Lincoln’s legacy and relevance

By Joshua Steinman

“Our Constitution was created not to preserve a preexisting society, but to create a new one,” Justice William Brennan said in 1985. Since its beginning, our union has been in a state of rebirth. The Declaration of Independence led to the Articles of Confederation, which were reborn as the Constitution, revised with the Bill of Rights, and amended ever since. Yet what was, at its inception, an experiment led by the intellectual aristocracy against a despotic monarchy was transformed into a struggle whose roots in the Enlightenment placed it at the center of a debate on equality and freedom that consumed much of the 17th and 18th centuries. The resulting genesis was not, in any way, a resolution of that conflict; suffrage in the early United States was based on one’s gender, skin color, and land ownership. But it certainly was a start.

Abraham Lincoln, who was born 200 years ago this month, was a man of intense conviction. He believed in freedom, in equality, and in the Constitution. But more importantly, he believed in the synthesis of these three elements. Deeply tortured by his desire for a place in history, the importance of his address commemorating the battle of Gettysburg, less than a year after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, was not lost on the worn Commander in Chief.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth…a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” This simple phrase retroactively framed the Civil War as a conflict of that proposition. Lincoln knew this was not true. While throughout his life he was an ardent opponent of the institution of slavery, it was most certainly not the precipitating factor in the start of the Civil War. Nor was it even the central issue, which was rather the primacy of the national government over the states. Slavery, an ancillary effect of that conflict, was merely a rallying point.

The speech closed with Lincoln’s reiteration of the opening principle: “…we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” By giving higher purpose to the conflict, Lincoln re-enforced the principles that, though not explicit in the founding charter of the country, he knew were morally demanded in its spirit. Freedom, equality, and the liberation of an entire race of enslaved peoples were diametrically opposed to some of the intricacies the forefathers placed in the Constitution. By revising the historical context of the United States, and especially the still unfinished Civil War, Lincoln in essence re-wrote history.

Was Lincoln right? The politically correct answer is yes. But often, the politically correct answer is also simply the correct answer. History is a fickle creature, granting opportunities to seemingly disparate individuals. Lincoln was one of them. With the Northern victory in the Civil War, the Union was, at its core, a different body politic, with a nationally superior legislature, judiciary, and executive. The Southern trump card–secession–that had been played in nearly every situation in which the aristocracy felt that their “most peculiar institution,” would be threatened was now negated. Secession from the Union was no longer an option. The impending Union victory meant that there would be a rebirth, and with this genesis Lincoln knew that freedoms hollowly supported by those in power in the past would need to be wholeheartedly pursued in the future.

And here we are today, seven score years afterwards. We live in a society profoundly influenced by those 267 words. The concept that “all men are created equal”–a phrase that does not appear in the Constitution–is now firmly rooted in our collective consciousness. Our ideals of freedom, of unity, and of purpose evolved in the words spoken on that sullen day in November, 140 years ago. The man who spoke them, and the men who “gave the last full measure of devotion,” for what Lincoln described in his first inaugural address as “the better angels of our nature,” will forever remain in our hearts and minds.