TWENTY SEVEN hours from now will mark the 200th year since the birth of Abraham Lincoln. The nation’s weeklies and newspapers and television networks have prepared numerous specials and tributes to mark the occasion. In Newsweek, literary journalist and the biographer of both Thomases–Jefferson and Paine–Christopher Hitchens contributes “The Man Who Made Us Whole“, while in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln’s political hometown, a slew of authors, biographers, and historians are to gather to remember the Great Emancipator.
Observances of the Lincoln bicentennial will manifest across the land in a myriad of ways. Debate, however, will be quietly humming in the background.
Enough time has elapsed since the life and times of our 16th president that his legacy has noticeably fogged. Be reminded that 1930’s New York City used to play host to annual Lincoln-Lenin parades and that Lincoln was often compared to Christ in the generations immediately succeeding him. Contrast this to the more contemporary reactions to the sound of Lincoln’s name overheard at parties the past several months, “I heard he didn’t really care about slaves” “Wasn’t he, like, actually a racist?” or even a curt “Overrated”.
A woefully inept history curriculum has wed the rusting of time, and their progeny are predictably ill-at-ease with the facts of their forebears.
Most of the hesitancy regarding Lincoln-praise are at least on account of the right reservations. Nobody wants to be seen praising provincial bigots. But a provincial bigot Lincoln was certainly not. There exists a particular quote from Lincoln’s failed 1858 Senate bid, which produced the storied Lincoln-Douglas debates, which Lincoln detractors most often site to support their claims of his racism:
“[The negro] is not my equal in many respects-certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment…”
The first part of this sentence must be viewed simply as a bland statement-of-fact; black America was not to achieve legal equality until the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and not to realize actual equality until noon, January 20th, 2009 (some would respectfully disagree). It is the second part of the quote from which controversy springs forth, that the man of African descent is “perhaps” not the moral and intellectual equal of the European. Perhaps–a key watchword, and to ignore Lincoln’s use of it is to let cynicism blind one to their better senses, for, judging by what comes immediately next in Lincoln’s speech, he was using this supposition to deliver the point to the white populace, many of whom subscribed to the racist creed: that racist sentiment was, indeed is, no justification for violating the principles of the Declaration:
“…But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.”
Of the more serious critiques of Lincoln, none is more legitimate than the dubious expansion of the power of the federal government which occurred under his administration; power which was ceded by the states and which Washington not only never returned, but continuously exploits to acquire more power. Lincoln’s presidency removed people’s patriotic identity with their state and olay-ed it onto the nation-at-large. Hitchens points out the linguistic evidence for the shift: that it was not until after Gettysburg that people began to say “the United States is…” rather than “the United States are…”. On the success of Lincoln’s ability to transform the country from a loose confederation into one nation, indivisible, there could not exist an example more profound in its simplicity.
To States’ Rights fundamentalists, the Lincoln moment represents the United States’ fall from grace; from humble and virtuous republic to the centralized and immoral behemoth our founders warned against. With a callous indifference to the facts, Republican Congressman Ron Paul (Texas) insists that it was Lincoln who brought war on the south rather than the other way around:
“[Lincoln] did this just to enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic.”
Congressman Paul’s opinion requires a very surgical interpretation of American history. Most importantly, it requires ignoring all the founders who were not Thomas Jefferson. To ascribe creating a small central government as the “original intent” of all of the founders is incorrect, and John Adams, the “Lion of Independence”, was opposed to such a confederation, as was Alexander Hamilton and even– “Father of the Nation” –George Washington himself. Furthermore, Jefferson indeed may have preferred a small federal government. However, far from being his “original intent”, that was his follow-up answer to the bigger question which predated independence: one nation, or many?
While they were divided over the scope and design of the new government, the founding patriots were unanimous in their desire to keep the new states united. The lines of debate from the continental congress and the federalist papers are evidence enough that the founders were, first-and-foremost, “intent” on preventing the colonies from crumbling into an American version of Europe, whereby various independent powers would consume the continent in endless war.
The thirteen original states had been established as colonies to an empire, thus had developed economic systems independent of, and often antagonistic to, the interests of the other states. Nothing characterizes this divide better than the southern profligacy of the slave system. For the sake of uniting such disparate interests under a single flag, the founders were forced to establish a stronger central authority than many, namely Jefferson, philosophically approved of.
On slavery, Jefferson wrote that he “trembled” for his country when he reflected that “God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever”. When that justice awoke, the nation was punished not simply with civil war, but with the development of the centralized-state many founders feared no doubt, but feared less than dismemberment itself.
Divided at its birth by two incompatible systems lead by two incompatible interests, the civil war came. “Both parties deprecated war”, Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, “but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish…”.
One nation, indivisible: the founders’ intent, Lincoln’s legacy, and our inheritance.