After Abraham Lincoln’s election as president in 1860, he had occasion to reflect on the principles and purpose of American self-government. He read a speech by Alexander H. Stephens, future vice president of the Confederate States of America, and appreciated his use of Proverbs 25:11, “A word fitly spoken by you now would be like ‘apples of gold in pictures of silver.’”
Lincoln had the habit of jotting down quotes and reflections on pieces of paper and rolling them around in his mind for later use. As a wordsmith who borrowed much of his material from the King James Bible, this one appealed to him. He decided the phrase had application to American founding principles.
As he thought about it, Lincoln decided that the Declaration of Independence was the apple of gold and that Union and Constitution comprised the picture of silver or frame.
In Lincoln and the American Founding, Lincoln scholar Lucas Morel follows the Lincolnian understanding closely. Morel writes, “Lincoln saw the Declaration as the fundamental charter of American self-government, and his political philosophy comprised key principles” such as equality, natural rights, and consensual government. Lincoln revered the Constitution as the architecture for the rule of law securing the liberties of the people. As Morel writes, the Constitution was the “means of securing the ends spelled out in the Declaration of Independence.”
Slavery and the Declaration
The reverence was no mere nostalgic trip to be celebrated on the Fourth of July nor was it blind worship of semi-divine men set in marble. Rather, it was a practical exercise of statesmanship and citizenship perpetuating free institutions of popular government. As Morel writes, “This involved not only handing down the Constitution and laws bequeathed to them but also understanding the principles and practices that inform those political institutions.” The author believes that citizens had, and continue to have, an obligation to preserve and pass down the fruits of liberty to future generations.
Like his subject, Morel does not ignore the subject of slavery. Indeed, the problem of slavery was the “signal inconsistency” with the universal principles of the Declaration. The battle over slavery rent the nation during Lincoln’s presidency and challenged him to achieve the moral principle of abolishing slavery through constitutional means.
Morel shows his readers that understanding Lincoln’s political philosophy and view of the founding is fundamentally a civics lesson of the highest order. A thorough examination of those ideas begins with a careful delineation of the Declaration of Independence. This serves many functions for both Lincoln and the author. It creates the link of kinship with the founders and addressed the arguments of the secessionists. Most importantly, however, it provides the “definitions and axioms of free society.” As Morel writes, “Lincoln understood the principles of Jefferson—meaning the self-evident truths of the Declaration—to be the building blocks of free government.”
The principles of that free government were “applicable to all men at all times.” The assertion of these universal Lockean principles of self-government allows Morel to adroitly discuss the logic of self-government as well as the contradiction of slavery. He also analyzes how the pro-slavery thought of the 1850s undermined the concept of self-government.
Following Locke, Morel argues that the principle of equality animates American self-government. As the Declaration states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all Men are created equal.” This equality includes equal human dignity, an equal authority over our individual personhood, and equal right to property.
One of the problems for Lincoln, and perhaps for Morel, is moving out of the realm of the logical reasonings and truths of political philosophy into practical understandings of freedom and equality. Lincoln could speak eloquently about individual natural rights, but questions of emancipation, black suffrage, and black service on juries seemed almost impossibly idealistic when he became president. Moreover, the modern understanding of equality has certainly changed in the 20th century as notably evidenced by Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms promising “Freedom from Fear” and “Freedom from Want” or his Second Bill of Rights guaranteeing the right to a job, a decent home, and a good education. Modern readers who define equality in terms of outcomes will not find the formulation inadequate.
Equality as the Essential Moral Truth of Republicanism
Lincoln’s focus on the principle of equality as central to the American experiment found its greatest expression at Gettysburg with its appeal to the “electric cord” of the Declaration in 1776. “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.”
The most important way that human beings are equal according to the founders and Lincoln was that every individual possessed inalienable rights. Morel writes, “human equality entailed something more specific: the equal possession of rights or liberties.” For Lincoln, there were no exceptions to this principle regarding the possession of natural rights.
Lincoln consistently held that African Americans were human beings and possessed equal natural rights. As Morel points out, he often conceded the minor points of social equality or equal endowments of intelligence or morality to win the major point. Lincoln argued strenuously that the Declaration of Independence included black people. “In the right to eat the bread, without leave of anyone else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.” Douglas, in Lincoln’s opinion had made a “mere wreck—mangled ruin” of the Declaration, which was the “standard maxim for free society.”
However, perhaps we should not let Lincoln off the hook so easily. During his first debate with Stephen Douglas at Ottawa in 1858, Lincoln said:
Anything that argues me into his idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro, is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse. [Laughter.]…. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races.
Many have argued that Lincoln was playing to his racist audience, but that political and social equality is essential to the free institutions, citizenship, and human dignity which he advocated. The author would not disagree on these points but focuses on the fact that Lincoln was a prudential statesman who had to meet voters where they were and elevate them to higher principles.
There are two important caveats to the discussion of equality. First, Lincoln admitted the obvious truth that not all Americans were actually enjoying their rights because of slavery. Second, the principle of equal rights was contested in the 1850s. Public figures such as Douglas, Roger Taney, and Alexander Stephens denied that slaves were human beings and were therefore not intended to be included in the Declaration of Independence or entitled to equal rights. Many southerners agreed and even argued that slavery was a “positive good” with the paternalistic treatment of slaves and especially compared to the “wage slavery” of northern industry.
Lincoln responded by defending the founders, arguing that they reasonably had to concede slavery to the states where it already existed to get the Union as the basis for republican liberty. Slavery was a necessary evil with which they had to compromise, but they put it on the road to ultimate extinction and believed it would die a natural death. “They meant simply to declare the right,” Lincoln explained, “so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.” Black people had natural rights even if they were not actually enjoying them.
The principle of popular sovereignty, or consent, logically follows from equality and forms the foundation of self-government. All human beings have the moral right to govern themselves according to their own consent, and no one can govern them without it. Lincoln stated, “I say this is the leading principle—the sheet anchor of American republicanism.”
Majority rule follows naturally from consent but is predicated upon natural law and the preservation of minority rights under an equality under the law. The founders feared that republican government might suffer from the tyranny of the majority. As Thomas Jefferson expounded in his First Inaugural, “Though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect.”
Douglas advocated his “popular sovereignty” doctrine throughout the 1850s, notably in the debates surrounding the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and his debates with Lincoln in 1858 for a senate seat from Illinois. This version of popular sovereignty undermined the idea of consent because it permitted the white majority to decide whether to enslave the African American minority and steal away their consent. Lincoln understood that if consent were destroyed for some, it would destroy the principle for all. Douglas’s position allowed the violation of consent through the naked exercise of power rather than right. His stance on slavery was one of legal positivism and moral relativism that allowed Americans to decide for themselves on the rightness or wrongness of holding enslaved human beings without their consent.
The purpose of government, according to the Declaration, was to protect the rights of the people. Whenever any form of government became destructive of those ends, the people had a right to alter or abolish it and to institute new government that would fulfill its purpose. The Lockean and founding view of revolution was that it should only be undertaken as a last resort after a long train of abuses and injustices by a tyrannical government. Lincoln called the right of revolution “a most valuable,—most sacred right.”
The debate over secession followed from the differences over majority rule and consent between Lincoln and his opponents. The Confederacy held that the Union was a compact of states. It rejected Lincoln’s election in 1860 and believed that the northern states had nullified the federal compact which justified the southern secession. Morel contends that Lincoln argued the Constitution created a national government and Union that could not be broken by some of the parties to it. Instead, secession was the “essence of anarchy” and insurrection. As president, Lincoln had the constitutional authority and obligation to suppress secession and enforce the constitutional rule of law. In short, Lincoln defended the principles of consent and majority rule, putting ballots over bullets.
Lincoln’s Lengthened Shadow
The “apple of gold” was a central concern of Lincoln’s as he considered the ends of the American regime, but the “picture of silver” provided the means of constitutional governance. The Constitution was instituted to protect and advance liberty. As Lincoln exhorted Republicans celebrating the Fourth of July at Springfield in 1858:
Ever true to Liberty, the Union, and the Constitution—true to Liberty, not selfishly, but upon principle—not for special classes of men, but for all men; true to the Union and the Constitution, as the best means to advance that liberty.
Liberty was protected and advanced by the constitutional principles as explained by James Madison especially in Federalist 39 and 51. Limited government was based upon the republican principle of self-rule. A number of auxiliary precautions were instituted to further prevent tyranny: a presidency within a system of separation of powers and checks and balances, bicameralism, and the principle of federalism.
Morel illustrates Lincoln’s constitutional leadership with the example of emancipation. Lincoln acted on the moral principle that slavery and its expansion was wrong and violated American principles of self-government but employed prudential and constitutional means of achieving the goal. In the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln only abolished slavery in the Confederacy (and not in the border states) because of his presidential war powers but advocated the permanent abolition of slavery in the Thirteenth Amendment.
Morel reads Lincoln’s attempt to conserve the principles and constitutionalism of the founders as an example of following original intent to inform his principled statesmanship and presidency. The defenders of slavery were actually quite progressive in their orientation and adopted the innovation of a “living Constitution” to interpret that document to serve their needs. They prefigured progressives like Woodrow Wilson who rejected the ideals of the founding as outdated and ill-suited to modern America.
Lucas Morel’s short but brilliant book provides readers with a similar guide to American citizenship. Lincoln is an ideal subject in which to probe the founders and the ideals in the “apple of gold” and “picture of silver.” Morel is an excellent guide on the journey through Lincoln’s political thought as a lens into the ideals of the American founding. Lincoln and Morel have much wisdom to offer in our age of passion and ideological division related to Black Lives Matter protests, the New York Times’ 1619 Project, and discussions of “systemic racism.” They are both a model of what Lincoln termed “sober reason” in his 1838 Young Men’s Lyceum speech to contribute to a healthier civil conversation and find common ground as Americans. That lesson was no less important in 2020 than in the period leading to the Civil War.