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In recent days I have read an article and listened to a couple of podcasts more or less attacking Abe Lincoln. In particular, his linkage of the Declaration and the Constitution. For Lincoln, the Declaration was the Apple of Gold enshrined in the Silver Frame of the Constitution. That seems to be a less popular view these days.
First off, my wife got an emailed article by a leftist literary figure from her intellectual socialist brother-in-law, of a (what I would call a) rant against the Republican Party as the Party of Lincoln. His point was that Lincoln was a Progressive through and through. Lincoln favored a national bank; he sought a federal income tax; he established land grant colleges; he favored expansions of railroads, and their extension across the nation. Indeed, three years after Lincoln was assassinated the Transcontinental railway was completed. Lincoln favored a strong central government, such that he suspended habeas corpus (which is explicitly allowed in the Constitution). The leftist poet argued that Republicans were actually Progressives, and so should embrace the current Leftist/Socialist agenda of the Democratic party.
Of course, before Lincoln was a Republican, he was a Whig, and favored Whig positions regarding the national bank, federal spending for infrastructure, tariffs, among others. And, yes, indeed, Lincoln was an Ur-Progressive in abolishing Slavery! Better to associate one’s politics with such a Progressive, as opposed to the Jefferson-Jackson party that favored a strictly agrarian nation, destroyed the national bank, gave us the Trail of Tears, defended the practice of Slavery with their lives (and yes, opposed tariffs–any one party can’t be always right or always wrong), and attempted staged military attacks on State Legislatures, to deal with which Grant had to keep federal troops in the South. And then gave us Jim Crow, starting in the 1870s, and persisting through half of the 20th Century. Of course, that literatti said nothing about the Democrat party association with Jefferson and Jackson, or Southern Democrat segregationists, or that it was Republicans who passed the Civil Rights Act under Lyndon Johnson. indeed Democrats who voted for the Civil Rights Act, like Al Gore Senior, lost their seats in Congress for that vote, punished by their Democratic constituents. To listen to this literatti, none of this happened.
And, indeed, the Republican Party has always had Progressives, including Rutherford B. Hayes, William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, Chuck Grassley, Susan Collins, Mitt Romney, and etc and etc. even Calvin Coolidge signed Progressive immigration reform legislation of 1924 that blocked immigration from southern and Eastern Europe under Progressive Eugenics ideology.
Anyone who thinks Republicans haven’t been Progressives, for better (in Lincoln’s case) or for worse, doesn’t know history. And of course, Murray Rothbard would have agreed with this literatti, though he would oppose the further centralization of power that to him Lincoln represented, while the literatti would champion Progressivism without limit or restraint.
But more pointedly, in a recent Andrew Klavan podcast, Klavan interviewed Alan Dershowitz. In Klavan’s unique, very polite, deferential, and inquisitive style, he asked Dershowitz about the linkage of the Declaration and the Constitution. Dershowitz made some comments that struck me as akin to the old Art Linkletter show: Lawyers say the darnedest things. Dershowitz attacked any linkage of the Declaration and the Constitution. He is apparently an atheist, and doesn’t like the fact that the Declaration mentions God as the source of our rights. Dershowitz sounded like he is rather impatient with all the rights we have, save the right of Free Speech (no wonder, as he talks so much that it is hard to get a word in edgewise). He noted that the Constitution makes no reference to God, and hence is an acceptable document. Lincoln’s linkage of the two, as above, that Apple of Gold, was to Dershowitz, it seems, an abomination. And, even as he surprised himself by saying it (he interjected as he was talking that he couldn’t believe he would ever say it): That he disgreed with Lincoln. He averred that Lincoln was wrong.
He argued that the Constitution was written later, when the passions of the Revolution had cooled, and a more rational approach could be taken. Yes, he averred, there were too many rights enumerated in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, but at least there was no mention of Deity. So the Constitution was OK. The Declaration not so much. Of course, Dershowitz had to grandstand on Free Speech, which, of course, he would, proclaiming that, though he disagreed with someone on an idea, he would defend to the death that person’s right to say it.
I have a hard time envisioning Dershowitz at Bunker Hill. Or Lexington or Concord. Or Valley Forge.Or the Argonne Forest or Belleau Wood. Or Omaha Beach. Or Iwo Jima. Or during the Tet Offensive. Or in Fallujah
I can, however, see Dershowitz vigorously defending his client, in a very high-visibility case, for which he would be likely to receive a huge fee. Klaus von Bulow, for instance. (Full disclosure: I am an endocrinologist and have spent a career trying to manage patients with brittle type 1 diabetes, have great sympathy for those who suffer from that disease, and those who attempt to assist them in that very difficult and fraught effort; I am quite convinced that Klaus was wrongly convicted and that his exoneration was fully justified, and I greatly admire Dershowitz for his efforts on behalf of Klaus; he deserved every dollar he made in that defense). It’s just that he didn’t need to grandstand with the timeless cliche.
Dershowitz is historically incorrect, of course. Some of the same individuals who were present for the drafting of the Declaration of Independence were present at the Constitutional Convention. Washington and his officers (Alexander Hamilton notably), long before the Constitutional Convention, had grown to favor a strong central government as established in the Constitution.
And his statement that Lincoln was wrong to link the two, would mean that, had Lincoln taken Dershowitz’s view, he would have had no basis to free the Slaves. Lincoln’s guiding star was that ringing, timeless, statement: All men are created equal (indeed, that was Martin Luther King’s lodestar in the Civil Rights era, a hundred years later–as foretold by Prince Rivers in 1876) and was essential for his success Yes, Lincoln called it a Proposition in his Gettysburg Address, and some have interpreted that to mean that Lincoln felt that statement to be a proposition to be proved, rather than an axiom to be adhered to for optimal outcomes of governance. I disagree. I think Lincoln used a colloquialism that sounded better rhetorically, as everyone knew in the vernacular what a proposition was. It would have been awkward to use the correct terms, Axiom (which would have glazed everyone’s eyes, then as now) or Postulate, (which likewise would have tended to confuse his audience, unless they were schooled in geometry–which Lincoln was, certainly more so that our current politicians or elites thinkers, excepting of course Andrew Klavan, who understands better than anyone, almost, the axiomatic nature of the Declaration, and that it stands to the Constitution as Euclid’s Axioms stand to his Geometry).
Yes, the Declaration is a statement of Axioms. The Constitution is the application of those axioms. Neither stands alone. They are inextricably linked, as Euclid’s Axioms are to his Geometry, which was the model for them both. Euclid had five axioms. The Declaration presents five Axioms: 1) All men are created equal, 2) All men possess unalienable rights from God, 3) Governments are formed to protect those rights, 4) Governments obtain their just powers from the consent of the governed, 5) When governments become abusive or violative of those rights, it is the prerogative of the People to remove that government and establish one that ensures those rights.
The Constitution established a strong central government but with separation of powers to limit that centralized power and maintain a dispersed system of federalism. I contend that the system set up by the Founders is far and away the most consistent, complete, and rational form of government ever devised. People (Democrats and Progressives of every stripe) will carp at the difficulty of running roughshod over the Constitution, as Teddy Roosevelt did, favoring Constitutional Amendments by simple majority votes of Congress. The Founding was the ultimate of Progressivism, truly revolutionary, yet restorative of the Rights of Englishmen to the Colonists who dearly valued those rights; yet the Constitution constrained unbridled majoritarianism, as it was hedged about with checks and balances to avoid unrestrained abuses by those simple majorities. The Founders took great pains to avoid such a system as inherently unstable, devolving into mob rule. Progressives now seek exactly that type of governance. Mob rule, Majority or otherwise.
It took 2,300 years for the best and brightest among us humans to ascertain unequivocally that Euclid’s geometry is logically perfect. And that perfection depends on Euclid’s uncanny selection of axioms, including the parallel line (5th) Postulate, a complex statement that for hundreds of years was taken as a mistake, yet eventually proved absolutely essential in its form to the validity and logical perfection of Euclid’s geometry.
It will likely take even longer for humans to appreciate the perfection of the Axioms of the Declaration, and their application in the Constitution, as by far the most perfect basis for human governance, regardless of how messy human governance can be. But of course, our leaders and deepest thinkers eschew Euclid’s geometry, that in one age was understood as the model of logical reasoning. Lincoln certainly understood it. I suspect Alan Dershowitz doesn’t much like Geometry. Or logic. Nor do most of our current thinkers of all persuasions. It is either Greek to them, or evidence of White Supremacy.
Without Lincoln’s understanding of and fealty to the Founding idea, that essential paragraph in the Declaration, and its link to the Constitution, he would not have prosecuted the war. He would not have freed the Slaves. One can only wonder what would have become of our country. Imagine slavery persisting into the late 19th, or even the 20th Century. How would we ever overcome that scourge on our nation? Given the intransigence of Jim Crow, how would we have ever overcome that? Only with, again, the fealty to the Founding idea, that all men are created equal, espoused anew by Martin Luther King, Jr. With Dershowitz’s understanding, we would not have overcome those blights. Perhaps Lincoln would have wavered even in his dedication to preserving the Union, as set forth in his First Inaugural Address. Popular Sovereignty may have split the nation. The crisis of the House Divided may have indeed divided the nation permanently.
Then, I was struck by Peter Robinson’s Uncommon Knowledge podcast with Yoram Hazony on his book on National Conservatism. Peter pressed him on the Declaration. Hazony was uncomfortable with it. Apparently, it smacked too much of Enlightenment thinking and rationalism, which Hazony appears to distrust. Hazony would only opine that Lincoln was a great man, and appropriate for his time. That he managed to combine the Enlightenment language of the Declaration with an Old Testament sensibility on the workings of God in history, that was appropriate for the moment. But in his National Conservatism, he did not seem, at least to me, to appreciate the Declaration. Very Burkean of him. But yes, like Dershowitz, he did appreciate the Constitution and its approach to preserve/restore the Rights of Englishmen. So Dershowitz didn’t like the Declaration because it referenced God, whereas Hazony didn’t seem to like it because it was too much of the Enlightenment, that famously dispensed with God. A classical liberal Lockeanism. Not actual Conservatism of the Burkean sort.
And in my view, Hazony gets it just as wrong as Dershowitz. The Enlightenment grew out of Christianity. The Scientific Revolution grew out of Christianity. Newton, the moving force behind both the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, was a devout, almost fanatical Christian (Arian though he may have been). He didn’t even think he had discovered anything with his recognition of the inverse square relation of gravity. He believed that Moses, author of the Pentateuch, had been well familiar with it, inasmuch as God showed him the Creation. He averred that Moses didn’t describe it in Genesis, because he then would have been a natural philosopher rather than a prophet. And so with Locke, a very good friend and associate of Newton. He also was a devout Christian. Inspired by Newton in his treatises on Government.
Yes, the Enlightenment was hostile to religion, but the initiators of the Enlightenment were not. Yet the Enlightenment did give rise to Atheists, those who despised the power and influence of Religion, in particular Christianity. Gibbon attacked the Catholic Church. Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau argued against religion and were atheists. As likely, were Hume and Smith. (Not so much Reid, who greatly influenced American thinkers, including Peirce and his Pragmatism, and succeeded Smith in the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow, as Smith had succeeded Frances Hutcheson). The French Revolution was absolutely secular, against the Monarch and the Church. Priests were executed or exiled, and Church property seized by the State. It was an Atheist revolution, which, unrestrained, led to the Terror. No controlling moral authority. Which appalled Burke. By contrast, Burke was more favorably disposed to the American Revolution.
But it was Thomas Paine, the Deist (Atheist?), that Washington read to the troops at Valley Forge, not Burke. And it was Paine who argued from the Bible (Samuel) against Monarchy. And contributed materially and critically to the war effort. Though he was later an enthusiast of the French Revolution.
But the American Revolution, made official in the Declaration of Independence, was utterly different than the French Revolution. It was underpinned by the First Great Awakening. The moral sensibilities of the nation were grounded in Christian religion. Whitfield and Edwards were their influencers.
Listen to Edwards:
“…those schemes of religion or moral philosophy, which–however well in some respects they may treat of benevolence to mankind and other virtues depending on it, yet–have not a supreme regard to God, and love to him laid as the foundation, and all other virtues handled in a connection with this, and in subordination to it, are not true schemes of philosophy, but are fundamentally and essentially defective.”
That was written before Smith’s “A Theory of Moral Sentiments” was written (Smith rejected any transcendent sense in humans, labeling Hutcheson, his predecessor, a casuist for his religious arguments of a moral sense implanted in men by a creator God), though published after it (and posthumously), but prospectively rebutted it. America was grounded in God, however much the Founders may have been Deists. The French Revolution was the opposite. That the religious underpinnings of the American Revolution were not a fluke, is shown by the fact that hardly had the Constitution been established than occurred the Second Great Awakening. Admittedly, America has been forced further and further from its religious moorings, to the point that Democrats booed God in their nominating Convention. And I agree with Hazony, to the extent that I understand him, in the necessity for a return to our religious moorings. But the Constitution was based on a Calvinist sensibility regarding the utter depravity of humans. It is a Calvinist document through and through.
Dershowitz is displeased because America is too grounded in God, particularly in the Declaration. Hazony is displeased because America is not sufficiently grounded in God, particularly in the Declaration.
America is grounded in God. And reason. And these are not mutually exclusive, however much they are made out to be so today, but rather are part and parcel of each other. The Age of Reason was not the Age of Enlightenment. The actual Age of Reason was the high Middle Age, the age of the Schoolmen, when reason reached its apex, and the thinking underpinning the Scientific Revolution, in the Merton calculators at Oxford, and others elsewhere, began. In America both reason and Deity are foundational. And Lincoln was completely correct to link, in the Gettysburg address, that Apple of Gold, with the Constitution:
“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
“…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
That government of the people, by the people, and for the people, was established with the ratification of the Constitution. And it WAS dedicated to the axiom that all men are created equal. The Declaration and the Constitution are directly linked by Lincoln.
And it is not insignificant, for the benefit of Yoram Hazony, that the phrase, “Of the people, by the people, and for the people” was taken from John Wycliffe’s prologue to his translation of the Bible in 1384:
“The Bible is for the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People.”
So Lincoln linked all three, Declaration, Constitution, and Bible (Judeo-Christian religion, God) in his Gettysburg Address.
It is the genius of America and the Founding, and of Lincoln’s correct understanding of that Founding, that those three are completely intertwined. Mutually assured liberty and happiness.
It is imperative that we continue to intertwine them. With all three, our future liberty and happiness are best secured.
Happy 4th of July.
God Bless the United States of America.Published in