04 March 2011

Lincoln's Inaugural Address 150 years later

For those keeping track of Civil War milestones, today is the sesquicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's inauguration as President. While the 1861 inaugural address has some well-remembered passages about "mystic chords of memory" and "better angels of our nature," it isn't as highly regarded a piece of rhetoric as Lincoln's second inaugural with its unflinching acceptance of war as providential retribution for slavery. In 1861 Lincoln was still trying to reassure southerners that he had no intention of abolishing slavery. He was not lying; he considered himself powerless to do it, and believed slavery to enjoy constitutional protection wherever it already existed. His election provoked southerners to secede because Lincoln did insist that Congress had a right to exclude slavery from newly acquired territory. Slaveowners considered Lincoln a mortal enemy because he stated openly his belief that confining slavery to the states where it already existed would put the peculiar institution "on the course of ultimate extinction." They also disputed his claim that their constitutional rights had not been violated. They considered it a violation of their rights every time northerners prevented the rendition of a runaway slave back to the South, and warned that any failure by Lincoln to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law against northern nullification would render the Union void. Lincoln himself didn't think the Union could ever become void except in the unlikely event that all the states said so. He personally didn't consider the Union a conditional compact, and to those who did he argued that no individual party to any compact could declare it void unilaterally. Despite his opinion, he disavowed any intention of invading the South during his inaugural address, promising to use force only to retain control of federal property and collect duties and imposts, if necessary. To do more, he explained, "would be so irritating and so nearly impracticable withal that I deem it better to forego for the time the use of these offices." He hoped, in vain, that cooler heads would prevail in the South, that a saving compromise could be reached and war avoided.

There's no real danger of secession in 2011, but the nation seems as nearly divided intellectually now as it was geographically divided in 1861. What can Lincoln tell us today? His comments remain relevant when he touches on disagreements over the meaning of the Constitution. Though closer to the time of the Framing, Lincoln was, if anything, less confident than we are now of discovering definitive answers to all disputes in the language of the founding document. How can the Union endure if people disagree so strongly on the terms of its duration?

If by the mere force of numbers a majority should deprive a minority of any clearly written constitutional right, it might in a moral point of view justify revolution; certainly would if such right were a vital one. But such is not our case. All the vital rights of minorities and of individuals are so plainly assured to them by affirmations and negations, guaranties and prohibitions, in the Constitution that controversies never arise concerning them. But no organic law can ever be framed with a provision specifically applicable to every question which may occur in practical administration. No foresight can anticipate nor any document of reasonable length contain express provisions for all possible questions....From questions of this class spring all our constitutional controversies, and we divide upon them into majorities and minorities. If the minority will not acquiesce, the majority must, or the Government must cease. There is no other alternative, for continuing the Government is acquiescence on one side or the other....

A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left. I do not forget the position assumed by some that constitutional questions are to be decided by the Supreme Court, nor do I deny that such decisions must be binding in any case upon the parties to a suit as to the object of that suit, while they are also entitled to very high respect and consideration in all parallel cases by all other departments of the Government. And while it is obviously possible that such decision may be erroneous in any
given case, still the evil effect following it, being limited to that particular case, with the chance that it may be overruled and never become a precedent for other cases, can better be borne than could the evils of a different practice. At the same time, the candid citizen must confess that if the policy of the Government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made in ordinary litigation between parties in personal actions the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their Government into the hands of that eminent tribunal. Nor is there in this view any assault upon the court or the judges. It is a duty from which they may not shrink to decide cases properly brought before them, and it is no fault of theirs if others seek to turn their decisions to political purposes....

Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world? In our present differences, is either party without faith of being in the right? ...By the frame of the Government under which we live this same people have wisely given their public servants but little power for mischief, and have with equal wisdom provided for the return of that little to their own hands at very short intervals. While the people retain their virtue and vigilance no Administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can very seriously injure the Government in the short space of four years.My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to hurry any of you in hot haste to a step which you would never take deliberately, that object will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it.

I let these excerpts go without further comment. Whether Lincoln has any advice that we can use today is for the rest of you to decide.

No comments: