Soccer and Our Founding Document

3PictureTimHowardGeorgeWashingtonIt’s the Fourth of July. In today’s Washington Post, Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist, urges Americans to get over “their nagging emphasis on nationality” and to find a team to root for among the remaining eight World Cup countries.

Independence Day, with impeccable timing, is here to help.

But hold that thought. First, let’s take in the biggest news ever for American soccer: this week, the entire country seemed riveted to a soccer match. At its end, Team USA was eliminated from the World Cup in a 2-to-1 loss to Belgium. This excerpt from a New York Times article is typical of the American media’s euphoria over the way our team played:

Trying to figure out where soccer fits into the fabric of America is a popular topic but, for one afternoon at least, there was this unexpected truth: All around the country, from coast to coast and through the nation’s belly, sports fans of every kind were inspired by the performance of a soccer goalkeeper. In a loss.

The key to figuring out “where soccer fits into the fabric of America,” of course, has always been figuring out where America fits into the fabric of the world. The key is coming up with an alternative to mere tribalism, to what Jenkins calls our “nagging emphasis on nationality.” To restart that figuring, we might look into why we find ourselves celebrating this loss.

We are celebrating because our goalkeeper, Tim Howard, broke a World Cup record for saves. I’ve seen an Internet meme conflating Tim Howard with George Washington, and for good reason: General Washington was a master of that most defensive of tactics, the retreat. His resilience at our end of the field won us the world’s respect. Howard’s resilience did the same thing.

We are celebrating this loss because, deep down and to the surprise of many – including ourselves – we still care what the rest of the world thinks. We cared when we fought the Revolutionary War. We had a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” back then, to borrow the Declaration of Independence’s famous noun phrase. That respect, in fact, drove us to write the Declaration.

The Declaration’s respect for world opinion isn’t just a throwaway line. Grammatically speaking, the word “respect” is the sole subject of the Declaration’s introduction. If that weren’t enough to raise its profile, “respect” comes at the end of the Declaration’s opening sentence, a periodic sentence that dramatically highlights its point by saving its subject for the end:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Aristotle taught us that every speech or writing has an audience that shapes it. The Declaration’s explicit audience is mankind. We owe the world an explanation, it says. The Declaration, which reached England, France, Italy, and even Poland by the end of 1776, was our first apology tour.

The Declaration doesn’t declare our independence from the world or its opinions. It declares our independence from Britain, but in the process, it declares also our “separate and equal station” with the rest of the nations. And it expressly solicits those nations’ opinions.

In fact, the Declaration of Independence never calls itself that. I think a better name for it would be the Declaration of Interdependence. Independence, after all, is just a necessary stage between dependence and interdependence. This progression from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is true also for highly effective nations. We have a lot to offer other nations, of course, not the least of which are the rights enumerated in the Declaration. But for other nations to benefit from us, we must understand that they still share an “equal station” with us. For other nations to adopt our rights, we need to be willing to respect theirs.

Lincoln knew that other nations would not adopt the Declaration’s abstract principles – equality and the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – through American military might. He countered Stephen Douglas’s version of Manifest Destiny with an understanding, as political scientist Harry V. Jaffa has it in his book Crisis of the House Divided, that America’s “primary action upon the international scene was to be moral, not political” (85). We need to get our house in order because other nations need us.

The reverse is also true. Long after France helped us bottle up Cornwallis at Yorktown, we still need other nations. We don’t need them to form another “coalition of the willing,” as George W. Bush called the nations that supported America’s invasion of Iraq. Instead, we need mankind’s culture, its fellowship, its perspectives. (How obvious this is; how sad to feel the need to write this.) We need its candid opinions, as the Declaration claims. In his 1939 essay “The Indispensable Opposition,” Walter Lippmann argues that the foundation for freedom of speech is our need to learn from one another. The same need is the foundation for diplomacy.

The Framers believed in a “candid world” – the final two words in the Declaration’s famous preamble. “Candid” back then didn’t mean “forthcoming” but, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, “free from bias; fair, impartial, just.” Do we still believe in such a world?

Our reaction to this week’s World Cup loss suggests we might. Despite the dismissal of world opinion that has characterized our politics and even our foreign policy this young century, we may have rediscovered a truer understanding of ourselves this week on the pitch. There, for at least ninety minutes, we remembered what it was like to be respected rather than feared.

Today, and hopefully for ages to come, the Declaration of Interdependence can help us more fully adopt that perspective.

And so can the Post, though for a limited time. It put together an assessment of each remaining World Cup team – why you should root for each, and why you shouldn’t. So adopt a team as well as the Declaration’s perspective, and for the remainder of the Cup, celebrate our nation’s interdependence!

We the deputies

The notion of popular sovereignty is old, older than the modern vote. When the Pope crowned Charlemagne emperor in 800 CE, for instance, he said that he “merely declared and exercised the people’s will.”1 But just as popular sovereignty was beginning to “imply the enfranchisement of the people,”2 the seceding Southern states ratified a constitution that opened with “We, the deputies of the sovereign and independent states.”3 Lincoln pointed to this language in his July 4, 1961 address to Congress, his unofficial declaration of war against the seceding states: “Why? Why this deliberate pressing out of view, the rights of men, and the authority of the people?”4

Pope Leo III crowns Charlemagne
Pope Leo III crowns Charlemagne

It’s a fair question. If European rulers were claiming the people’s mandate before the modern vote existed, why was it so hard for the South to mimic the famous opening to the United States Constitution, “We, the people”?

The division between state sovereignty and popular sovereignty was evident even while our Constitution was being debated and ratified in the late 1780’s. At Virginia’s ratification convention, Patrick Henry argued that the proposed constitution’s “We, the people” opening was error because sovereignty rested in the states, not the people. In her book Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787 – 1788, Pauline Maier summarizes part of Henry’s argument: “The people in their collective capacity were not the proper agents for entering leagues, alliances, or confederations; that was the work of ‘states and sovereign powers.’” Henry didn’t believe that the “people in their collective capacity” were sovereign.5

Henry’s argument against people’s sovereignty may have been associated with another argument he advanced, this one outside of the Richmond convention, against the proposed constitution: “They’ll free your niggers.”6 (Like John Randolph of Roanoke and John Calhoun after him, the author of Virginia’s famous “Liberty or Death” speech believed in liberty without equality.7) As Lincoln pointed out, the doctrine of state sovereignty was inimical to the rights of men.

Lincoln understood that the state sovereignty claim, cited by Henry, was the philosophical basis of the South’s secession. In his July 4, 1861 address to Congress, Lincoln described how, from an historical perspective, the states didn’t make the Union; instead, the Union made the thirteen colonies into states. Consequently, the states have no power – even no political existence – outside of that Union. The Constitution merely reserves to the states what is inherently local: “whatever concerns only the State, should be left exclusively, to the State” (emphasis original). While Lincoln accepted this limited definition of states’ rights, he demolished, in a lawyerlike manner, the notion of “state sovereignty.”8

Political scientist Harry V. Jaffa, founder of the conservative Claremont Institute, points out that the Revolutionary colonial assemblies declared union with one another and independence from Great Britain at the same time, and most of those declarations proclaimed the rights of man in language similar to the Declaration of Independence’s statement of inalienable rights. Their instructions to their delegates to the Continental Congress all contained but a single qualification: the new states would reserve police powers. “Thus [the new states] could, euphemistically, be called sovereign, but only in this limited sense,” Jaffa argues. He points out that each of the nine prohibitions on the states in the Constitution’s first article – “for example, the denial of the right to coin money – is a denial of a power regarded as an attribute of sovereignty by international law.” 9 This limited, “police power” notion of states’ rights grew to full sovereignty precisely when states’ rights were no longer associated with natural rights. Jaffa again: “The state rights that allegedly justified the ordinances of secession of 1860 – 61, and which served as the foundation of the Confederacy, had severed the connection with natural rights that had informed the generation of the Revolution.” 10

The Constitution’s ratification and the North’s successful prosecution of the Civil War were victories for popular sovereignty and aided the gradual movement to universal suffrage. They also established the falsity of today’s claims for state sovereignty and to a right of secession. States have “rights” to the extent of their police powers, but they are not, nor have they ever been, sovereign.11

  1. Lippmann, Walter. The Public Philosophy. Boston: Little, Brown, 1955. Print. Pages 37-38.
  2. Id. at 37.
  3. 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. Page 220.
  4. Id. at 223.
  5. Maier, Pauline. Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. Print. Page 264.
  6. Smith, Jean Edward. John Marshall: Definer of a Nation. New York: Holt, 1996. Print. Page 119.
  7. See my post “Liberty and inequality.”
  8. Lincoln, supra, at 220 – 221.
  9. Jaffa, Harry V. A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. Print. Pages 373 – 374.
  10. Id. at 251.
  11. Texas is an exception, of course: it was once a sovereign state. But as Lincoln pointed out in his July 4, 1861 address, “even Texas gave up the character on coming into the Union; by which act, she acknowledged the Constitution of the United States . . . to be, for her, the supreme law of the land.” Lincoln, supra, at 220.

Good reads on natural law, Lockean liberalism, & equality

Walter Lippmann stampA few people recently asked me for some good reads to start them into natural law, Lockean liberalism, and the equality clause. I oblige them here.

The Teaching Company’s Great Courses includes a thoughtful overview on the history and development of natural law theory. Joseph Koterski’s “Natural Law and Human Nature” course comes with a good “course guidebook” that has lots of suggestions for more reading.

One of those suggestions is Paul E. Sigmund’s book Natural Law in Political Thought. Here is the most approachable scholarly book I’ve read on the subject. Like Koterski’s course, Sigmund’s book traces natural law’s development over the centuries.

Sigmund’s book, in turn, mentions Walter Lippmann’s book The Public Philosophy. I’m reading it now. Unlike Koterski and Sigmund, Lippmann was not a scholar but (as Wikipedia puts it) a public intellectual and an amateur philosopher. He wrote The Public Philosophy in 1955, near the end of his reign as probably the twentieth century’s most influential American columnist. Lippmann’s book isn’t a history book; instead, it advocates that America readopt natural law as its public philosophy.

Ruth W. Grant
Ruth W. Grant

Another well-argued piece is political science professor Harry V. Jaffa’s 1987 law review article “What Were the ‘Original Intentions’ of the Framers of the Constitution of the United States?” Jaffa takes issue with his fellow conservatives who reject natural law in favor of strict constructionism. (If you click the above link to that article, be prepared to be patient. It takes a while to load.) Jaffa’s shorter article along those same lines is “The False Prophets of American Conservatism.” If you end up liking Jaffa and want to challenge yourself, treat yourself to what I consider to be the past few decades’ greatest work of American political science, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, published in 2000. In it, Jaffa develops the founders’ and Lincoln’s political philosophy and establishes the significance of the equality clause and the natural-law hierarchy it reinforces among God, mankind, and nature. Very slow, difficult, but rewarding reading.  (You can read my customer review of the book here.)

Three good primary sources would be Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay’s Federalist Papers, and Lincoln’s writings. Political Writings of John Locke has a long (115 pages) and excellent introduction by David Wootton. The introduction puts Locke’s works in the context of his life and times and explains his works’ appeal to the American revolutionary generation. The Signet Classic version of the Federalist Papers has a much shorter but equally thoughtful introduction, this one by Charles R. Kesler. Written in 1999, the introduction presciently demonstrates how pertinent the Federalist Papers are to us today: “The American Union is threatening to split up into separate confederacies of states, Publius argues, and each state is itself teetering on the brink of tyranny due to the danger of majority faction.” As for Lincoln’s writings, I use Lincoln on Democracy, edited by Mario M. Cuomo and Harold Holzer, and the Holzer-edited version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. My favorite intellectual biography of Lincoln is the very approachable Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President by Allen C. Guelzo.

Alexander Rosenthal
Alexander Rosenthal

Two other books I’ve read should not be missed: Alexander S. Rosenthal’s Crown Under Law: Richard Hooker, John Locke, and the Ascent of Modern Constitutionalism and Ruth W. Grant’s John Locke’s Liberalism. The links associated with those titles lead to my extensive reviews of the titles.

Three good steps for finding free or cheap books: (1) showroom Amazon (many would say it’s only fair) using its customer reviews and its “Look Inside” feature where available, or Google Books, to see what you want, (2) look for free e-book downloads on’s texts sectionOpen Library, or Amazon’s Kindle store and the like (usually books out of copyright) (you can borrow many e-books at these sites, too), and, barring that, (3) shop for used hard-copy books, starting at bookfinder.comAnd three guidelines for buying used books: (1) hardbacks are often way cheaper than paperbacks, (2) older editions are often way cheaper than newer editions, and (3) (contrary to all reason) well-marked books are often way cheaper than “clean” books.

I can’t compile such a digest of political science books as this without acknowledging the work that got me interested in natural law, Lockean liberalism, and the equality clause more than a quarter-century ago: Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. I trembled, reading it the first time.

American unexceptionalism

What do you think of the notion that America has a world mission? Does it sound too religious, too much like the language of crusade? Mr. Romney, a former missionary, speaks of America’s world mission with an almost religious zeal. Here’s an account of one of Mr. Romney’s recent speeches:

Addressing a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention Tuesday, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney made it clear he is “an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country.”

“I am not ashamed of American power,” he said. “I take pride that throughout history our power has brought justice where there was tyranny, peace where there was conflict, and hope where there was affliction and despair.” . . .

Romney told the VFW he . . . would be “guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century.”

Mr. Obama also speaks of America in superlative terms in almost every stump speech: we have the world’s best workers, entrepreneurs, researchers, scientists, colleges, and universities. We still offer the American Dream to people willing to move here and to work hard, he says.

Is our world mission linked to our military power, as Mr. Romney suggests, or to our economic opportunity, as Mr. Obama suggests? Whether our mission is to spread liberty beyond our boarders or to offer economic opportunity to those willing to relocate inside them, the candidates agree that we have a mission. Do we?

Radical individualism left and right

In 1968, David Frost interviewed Ronald Reagan and Robert Kennedy and asked them to address the purpose of life. For Reagan, it came down to “individual fulfillment.” The government’s job was to get out of the way. For Kennedy, it came down to fulfilling his responsibility to society by helping someone less fortunate.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wrote an article in The Atlantic last year entitled, “The Pursuit of Happiness: What the Founders Meant – and Didn’t.” In it, she reproduces Reagan’s and her father’s complete answers to Frost’s question. Then she implies that Reagan’s idea of life’s meaning – an individual happiness that the government could only threaten but never help to achieve or maintain – led to his anti-government rhetoric. Reagan, she believes, left us with “an unnatural obsession with individualism, a single-minded focus on wealth over work, and an anti-government animus.”

In this post, I’d like to use Townsend as a liberal voice in favor of an Aristotelian notion of “happiness.” I’ll also quote Harry V. Jaffa from his book A New Birth of Freedom  as a conservative voice in favor of the same notion. I’ll point out how neither Townsend nor Jaffa has brought the left or the right to the Aristotelian table. Frankly, the Aristotelian notion of happiness on an individual and societal level, which Jefferson and the Framers were schooled in, seems to scare the hell out of today’s political left and right.

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.

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.

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 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.