Lincoln, the Ghost of Christmas Past and Future

One of our foremost literary critics once referred to Lincoln as “the martyred Christ in the Passion Play of democracy.” For reasons running deep, Lincoln is encountered at every turn in our politics, at every crisis that tests the deepest premises of the American regime.

In his usual overreaching, Barack Obama has decided to make his way to Washington for his inauguration in the way that Lincoln made his way in 1861. He will take the same path, stopping in Philadelphia, Trenton, and other places. But Lincoln had sought in that way to test the willingness of the public to stand with their elected government against those, he said, who would resort to bullets rather than accept the outcome of ballots. Obama follows the same path, but in an ongoing gesture of narcissism, to receive the adulation of the crowds. There would be something fitting, though, in the notion of the first black president offering a gesture of reverence for the Great Emancipator. Or there would be were it not for the fact that Mr. Obama and the party of the Left reject every moral premise animating Lincoln, including those principles of natural right that marked the wrongness of slavery.

And yet, Lincoln has been subject to scathing attack these days on the political right as well. He is accused of ripping past constitutional restraints in his zeal to crush the rebellion. One reader of The Catholic Thing has reproached me for my praise of Lincoln by asserting that Lincoln worked to “destroy the states’ rights system of the Founders and consolidate power in Washington.”

But as I remarked last time, that is a fable woven with a deep lie. In his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln offered assurances to the South by recalling the Republican platform on the authority of the states: a commitment to “the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the states, and especially the right of each state to order and control its own domestic institutions.” This was no mere rhetorical flourish; it was a firm part of Lincoln’s policy and statecraft. Lincoln could assure the South, in his policy of moderation, that his party would not disturb slavery where it already existed in the states. He would offer schemes of “compensated emancipation,” to pay the owners of slaves for divesting themselves of their property in human beings. He would propose grants in aid to the border states, still in the Union, in order to help them gradually dissolve slavery in that way.

That is, he thought he had no direct authority to interfere with the authority of those states over slavery. He was certain that he had no authority to strip people of their property except by law, and that the federal government lacked even that authority over slave property until the Thirteenth Amendment could be passed. The Emancipation Proclamation he understood solely as a war measure to strike at the slavery that sustained armies in the South. But apart from a war measure, he was certain that there was no authority in the federal government to remove the property in slaves held anywhere else in the country, in any of the states not at war with the Union.

The historian Herman Belz has pointed up the one most obdurate, most obvious fact that seems curiously to elude those writers who accuse Lincoln of installing a dictatorship: The presidential election was held in 1864, in the middle of the Civil War, even when Lincoln thought he might well lose. To give up the election, he thought, was to give up free government. And if the rebellion could have forced a foregoing of the election, it could have claimed “already to have conquered and ruined us.”

But if the critics have missed these points, it may be because they have not grasped the animating principles from which those different points had sprung. The critics cannot fathom that Lincoln could actively flex the powers of government even while respecting the “consent of the governed” and the restraints of lawfulness. And yet it all runs back to what Plato understood as the problem of moral incontinence, set against the well-ordered soul. Only a certain kind of creature can understand a principle or law that commands his respect even when it runs counter to his inclinations.

Law arises only from that creature we may call a “moral agent,” a being who has access to an understanding of right and wrong. He understands, with Lincoln and Aquinas, that he cannot coherently claim “a right to do a wrong.” He understands then the things he has no “right” do even in the name of his freedom and his governance of himself. He is a person under self-control. He has, as Plato said, a constitutional order within himself. A person under self-control is not weaker, but stronger, and a government under self-control, under constitutional restraints, is not a weaker government. They are both summoned to concentrate their powers on the things rightful for them to do.

When taken to the root, then, there is nothing distinctly American in this notion of constitutional restraint. And Lincoln, so distinctly American, embodied this classic understanding, which ran beyond America. At the core of it all, as Pope John Paul II would remind us later, was the understanding of a “human person,” that creature made in the image of something higher through a sharing of the gift of reason.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.