Misconceptions? What Misconceptions?

Ben has written a provocative post which challenges the conventional wisdom that is hammered into our heads in grade school and celebrated by every pundit, pundette and person in America. He takes on the reading of the Declaration that we received from Lincoln, who famously immortalized it in his Gettysburg Address of November 19, 1863.

To close his post, he asks the readers of this blog

So, once again, my question for the reader: when you celebrate the Declaration of Independence this 4th of July, exactly what are you celebrating? Is it the Declaration of state sovereignty, historical particularity, and continuity with the past? Or is it the Declaration of the American “nation,” universal abstraction, and revolution? I’m afraid I already know the answer.

My answer is that I celebrate the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. Contrary to Ben, I think that Lincoln’s Declaration is continuous with the Founders’ Declaration. I think it is his interpretation of the Declaration and of Lincoln that are misguided.

Ben advocates a compact theory of constitutional development; I think that the compact theory is wrong. Lincoln was correct to argue that the nation predates the individual states. Daniel Webster eloquently describes the type of relationship upon which this nation was built – and which Lincoln correctly, in my view, defended at Gettysburg – in his second reply to Senator Hayne. It is not a compact between states.

When the gentleman says the Constitution is a compact between the States, he uses language exactly applicable to the old Confederation. He speaks as if he were in Congress before 1789. He describes fully that old state of things then existing. The Confederation was, in strictness, a compact; the States, as States, were parties to it. We had no other general government. But that was found insufficient, and inadequate to the public exigencies. The people were not satisfied with it, and undertook to establish a better. They undertook to form a general government, which should stand on a new basis; not a confederacy, not a league, not a compact between States, but a Constitution; a popular government, founded in popular election, directly responsible to the people themselves, and divided into branches with prescribed limits of power, and prescribed duties. They ordained such a government, they gave it the name of a Constitution, and therein they established a distribution of powers between this, their general government, and their several State governments. When they shall become dissatisfied with this distribution, they can alter it. Their own power over their own instrument remains. But until they shall alter it, it must stand as their will, and is equally binding on the general government and on the States.

The gentleman, Sir, finds analogy where I see none. He likens it to the case of a treaty, in which, there being no common superior, each party must interpret for itself, under its own obligation of good faith. But this is not a treaty, but a constitution of government, with powers to execute itself, and fulfil its duties.

Ben claims that there is no evidence that the states viewed themselves in the way Lincoln viewed them. Yes, there is evidence of the shared view. The legislators and jurists during the founding era shared this proto-Lincolnian view of constitutional development. If Ben were correct in his view of the relationship between the states and the federal government, then Georgia would have won. But it didn’t. While the myth of the compact is alive and well, the accumulation of history points to a union “of the people, by the people, for the people” – not of, by and for individual, voluntary states.

Moving on, Ben attempts to refute Lincoln’s alleged claim that we were a nation founded upon universal truths and abstract rights. He claims that the Founding Fathers held a contrary view. I disagree with that claim and Lincoln did, too. I don’t mean to be flippant, but I don’t have a problem with an interpretation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution which outlaws slavery of African-Americans. And I don’t see why (other) conservatives would or should have a problem with that interpretation Lincoln left us. That said, I’m open to being persuaded.

I don’t disagree with Ben that Lincoln believed that the Declaration was enshrined with abstract truths or rights. But I think to stop there, as Ben seems to, presents a misleading portrait of Lincoln.

I don’t think that Lincoln was the radical, abstract, history-and-tradition-dismissing statesman that Ben seems to suggest. Reading Lincoln in context (biographically and philosophically), I think it is clear that he has a narrow understanding of this right of equality. It is an understanding that does not assume that everyone will enjoy equality or that the government will force everyone to be equal – as actual Jacobins may believe; but, only that the founders “declare[d]“ that the right of equality exists. And his argument is specific to the historical crisis against which Lincoln stood. Lincoln makes it very clear in his speeches and letters – and his biography provides further evidence – that in his argument in favor of a right to equality he is he is speaking about and against slavery. Lincoln was historically aware and recognized the continuity between the views of the Founders and his own.

Finally, Lincoln is a conservative. He said so himself. He is a conservative cut from the type of cloth that those of us at beyondthegop are cut from.

We conservatives can learn a lot from Lincoln. We should take a moment to examine the historical context in which he developed, advocated and implemented his constitutional views, rather than paying lip service to history. His writings demonstrate that had deep respect for the Founding, the Constitution and the republican experiment that the American Revolution launched.

A revolution that was, contrary to the typical conservative interpretation (including Ben’s), a radical event. Gordon Wood corrects this misunderstanding in his Pulitzer Prize winning book

If we measure the radicalism of revolutions by the degree of social misery or economic deprivation suffered, or by the number of people killed or manor houses burned, then this conventional emphasis on the conservatism of the American Revolution becomes true enough. But if we measure the radicalism by the amount of social change that actually took place–by the transformations in the relationships that bound people to each other–then the American Revolution was not conservative at all; on the contrary: it was as radical and as revolutionary as any in history. Of course, the American Revolution was very different from other revolutions. But it was no less radical and no less social for being different. In fact, it was one of the greatest revolutions the world has known, a momentous upheaval that not only fundamentally altered the character of American society but decisively affected the course of subsequent history.

Which Declaration do you support? The Declaration of history or the Declaration of Lincoln?

From Dred Scott

In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument.

A Lincolnian declamation(?)


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Categories: Declaration of Independence, Federalism, Ideology, Secession, The Constitution, Tyranny | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Misconceptions? What Misconceptions?

  1. Jon White

    “Lincoln was correct to argue that the nation predates the individual states.”
    Lincoln’s is a.position difficult to sustain through references to the historical record of the Founding period.


    Virginia, for example, seceded from Great Britain prior to, and independently of, the other colonies in June 1776.
    All the Federal and state authorities at the time of the meeting of the new Federal government in 1789 acknowledged that non-ratifying States were independent and out of the Union. And that the decision to join the Union or not was entirely up to the people of the states.
    Lincoln’s position on this question (fairly stated as follows: “My political beliefs require that I adhere to the position that the Union predates the states, therefore it is so.”) is not particularly convincing.

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