Jump to content

The American Regime and Its Moral Ground THE 1776 SERIES


Recommended Posts

Real Clear Politics

n the night he was elected President in November 2008, Barack Obama addressed a vast throng in Grant Park in my hometown of Chicago and remarked that we had built this country “calloused hand by calloused hand, for 221 years.” Obama professed an admiration for Abraham Lincoln, but it was clear that he hadn’t understood – or accepted – Lincoln’s teaching. In contrast to Obama’s 221 years, Lincoln said at Gettysburg that “Four score and seven years” earlier our “fathers brought forth . . . a new nation.” Counting back, Obama found the beginning of the country in 1787, with the drafting of our current Constitution. But counting back, Lincoln took the beginning of the nation to 1776 and the Declaration of Independence. It was not merely the claim of independence; it was the articulation of that “proposition” as Lincoln called it, “the father of all moral principle” among us: that “all men are created equal,” that the only just government over human beings must draw its powers from “the consent of the governed.” Lincoln reminded us that the Union, the American republic, was older than the Constitution. The Constitution was made, as it said, for “a more perfect Union.”

Lincoln reminded us that the Union, the American republic, was older than the Constitution. The Constitution was made, as it said, for “a more perfect Union.”

For Lincoln, the nation began with that “first principle” that marked the character of the regime. The task of forming a Constitution was a matter of working out a structure of governance consistent with that principle. The first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, did not work well. The government couldn’t summon the wherewithal to support itself and defend the country against enemies foreign or domestic. Instead of integrating the separate states into a more unified nation, it set off centrifugal tendencies, driving the states farther apart with discriminatory tariffs and separate currencies. It was not the sense of a nation we would come to know, with the free movement of persons and goods across the boundaries of the states.

Lincoln recalled the biblical proverb that “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Prov. 25: 11): The words fitly spoken were “all men are created equal,” which provided the “apple”:

The Union and the Constitution are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal or destroy the apple; but to preserve it. The picture was made for the apple – not the apple for the picture.

The Constitution was made for the Union, not the Union for the Constitution. When the Founders took up the task of framing a new Constitution, they had to draw upon those principles of law and moral truths that were there – as they had to be – before the Constitution. If those principles were not there, to tell us of the forms of government that were better or worse, how would we know of just what institutions claimed a rightful authority to put in place those “positive laws” that we were obliged to obey? And over time, jurists found it necessary to appeal back to those principles that were there before the Constitution, in order to apply the Constitution sensibly to the cases coming before them. John Quincy Adams would argue that the “right to petition the government” was simply implicit in the logic of a free government: it would be there even it hadn’t been set down in the First Amendment. By the same reasoning, it would be there even if there were no First Amendment; it would be there even if there were no Constitution.:snip:

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • 1632660159
  • Create New...