focuses, as you might imagine, mostly on Lincoln’s cabinet. Published in 2005, Team of Rivals is really a great biography.

[book cover]My favorite Lincoln books are not biographies at all, but works of political philosophy by Harry V. Jaffa.  The first is Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, published in 1959.  Jaffa first makes Douglas’s case for “Popular Sovereignty,” the doctrine that allowed each territory to vote on whether it would be a free or slave state when it entered the union.  The second half of the book makes Lincoln’s case for natural rights, which Lincoln found embedded in the Declaration of Independence and which, when combined with the Constitution, required the eventual extermination of slavery.  The book focuses not only on the debates’ arguments but also on speeches and other historical events that flesh out those arguments.  If you read it, read its appendix first, which gives a great overview of the five years leading up to the debates, beginning with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Jaffa’s sequel, published in 2000, is A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War.  I set out here my Amazon customer review of the book:

A New Birth of Freedom is a book about Lincoln’s political philosophy, which Lincoln himself said (in so many words) emanated completely from the Declaration of Independence. The book is the sequel to Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided, written over 40 years earlier. In Crisis, Jaffa takes up Douglas’ arguments in the famous 1858 debates for the first half of the book and then Lincoln’s in the second half. In New Birth, Jaffa backs up from the 1850’s to take in a sweep of history and thought from Classic Greece to the present.

If the material in New Birth is far more wide-ranging than in Crisis, the theme in New Birth is much more precise. The south lost the war, but the philosophy behind the justifications advanced by southern leaders such as Calhoun, Taney and Stephens is winning the battle of the minds.

Crisis of the House Divided is like being in philosophy class, but New Birth is like being over at the professor’s house later for drinks. Jaffa seems to lazily go over mountains of quotes, philosophers, and arguments, and he returns again and again to make the same points. But it’s never tedious. One finds Jaffa’s repetitions well worded and essential in understanding how far we’ve fallen philosophically. And eventually, toward the end, one gets a sense of the book’s structure.

Here’s the book’s thesis. Most of us admire Lincoln, but most of us wouldn’t agree with his political philosophy. Lincoln really did believe that our nation was dedicated to a proposition — a proposition that also brought forth natural rights. Mr. Jaffa demonstrates how 19th Century historicism has won out over the Founders’ concept of natural rights. Just as Nietzsche bitterly accounts for how Jewish thought won out after the Israelites were defeated, A New Birth of Freedom laments the ascendancy of the Confederacy’s historical approach in today’s political thinking.

Jaffa traces natural rights from Greek and Jewish thought through Locke, Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln. Basically, Jaffa teaches that natural rights begin with the doctrine of the “state of nature.” In this state, a person has the right to life and liberty, and to property in order to defend his right to life and liberty. People form government in order to better protect these inalienable rights. In so doing, they yield the exercise of some of their rights, but not the rights themselves, which are inalienable. The people reserve the right of revolution, which is strongly asserted in the Declaration of Independence. Legitimate government can only exist through the consent of the governed, by a unanimous compact or contract. The measures of such a government by the majority’s will are deemed the will of the whole, so long as the minority’s rights are not violated by the measures.

All of this presupposes that all men are created equal. Jefferson found this self-evident, famously pointing out that we don’t find some people born with spurs on their shins and others born with saddles on their backs. Natural rights recognizes a distinction between God and mankind, on the one hand, and a distinction between mankind and beasts, on the other. The historical school finds all of this an accident of history. Picking up with Jaffa:

The historical school, which by the 1850s had largely displaced the natural rights school of the Founding, had also given rise to the romantic movement of the mid-nineteenth century. It too repudiated natural right, because it repudiated ‘rationalism,’ insisting as it did that ‘the heart had its reasons which reason did not know.’ Accordingly, Lincoln’s Socratic reasoning was rejected, because the very idea of justification by reasoning had come to be rejected. History, not reason, decided that some should be masters and others should be slaves. This movement of Western thought, from the natural rights school to the historical school, culminated in the Nazi and the Communist regimes of the twentieth century.

This was one of Jaffa’s few specific references to how the relativism of the historical school has affected modern history. I hope that, in his next book, Mr. Jaffa will give many more examples of how our retreat from the Founders’ conception of natural rights – and the clear distinction among God, people, and beasts underling that conception – has cost us.

Speaking of Amazon, to which I’ve linked each book title discussed, you pretty much have to ignore the aggregate stars the customer reviews give a Lincoln book.  Confederate sympathizers bash most modern books on Lincoln because these books don’t generally share their views of him, and by so doing they artificially lower these books’ star totals.

I seem incapable of writing short posts these days.  I hope you’re not sorry you asked, maggie.  And thanks for asking.



Posted September 28, 2008.

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.

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.