July 22, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Reflections on the Gettysburg Address, Part III
WHEN LINCOLN took office, it was widely known where he stood on the slave issue: his “House Divided” speech, among others, left no doubt about that. He had stated, with all openness, that the Union could not persist in being “half-slave, half-free”; and since outright abolition was impossible, nothing was left but to prohibit slave-owning Southerners from spilling into the new Territories. That is to say, slavery had to be isolated, had to be locked firmly into the South, where it was hoped it would gradually atrophy and disappear. It is worth noting here that Lincoln’s Secretary of State, W.H. Seward, had spoken of an “irrepressible conflict” between the North and the South, and had threatened the South that abolitionism “has driven you back in California and Kansas; it will invade your soil.” What promise, what solace, could the South expect in this new administration of the federal government? Here was a president who had explicitly dedicated himself to a cause the South saw as blatantly un-Constitutional, and even factional. Here was a Secretary of State who had no qualms about revealing his sectional hostilities, and who made not the least attempt to reconcile two vastly different halves of the nation. This was a presidency that had already given itself to cutting off the free Territories, the common property of the people of the United States, from a half of that nation’s citizens. And let it not be forgotten, though it be so very foreign to us – let it not be forgotten what a proud people resided in the South, let it not be forgotten that the patricians of the South would rather have lost their lives than their dignity, that they would rather risk war than dishonor. That Lincoln bears the larger share of the responsibility for sundering our nation, I do not doubt.
But lay that aside. What we mean to seek here is not so much the cause of the Civil War, as the principle which emanated from it; what interests us is what it means that Lincoln set afire the fuse, and what we, who are all indirectly that man’s children, can learn about our state of being from his beliefs.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Yes, Lincoln dedicated this country to a cause. He gave the substance to this “unfinished work,” he invented this “unfinished work,” where before there had been at best an unfinished war. It was Lincoln who gave the North a raison d’être in the Civil War. And we contemporary Americans, who each live in the North, no matter where we reside geographically, would do well to understand this purpose, this “great task,” since it is ours as well.
This task and purpose were, of course, essentially tied to the abolition of slavery; but this is only the most striking and most momentary of the changes which occurred because of the Civil War. We must look deeper, we must look at what underlies the abolition of slavery: we must see what ideology Lincoln gave to the dead, that they did not die in vain: we must see what the essence of this “new birth of freedom” is. For it is surely not the case that the North fought unambiguously for liberty as such; at the very least, let us finally admit to ourselves that the South believed its cause to be liberty as much as the North, that the South, indeed, saw itself as the true protector of liberty. Nay, what the North fought for, what Lincoln dedicated the North to, what Lincoln gave to the soul of the battle and thus to the soul of the nation, was nothing other than this: “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” He was in need of a principle upon which to build and by which to justify his anti-slavery attitude, which was at the best of dubious constitutionality; he found this principle readily extant in the simple demographic fact that the North was more populous than the South. But we cannot understand these universally known and loved phrases if we do not comprehend what a transgression they represent – a transgression of the principles upon which our country was based.
“Government of the people” – this stands in opposition to the principle of representative government, of republican government, as our Founders understood it. The legislative and executive representatives of the people were not meant to be “of the people” at all, lest there would be no reason for such representation, such removal from the people, such curtailing of direct democracy. The representatives, it was hoped, would be precisely more estimable, more knowledgeable, and more prudent than the people – in short, more virtuous than the average citizen. To quote the Federalist Papers: “And the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.” They are precisely not to be of the people in the strict sense; though it is true that they are citizens, as the people are citizens, they are yet meant to be the remainder of a grand culling – the electoral process.
“Government by the people” – this is as innovative as the previous claim, and even more contrary to the spirit in America was founded. The people were, in fact, to have no direct share at all in the government of the nation; this was entirely the work of the more virtuous legislators. Again quoting the Federalist Papers, “The true distinction between the [ancient] and the American governments, lies in the total exclusion of the people, in their collective capacity, from any share in the latter, and not in the total exclusion of the representation of the people in the former.” These striking phrases can leave no doubt as to where the Founders stood on the idea of democracy, or rule or government “by the people.” The people, in its collective capacity, which is to say, in its majority, was to have no place in our government whatsoever. The legislation of the law, the execution of this law, the judgement attendant to this law – all this was to take place at a remove from the people. It was certainly not to take place “by the people.”
“Government for the people” – let us call this half a truth, to which exceptionally dangerous interpretations might attend themselves. It is indubitably true that America was founded so as to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” But the benefit of the people, which these enumerations seek to provide, can be understood in two absolutely different senses: on the one hand, as the good of the people; on the other hand, as the unrestrained will of the people. That these are two different matters was understood by the Founders, and the Founders sought the first, even when it compromised the second. The first, the good of the people, must be understood as the benefit of the people, regardless of what they think they presently want, regardless of the blind and haphazard passions that must and will govern so many of their actions. The second, the will of the people, must be understood as the expression, through the majority, of these passions precisely, or of whatever velleities or desires or fears happen to regulate the people’s actions in any given moment. To allow the former to rule, means to establish comparatively wise representative legislators, who are somewhat removed from the temporary passions of the people, who can act even against the people’s wishes if and when such is called for, and who hold themselves and are held rigidly to the standards of the founding documents. To allow the latter to rule is to establish democracy, direct and absolute, tyrannized by the majority, and indifferent both to the minority, and to founding documents; it is, in other words, to establish factional government in the place of representative government, and to tie the destiny of our nation to a drifting, short-sighted, and ignorant monster, called the “popular sovereignty.”
Perhaps Lincoln understood these principles, perhaps he did not even intend to say otherwise. That he chose words so reminiscent of democracy, that he actually called this country a democracy in many of his speeches, and apparently even understood it as such, says to me otherwise. (Needless to say, the Founders never once call America a democracy, and are ever strictly vigilant about preserving the fundamental difference between democracy and republicanism.) Now, Lincoln was certainly not the first leader of our nation to incite democracy at the expense of republic. That honor goes perhaps to Jackson, who was the first thoroughly populist president, and the first to recognize the potential naturally inherent in the presidency, which the Constitution had been purposively written to curtail. What distinguishes Lincoln, then, was this: Lincoln, whether he willed it or no, was the first president to practically avow democracy over republic; he was the first to perform a deed which in the future could be taken as a shining precedent, a deed that held an a-Constitutional popular will in priority to the strict and austere spirit of the Constitution; Lincoln, whether he willed it or no, was the first president to abandon the Constitution in an obvious and binding way, and thus to irrevocably unleash the flood of democracy upon this land. Democracy against Republicanism; popular sovereignty against the Constitution; this was the Civil War.
Let us review some of what we have said. First, the Constitution allows slavery, even presupposes it. Second, Lincoln, before the advent of Civil War, sought to prohibit slavery in the free Territories. Third, the legislation of these Territories, prior to their becoming independent States, is vested by the Constitution in Congress. This means that Lincoln sought, through Congress, to prohibit a thing that was at least tacitly guaranteed by the Constitution. This would be tantamount to Congress passing a law prohibiting firearms in the Territories, at once using the Constitution to support its powers, and at the same time abolishing Constitutional provisions in praxis. How could Lincoln do this? Wherein did he derive the power, if not from the Constitution?
There is nowhere to look but to “popular sovereignty.” Had the North been less populated than the South, can one imagine Lincoln attempting to prohibit slavery in the Territories? What gave Lincoln the ability to act as he did, other than the support, indeed, the encouragement, of the majority?.. This is the issue that underlies the South’s secession; this is the conflict which lies below the crust of slavery; not slavery against freedom as such, but majority rule against Constitutional law. Demo-cracy – that means, the force of the people. The South seceded because it was not willing to live beneath this force. The North brought arms because it was nothing but this force.
And the true meaning of the Gettysburg Address – the way in which Lincoln constituted the American people anew – lies in this, and nowhere else: “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” That today America is never called a Republic, that it dedicates itself to Democracy; that it is known as Democracy, acts as Democracy, sees itself as Democracy; that it upholds the Constitution in a nominal way alone, whilst continually, surreptitiously, and “progressively” dissolving it, in the name of the “will of the people” – all this, and nothing else, is what America owes to Lincoln.
It is not for us to seek to reclaim the lost heritage of the Founders. We owe it to ourselves, not so much as Americans as men, to look the fate of our nation in the face. There can be no “going back to the origins,” for despite all historical contingencies, all accidental questions of slavery, or territorial rights, or demographic changes, or what have you, the Constitution as it was framed, and the theory by which it was framed, contain in themselves the historical necessity of democracy. They are indeed but the slow forcing beds of democracy; and had it not been brought forth by a radical and sudden and violent war, then it would have emerged slowly over the decades by means of small social and political alterations and the long action of petty legislation. But come it would, no matter what the Founders might have to say about it. Conservatism, in the United States, is quite dead, for the simple reason that it sought to preserve the unpreservable.
To speak of a unitary “American tradition,” as we Americans are wont to do, is already a falsehood and an imposition on history. In truth the “tradition” which was inaugurated by the Revolutionary War and the ratification of the Constitution, the “tradition” which we regularly and justly impute to our Founders, did not survive the Civil War; what followed it was another tradition yet, which itself has since undergone fundamental transformations—which is in this very moment undergoing such transformations. The Civil War marks the pivot in American history, and it is not altogether misleading to say that we live in the tradition which was founded in its ashes by Lincoln himself. But the thick-fogged myth surrounding Lincoln must be dispersed, if one is ever to grasp the true meaning of the changes he effected, the tradition he founded. Lincoln, so far from representing the savior and salvation of America, represents nothing but its profound mutation—in a certain very real sense, its destroyer. That he was a great man cannot be doubted; only a great man should have been able to murder an entire tradition. The nature of the mutation he brought about should be clear: Lincoln wanted to establish a government which could unite all peoples, a humanitarian government no longer dependent on individual customs and mores, as the South had been. He was able to effect this mutation through nothing other than the fundamentally populist spirit of the Constitution; for in its very universalism, in its very abolition of class and caste, in its very insistence on a kind of human equality, republican government gives birth of necessity and in all cases to democracy.
It is ours, then, not to attempt to regain what has been lost, nor to resurrect the dead. It is ours, more than aught else, to attempt to comprehend the malady that brought that dead to the grave; for truly, we are heirs and scion of a disease. The “American tradition” has already been lost too many times to be saved, and this “government by, for, and of the people” has revealed itself in our day in all its inner hypocrisies, its mendacities, its corruption and inner decay of politics, of society, and of spirit. But that does not prohibit us from yet again resanctifying the American tradition to other ends and higher causes. For truly, if one can call anything at all an “American tradition” among us, a tradition which has reigned without interruption since even the founding of the colonies, it must surely be this: the will, the enigmatic desire, yea, and indeed to some extent also even the capacity, to lay our very habits, customs, mores, and history, to courses untried, in horizons unknown, and, upheaving our foundations, to build them again.