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02-03-2010 @ 19:34:23
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Lincoln's audacious address
Last Thursday, November 19, marked the 146th anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
In late November, 1863, Abraham Lincoln resumed his seat on the dais at Gettysburg's new soldiers' cemetery after making the few "brief remarks" he'd been invited to deliver. The president turned to Marshal Ward Lamon, his friend and bodyguard, and said, "Lamon, that speech won't scour," which is what one said about a plow that wouldn't shed mud and was thus useless. It was clear that the Tycoon, as Lincoln's young aides called him, didn't think he'd accomplished much.
He was wrong. Lincoln's address is likely the most significant presidential oration in American history. It did nothing less than transform the meaning of the entire Civil War and refine our idea of who we are as a people. Its pronouncement about equality is so central to our modern identity that it's difficult for us to view Lincoln's remarks the way many of his contemporaries did.
Lincoln's critics--and they were legion, even in the North--thought he had overstepped his presidential mandate in the speech. He was sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States, as were the Union soldiers who fought at Gettysburg; but Lincoln did not speak of the Constitution on that November afternoon. Instead, he jumped back "four score and seven years" to 1776, when this "new nation [was] conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
As Garry Wills points out in his masterful Lincoln at Gettysburg, Lincoln's detractors thought he'd pulled a bait-and-switch by holding up the Declaration of Independence, instead of the Constitution, as our defining document, the source of ideas for what makes our nation. The editors of the Chicago Times saw this as an outright betrayal of those men on whose graves Lincoln stood to give his speech. The Constitution, they pointed out, does not refer to equality and, in fact, allows for slavery.
Lincoln was arguing, in effect, that the Declaration of Independence (with its notion of equality) and the Constitution (with its acceptance of slavery) were fundamentally incompatible.
Wills says, "It was at this point in the argument that Lincoln distinguished between the Declaration as the statement of a permanent ideal and the Constitution as an early and provisional embodiment of that ideal, to be tested against it, kept in motion toward it." In other words, the Constitution is just the current law whose main function is to lift us toward that higher calling expressed in the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution can be amended; the Declaration's ideals are timeless.
Lincoln was so successful in nudging our thinking down this path that most Americans are unaware there ever was a debate over Lincoln's words. To us it is obvious that the Declaration's statement of ideals is pre-eminent, just as the evils of slavery are obvious to us in a way they weren't to many of our ancestors.
The question for us is about the precedent Lincoln set for leaders, and especially for presidents. How bold can a modern leader be? When is it right to take the audacious step of reshuffling a nation's priorities? Is it the leader's job, as Teddy Roosevelt once said, to choose the best course on behalf of, though not in consultation with, the people?
Lincoln lept boldly, and history judges him well. But such presidential assertiveness has not always ended well. For every Jefferson exceeding his authority to make the Louisiana Purchase (good), we have an FDR trying to pack the Supreme Court to better serve his own administration (bad).
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