June 22, 2011


Abraham Lincoln, the American Founding, and the Principles of the Republican Party (Mackubin T. Owens, February 23, 2002, Remarks at the North Kingstown Republican Town Committee’s Annual Lincoln Day Dinner)

[T]he Republican Party was founded on the basis of principles invoked by Abraham Lincoln. He himself recurred to the principles of the American Founding, specifically the Declaration of Independence, so we can say that the principles of the Republican Party are the principles of the nation. In essence these principles hold that the only purpose of government is to protect the equal natural rights of individual citizens. These rights inhere in individuals, not groups, and are antecedent to the creation of government. They are the rights invoked by the Declaration of Independence—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—not happiness, but the pursuit of happiness.

We should remember that the Republican Party was created in response to a crisis arising from the fact that the country had drifted away from its founding principles. While the some of the founders may have owned slaves, they denounced the institution as a corrupt system that America had inherited, but which for the sake of security could not be abolished all at once. However, they fully expected that they had put slavery on the road to extinction.

But they were wrong. Slavery flourished in the South during the ante-bellum period. More importantly, public opinion had come to accept the idea that there was no moral reason that slavery should not be permitted to expand into the territories if that’s what a majority of the white people there wanted.

Lincoln understood the critical importance of public sentiment in a democracy. "Our government rests in public opinion....Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much."

In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.

Lincoln was concerned that public sentiment was being prepared to accept the rightness of slavery. It was being prepared by Stephen Douglas’s doctrine of "popular sovereignty," which professed indifference to the moral aspect of slavery, leaving the question to the preferences of the community. It was being prepared by Chief Justice Taney, who argued in Dred Scott that blacks had no rights that whites were bound to respect.

In opposition to this trend in public opinion, Lincoln invoked America’s "central idea." "Every nation," said Lincoln, "has a central idea from which all its minor thoughts radiate." For Lincoln, this central idea was the Declaration of Independence and its notion of equality as the basis for republican government—the simple idea that no one has the right by nature to rule over another without the latter’s consent: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men." Lincoln saw more clearly than his critics, then or now, that equality is inseparable from democracy. As he remarked in 1859: "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 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."

Indeed, it is the idea of equality in the Declaration, not race and blood, that establishes American nationhood, constituting what Abraham Lincoln called "the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land..."

In a speech delivered just after Independence Day 1858, Lincoln clarified the link between the Declaration and American nationhood. His argument is one we should ponder at a time when "multiculturalists" are advancing the view that the US is not a land of free individuals but instead a conglomeration of discrete racial and ethnic groups.

When we celebrate the Fourth of July, Lincoln told his listeners in Chicago, we celebrate the founders, "our fathers and grandfathers," those "iron men...But after we have done this we have not yet reached the whole. There is something else connected with it. We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors—among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe—German, Irish, French and Scandinavian—...finding themselves our equals in all things. If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that ’We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that the moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are."

Lincoln fought to save this "central idea" from its contemporary detractors by pointing out that the United States faced two irreconcilable choices on slavery: As Larry P. Arnn, now President of Hillsdale College in Michigan has observed, we could re-dedicate ourselves to the principles of the Declaration of Independence or we could embrace the contrary doctrine proposed by Southern slavery advocates in the 1830s and ’40s. According to the former, all people have equal rights by nature and government’s purpose is to protect those rights. According to the latter—which harkened to European feudalism—government’s task is to assign rights unequally, whether based on race or class, in order to achieve a predetermined social goal.

Lincoln’s opponent in the Illinois Senate race of 1858—and a leading national Democrat—was Stephen Douglas. He attempted to sidestep the conflict then facing the nation: whether slavery would be extended to the federal territories to the West, and ultimately throughout the nation, or whether it would be put "in the course of ultimate extinction." Douglas defended the right of the people in the territories to outlaw slavery. But he also defended the right of Southerners to own slaves and transport them to the new territories.

While Douglas repeatedly refused to say that slavery was wrong, Lincoln never hesitated to criticize the institution as incompatible with republican government. In his 1854 speech at Peoria on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln declared that he hated slavery because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.

Lincoln rejected the possibility that the choice between slavery and the equality that underpins republican government could be evaded: "A house divided against itself cannot stand.... I do not expect the Union to be dissolved, I do not expect the house to fall, but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all free or all slave." And Lincoln indicated the logical absurdity in Douglas’s attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 22, 2011 9:55 PM
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