Lincoln and His Legacy
February 19, 2008
At this point it is probably futile to try to reverse the deification of Abraham Lincoln. Next year, if I know my countrymen, the bicentennial of his birth will be marked by stupendously cloying anniversary observances, all of them affirming, if not his literal divinity, at least something mighty close to it.
No doubt we will hear from the high priests and priestesses of the Lincoln cult: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Garry Wills, Harry V. Jaffa, and all the rest of the tireless hagiographers of academia, who regularly rate Honest Abe one of our two greatest presidents, right up there with Stalin’s buddy Franklin D. Roosevelt, father of the nuclear age and defiler of the U.S. Constitution. Such, we are told, is the Verdict of History.
But if Lincoln was so great, we must ask why nobody seems to have realized it while he was still alive. The abolitionists considered him unprincipled, Southerners hated him, and most Northerners opposed his war on the South. Only when the war ended and he was shot did people begin to transform him into a hero and martyr of the Union cause. But that cause was badly flawed.
The Declaration of Independence, which Lincoln always quoted selectively, says that the American colonies of Great Britain had become “free and independent states” — separate states, mind you, not the monolithic “new nation” he proclaimed at Gettysburg. The U.S. Constitution refers constantly to the states, but never to a “nation”; and this is a fact we should ponder.
Alas, it appears that Lincoln seldom thought about it. For him the Union was somehow prior to its members, except in his younger days, when, oddly enough, he had been a passionate advocate of the “most sacred right” of secession — in other countries. When and why he changed his mind, or the reason he never applied this principle to his native country, we do not know; but Gore Vidal, among other keen observers, has called attention to this most striking inconsistency of his career. What he called “saving the Union” simply meant the denial of this most sacred right, and he was willing to pay any price in blood to achieve it.
No wonder his favorite play was Macbeth. He may have seen himself in the tyrant who had waded too far into a river of gore to turn back. Far more Americans died in his war than in any other in our history.
A few books have told the dark story of Lincoln’s suppression of liberty in the North, including the thousands of arbitrary arrests and hundreds of closings of newspapers; his war on the South required a war on the Bill of Rights in the North as well. All in the name of freedom, of course.
Despite his symbolic importance, most Americans know little about Lincoln. He was very secretive about himself and his family, and he remains something of an enigma to his biographers. One fact is clear, though: he was poorly educated. He made up for this with his rare rhetorical and political genius; his eloquence continues to create the illusion of greatness.
Maybe it would have happened anyway, but since Lincoln the Constitution has meant not what it says, but whatever the U.S. Government decides it shall mean. The very meaning of constitutionality has become entirely fluid, so that the law itself has become exactly what law should never be: unpredictable.
Think of the U.S. Supreme Court’s notorious 1973 abortion ruling. Nobody before then had ever suggested that abortion was a constitutional right, but the Court suddenly discovered that it was, protected somehow by the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments. The laws of all 50 states were struck down at a blow, but thanks to Lincoln the remedy of secession was no longer available to them.
Today’s United States of America would be constitutionally unrecognizable to the authors of the original Constitution, because today the government has become the wolf at the door. Do I exaggerate? A television commercial asks, “Is the IRS ruining your life?”
Imagine what Washington and Jefferson would have said about that question! They never dreamed that their countrymen would live in dread of the government created to secure their liberty. But that is what has happened to this country, and much of this is Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.
Copyright © 2008 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation.
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