At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.
—Abraham Lincoln, Address before the Springfield Young Men’s Lyceum, 1838

Are we to think that September 11 proved Lincoln wrong? Certainly, there are many Americans who now feel vulnerable. In losing their sense of security, they may also have lost their sense of American exceptionalism. While it might have been true that America was once geographically blessed, our moated fortress is no longer unbreachable. Nature’s gift has been undone by our own technological ingenuity. It does not even require an intercontinental ballistic missile to “step the Ocean”—an airplane will do. A few foresighted observers had long (and unavailingly) warned that the advances of modernity might be turned against us by anti-modern crusaders who would take a sick delight in the irony of such death-dealing. It seems that in the future our protection will depend more on ourselves than on Providence, and will largely be a matter of defending ourselves against the vicious application of our own inventions, devices, appliances, and agents.

At the start of the Lyceum Address—the most profound meditation we have on the perpetuation of our political institutions—Lincoln says that each post-founding generation has two tasks: to transmit the possession of “this goodly land … unprofaned by the foot of an invader” and to transmit the “political edifice of liberty and equal rights … undecayed by the lapse of time, and untorn by usurpation.” The attack on September 11 was a profanation. By the standards of world history, it was a minor one, but not so in the American collective consciousness. Yet the fact that we can express the sum total of our experience of foreign attack with such concision—December 7 and September 11—is a testament still to American exceptionalism. No enemy is marching along the Blue Ridge and, I daresay, none will be. Thus, it seems to me that Lincoln is still essentially correct. There is no American equivalent of the Fall of France, the Battle of Britain, the Siege of Stalingrad, or the Austrian Anschluss. What we have are two infamous days—days that stir us to such anger and overwhelming counterattack that they are not soon repeated. Moreover, it is worth remembering that the Islamic militants do not have in view a takeover of America; they left a footprint intended to insult and panic us, but have no plan (or at least no reasonable expectation) of placing a jackboot on our supine neck forever. Their tyrannical aspirations are directed closer to home where they are engaged in an intra-Islamic struggle. If they hoped to provoke our withdrawal from the Arabian Peninsula, they chose a singularly stupid tactic that may well prove suicidal not just for the bombers but for the movement as a whole. The enshrinement of suicide at the heart of an enterprise is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Lincoln believed that the task of maintaining “the political edifice of liberty and equal rights” against the twin threats of “time” and “usurpation” was a much more daunting task than that of protecting the land from invaders. Here is what he says:

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.
In the immediate wake of September 11, there was a worry that we would harm ourselves (and grant the terrorists a victory) if we allowed the fear of further attack to alter our way of life. We were cautioned against curtailing either our civil liberties or our spending habits (hence, zero-percent financing on a new car to “Keep America Rolling”). This attitude of hardy disdain has much to recommend it. It was the first reaction of Londoners to the Blitz. In Their Finest Hour, Churchill says that “everybody went about his business and pleasure and dined and slept as he usually did. The theatres were full, and the darkened streets were crowded with casual traffic.” Although the wisdom of taking sensible precautions soon become apparent, Churchill describes that initial refusal to admit disruption as “a healthy reaction,” far superior to “the frightful squawk which the defeatist elements in Paris had put up on the occasion when they were first seriously raided.”

Civil libertarians want to tough it out as well. What they fear more than loss of American lives is that certain forms of self-defense will grant a lasting and insidious victory to the enemy. They worry about self-inflicted damage to the system—a kind of home-front equivalent of “friendly fire.” It is already obvious that the terrorists know how to manipulate our political system (especially the freedom to travel and the protections of the person against arbitrary search, seizure, and arrest) just as they know how to manipulate our technology. They would use liberty to undermine liberty. Hitler’s exploitation of legality to bring about the collapse of the Weimar regime is the classic example of democracy’s liability to subversion. Must we accept that this is a vulnerability inseparable from our form of government? In the name of liberty, must we allow liberty to be abused? Or can we defend liberty without sacrificing or sullying the end for which we are fighting by the means that unscrupulous enemies make necessary?

Given that Lincoln was himself willing to use strong measures against saboteurs, it does not seem that his fears of self-inflicted damage were the same as the ACLU’s. It is good to remember what Lincoln said in defense of his suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus (in accord with Article 1, section 9 of the Constitution which explicitly allows for such suspension “when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it”). Lincoln compared the measure, in his strikingly homely fashion, to an emetic. He did not anticipate any permanent damage from the use of emergency powers, since he didn’t believe either individuals or nations develop a taste for foul medicines:

Nor am I able to appreciate the danger … that the American people will, by means of military arrests during the rebellion, lose the right of public discussion, the liberty of speech and the press, the law of evidence, trial by jury, and Habeas corpus, throughout the indefinite peaceful future which I trust lies before them, any more than I am able to believe that a man could contract so strong an appetite for emetics during temporary illness, as to persist in feeding upon them through the remainder of his healthful life.

Lincoln may be right, but what gives one pause with respect to the creation of the Office of Homeland Security is that it does not seem to be conceived as a temporary wartime measure. It has all the trappings of a permanent establishment. If Americans are now to understand themselves as under a lasting and indefinite threat, with the home front indistinguishable from the front line, it really would mean a sea-change. While a few of the preparedness measures (e.g., better training and coordination of emergency personnel) are probably smart things to do, I nonetheless suspect that we could (and should) abandon many of the costly and time-consuming security measures, which are both ineffective and insulting. Instead of treating every citizen like a potential terrorist, why not trust to the eagle eyes of the flying public? The necessary virtue is courage—a virtue that does not flourish in overly bureaucratized, overly policed states.

Leaving aside questions about the intended scope and tenure of the Office of Homeland Security, I wonder about the wisdom of pressing into service the term “homeland.” It is a word that comes into currency when national survival is at stake and will, I believe, under more normal circumstances, sound overheated. Indeed, even in times of national danger, it is not a term that leaps naturally to the American tongue, perhaps because in a nation of immigrants “homeland” could never have quite the resonance that it has for older, more homogeneous peoples. Even for second-, third-, and fourth-generation Amer- icans, the homeland is the place one’s ancestors left. Certainly, “fatherland” and “motherland” have a distinctly un-American ring to them. Filial piety may contribute to American patriotism, but it is not its foundation. Accordingly, American patriotic songs rhapsodize as much about the flag as about the land (witness especially The Star-Spangled Banner and You’re a Grand Old Flag). When they do celebrate the land, it is in unique ways, as in the remarkable verse “This is my country! Land of my choice!” I doubt that a survey of anthems from around the world would produce any equivalent.

Other nations emphasize autochthony: “Thou art the gentle mother of the children of this soil, Beloved land, Brazil” or “Think, beloved fatherland, that heaven gave you a soldier in each son” (Mexico) or “Indonesia, my native land, my place of birth, where I stand guard, over my motherland.” America being such a vast, geographically diverse land produces other unusual effects. Lyrical tributes often catalogue the variety: “From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam” or “From California to the New York Islands, from the Redwood Forests to the Gulf Stream waters, this land is made for you and me.” The United States could have no equivalent of Edelweiss. Yes, Edelweiss was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for The Sound of Music; nonetheless, it perfectly captures the rooted character of patriotism in a small, alpine nation. By contrast, American songs convey a bird’s-eye view of the whole “from sea to shining sea.” The diversity of the land is matched, of course, by the diversity of individuals who choose this land as their own. Woody Guthrie’s line “this land is made for you and me” implies that America is broad enough (physically and metaphysically) to accommodate both “you” and “me.” What transforms you and me into “us” is not a shared nativity, but our pledged allegiance to the flag “and to the republic for which it stands.”

Since September 11, there has been a phenomenal resurgence of flag-waving. The symbolic stand-in for the republic stands proud and upright, but how about the republic itself. How—and for what—does the republic stand? Perhaps not as sturdily or as undivided as one would hope. This was Lincoln’s worry in 1838 and must still be ours today to the extent that Americans are confused about, ignorant of, contending over, and (whether consciously or not) departing from the founding principles of the republic.

There have been painful recent reminders of our self-division. Witness the flap over the proposed memorial to the New York firefighters who lost their lives at the World Trade Center (briefly discussed in the “Notes and Comments” of the February issue of The New Criterion). The commissioned statue was to be based on the widely-circulated photo, first published in the Bergen County Record, of three firemen raising an American flag at Ground Zero—a photo strikingly reminiscent of the even more famous photograph of six American servicemen raising the flag at Iwo Jima. The World War II photo was translated into bronze, becoming the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial. The Fire Department of New York wanted a similarly monumental rendering of the image and moment of its heroism. Before casting the scene into bronze, however, it made a decision to change the cast of characters. Instead of the three white firemen of the photo, there were to be one white, one black, and one Hispanic. The recasting, however, met with objections, and then the objections to the recasting met with objections, and soon enough everyone was offended. The most flattering light in which to put the incident would be to say that Americans of all complexions love their flag so much they fight over the honor of raising it (and the honor of dying for it). A less flattering light would reveal how many of our judgments are filtered and distorted by racially polarizing lenses.

I see no reason to doubt that most of those who object to the photo’s alteration do so on principle. They want the statue to reflect the grim and glorious reality of that moment. Those were real men acting in real time. They don’t want a gussied up, public relations version. Such “diversity” (which pretends to an inclusiveness and racial proportionality that does not in fact exist in the FDNY) might be fine for recruiting brochures, but the appeal of the photo was in the way it bodied forth inner qualities. It was the soulfulness of the picture that captured the nation’s attention. If the flag-raisers had been all black or all female, I trust that the advocates of historical memory would be demanding the same fidelity to the moment and that the photo (despite its superficial unrepresentativeness) would still be regarded as a natural for commemoration. Yet, under the current ideological dispensation, one is not allowed simply to see character. The eye is arrested by the surface. It is color that must be seen. If the rainbow isn’t there, it must be added.

Since it is the expression of dedication and heroism that counts, one might ask what difference a little “artistic license” makes. The argument of “artistic license,” however, seems stretched since the reason for the change is not aesthetic but political. Those who corrected the photo say they wished to pay tribute to all the firefighters who died, some of whom were African-American and Hispanic. Presumably the firefighters were also of varying religion, marital status, sexual orientation, height, handedness, and moral quality. Why is race the relevant category? And if racial designations are so important, must artistic and symbolic renditions be accurate, neither over- nor underrepresenting the twenty-four martyred firemen, out of 343, who were minorities?

Perhaps it would help if we remembered that the purpose of any memorial is to honor the dead, not necessarily to depict them. The photo was of living firemen captured in a spontaneous act of honoring their fallen brothers. It was one degree removed or abstracted from the actual event. By what reasoning must the honor guard mirror the racial composition of the honored dead? If the brotherhood is real, what matters the race of the honorer? It would be suggestive of segregation rather than integration if a black fireman had to be added in order to deliver honor to the fallen black firefighters, since the governing presumption would then be that one can honor only those of one’s own hue. It would certainly give new meaning to the term “color guard.”

Perhaps what generated most offense was the implication that there was something wrong with the event as it actually transpired. Being airbrushed (or firehosed) out of the picture cannot help but be perceived as a denigration of the individuals involved and, by extension, of white firemen in general (since what was wrong was their race). If the racial homogeneity of the original group constituted an insuperable objection, then the idea of using the photo should have been dropped to avoid the Orwellian insult.

The opponents of political correctness have found some unlikely allies among black commentators. Clarence Page, columnist for the Chicago Tribune, has argued that a multiracial memorial would serve only to “mask patterns of discrimination that fire departments have practiced for decades.” Since this is a department that is 94 percent white, the monochrome of the photo was not accidental. For the Fire Department of New York to offer a retouched self-presentation, driven by bad conscience, in which minority representation swells from 6 percent to 66 percent is mendacious. Thus, the call for historical accuracy cuts in different directions. The picture that seemed so right—because so expressive of sacrifice and bravery—is now bedimmed and just as likely to be interpreted as evidence of ongoing institutional racism. There are those who would reinstate the white-guy originals not for their originality but for their whiteness. Thereby the memorial would become “exhibit A” in the court of racial opinion, where there is no protection against self-incrimination.

Although as a nation we are often greatly divided on racial matters, rarely is there a straight black/white divide. For that, I suppose, we should be thankful. Despite predictions of eventual “race war” from commentators the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Alexis de Tocqueville, America’s racial battles have not, in the main, been racial in the sense of being fought out between the races. They have instead been contests between the holders of alternative understandings of justice and alternative visions of what conduces to racial accord. Like so much else in America, the disputes are fundamentally doctrinal. Happily enough—happy at least for those who believe in the freedom of the mind—race, sex, and class do not turn out to be reliable proxies for viewpoint.

Lincoln, of course, became a protagonist in the greatest of these doctrinal disputes. Already in 1838, well before the rent in the Union became manifest, he warned of the danger of self-destruction: “As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” Freedom is invulnerable to all but self-inflicted wounds. It is for this reason that Lincoln agrees with the ancient authors who argued for the priority of domestic over foreign affairs. Again, even more against the modern bias, Lincoln did not regard economic matters as the essence of domestic affairs. If the “body politic” can be said to have a soul, then the alimentary is elemental, but subordinate. Subscribing to the “statecraft as soulcraft” school, Lincoln elevated virtue above security (whether economic or physical) and education above defense. Or, rather, he saw virtue and education as the only true means of defense against the twin threats of “time” and “usurpation.” Similarly, when The New Criterion sponsors an inquiry into the “survival of culture,” it expresses a concern not for survival but for culture, or not simply for survival but rather for the survival of a thing that transcends mere survival. As Aristotle noted of the political community, “while it comes into being for the sake of living, it exists for the sake of living well”—“well” being defined as living by law and justice, living nobly rather than richly.

For Lincoln, the perpetuation of our political institutions depends decisively on the rightness of our self-understanding. Indeed, in 1855, Lincoln said he was prepared to withdraw his allegiance should our divarication from orthodoxy go much further. In a letter to a slave-owning friend, he closed with these mordant lines:

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.
Unlike Jefferson, who wrote so sanguinely of “the progress of the human mind,” Lincoln concluded that the mind, or at any rate the American mind, was more likely to retrogress and digress. Principles that had been clearly understood in the beginning (despite their frequent violation in practice) were being lost to sight, covered over, distorted, repudiated, and forgotten (perhaps because of their too-long-permitted violation).

In the Lyceum Address, Lincoln diagnosed the decay brought by “the lapse of time.” His metaphor was architectural. He spoke of “the temple of liberty,” originally supported by “pillars,” now “crumbled away.” Those pillars were “the passions of the people” or more precisely the sound which the passions assumed as a result of the impress of “the interesting scenes of the revolution.” During the fight for liberty, the people’s worst passions were either suppressed (as were “jealousy, envy, and avarice”) or redirected outward against the enemy (as was the case with “hate” and “revenge”). Once the fight was over, however, and more especially once the memory of the fight had faded, the base passions lost their structural and supportive form. Lincoln declares that “[p]assion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy.” Lincoln recommends the crafting of wholly new pillars, “hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason.”

Although Lincoln’s aim is the perpetuation of our political institutions, his method is not that of a historic preservationist. He does not strive to repair or reproduce the original pillars. Perpetuation can be achieved only by a fundamental improvement: the substitution of imperishable reason for perishable passion. Lincoln’s depreciation of passion leads him to expect little from the study of history. There can be no lasting appeal to “the scenes of the revolution.” The history books cannot inspire patriotism. What rendered those scenes once powerful was the “living history” of the men who figured in them,

a history bearing the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received …—a history, too, that could be read and understood alike by all, the wise and the ignorant… . But those histories are gone. They can be read no more forever. They were a fortress of strength; but, what invading foemen could never do, the silent artillery of time has done.
In keeping with his choice of reason over passion, Lincoln emphasizes the texts that perdure (the Declaration, Constitution, and laws) rather than the vanishing “scenes of the revolution.” He favors the word over the spectacle. His discipline is political philosophy, not history.

Lincoln’s new pillars would demand much more of the people. While the passions of the people were sufficient to erect the political edifice, its maintenance will depend on “their judgment.” Self-government begins with the self. A well-ordered state cannot be formed out of disordered individuals. Here again, Lincoln runs counter to the modern claim that private vice can conduce to public benefits if only the vices be ingeniously arrayed. From Machiavelli to Kant, we have been promised that mod- eration will be the automatic, systemic consequence of immoderate, competitive interaction—no need for the old-fashioned version of moderation which consisted in the habit of saying no to the desires. Lincoln’s paean to the rulership of reason in the individual soul calls for reason to be molded into three qualities: “general intelligence, sound morality and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws.” The last of these, which allies reason with reverence, is the most intriguing. Whereas scenes and spectacles fade over time, words and texts can acquire greater force, taking on an almost scriptural status. It is as if religious feeling is transposed onto the plane of politics. While some might consider reverence a passion, Lincoln describes it as crafted from the material of “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason.” In this he seems to disagree with Madison who, as Father of the Constitution, was also very keen on reverence. Although Madison admits that “in a nation of philosophers … a reverence for the laws would be sufficiently inculcated by the voice of an enlightened reason,” he suspects that ordinary nations will discover reverence to be a salutary public prejudice, dependent on factors other than the abstract rightness of obedience to law. Reverence is more a function of the stability (and hence antiquity) of the government. Madison recommends that this conservative prejudice be carefully encouraged, primarily by not involving the people too often in large and troublesome questions that would disturb their tranquility.

In Lincoln’s day, public tranquility (the key ingredient of non-philosophic reverence) was already compromised “by the operation of this mobocratic spirit, which all must admit, is now abroad in the land.” Under the circumstance of “increasing disregard for law,” Lincoln could not trust to time to settle the inflammation. He had to address the public on the most significant and sensitive issue and he had to do so through reason alone. His speeches are remarkable for the non-impassioned, almost mathematical spareness and rigor of their argumentation. Lord Charnwood, in his biography of Lincoln, says that “[h]e put himself in a position in which if his argument were not sound nothing could save his speech from failure as a speech.” This willingness to trust to the compulsion of logic was a great act of faith in the capacities of the people. If self-government is a real possibility, then even a mob must have its “better angels.” Perhaps Lincoln’s democratic faith helps explain how these same speeches are often suffused with religious language and culminate in moments of deep but restrained reverence. Think of the final paragraphs of the Lyceum Address, the Cooper Union Address, and the First Inaugural, as well as virtually the whole of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural.

Lincoln’s speeches are in themselves demonstrations of how “reverence for the constitution and laws” can proceed from reason alone. The efforts he made to reduce his thoughts to the cleanest, most crystalline formulations were in the service of a recovery of orthodox constitutionalism. It was Lincoln’s conviction that the Constitution, properly understood and venerated, offered the only hope for a solution to the slavery crisis—a solution that would do justice to all, South as well as North, and achieve justice for all, black as well as white. If slavery could be once again placed where the Founders had placed it—namely “where the public mind could rest in the belief that it was in the course of ultimate extinction”—then all might yet be well. To prove it, Lincoln undertook patient, textual explications of the principles informing the founding charters and equally patient elaborations of the public policy implications of those principles.

In one sense, Lincoln failed miserably. His attempt to engraft these new pillars seemed to shake the edifice itself. The election of the man most dedicated to reason provoked an unreasoning rebellion. The faded scenes of the revolution were replaced with fresh (but unwholesome) scenes of civil war, where hate and revenge turned inward.

Yet the conflict issued in something sublime: the Union was saved and refounded on the fundamental principle of emancipation. And all understood that this was Lincoln’s achievement. Walt Whitman described the culmination of the war of secession in the martyrdom of Lincoln as “that seal of the emancipation of three million slaves—that parturition and delivery of our at last really free Republic, born again, henceforth to commence its career of genuine homogeneous Union, compact, consistent with itself.” According to Whitman, the death of Lincoln provided

a cement to the whole people, subtler, more underlying, than any thing in written constitution, or courts or armies—namely, the cement of a death identified thoroughly with that people, at its head, and for its sake. Strange, (is it not?) that battles, martyrs, agonies, blood, even assassination, should so condense—perhaps only really, lastingly condense—a Nationality.
Whitman emphatically sides with history and the commemorative muse of poetry. If Lincoln’s analysis in the Lyceum Address is correct, however, then the scenes of the civil war, including its murderous climax—what Whitman calls “its highest poetic, single, central, pictorial denouement”—will fade. So too all subsequent American scenes of moral grandeur. We live right now on the cusp of the loss of the “living history” of World War II—the history that bears “the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received.” The recent tributes to “the greatest generation,” fitting though they are, will not prevent the action of “the all-resistless hurricane” of time.

There is a direct connection between these perils of “time” and that other danger mentioned by Lincoln: “usurpation.” Because the very passions that proved a pillar of liberty at the time of the nation’s framing will, in later days, become instruments for demagogic manipulation and demolition, only new pillars “hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason” could succeed in upholding liberty. Reason prepares the people to resist usurpation by teaching them how to recognize it. Unlike invasion by an avowed enemy (which in all but the most debilitated nations would prompt self-defense), usurpation can occur imperceptibly, particularly when it is ideological rather than personal in character. Mistaken understandings insinuate themselves into the public mind and become habitual. To usurp means literally “to take possession of by use,” and that is precisely how false philosophy comes to seize public opinion. (Of course, if false philosophy goes far enough, it can blind a nation to external threats as well and weaken self-preservative reflexes.) Resistance to usurpation begins with the ability to recognize what is pernicious, to understand which streams of thought are dangerously at odds with the principles of republican self-government.

Aware that reflection must supersede reflex, Lincoln dedicated his entire political career to educating Americans in the meaning of their original charters. It was an education conducted by means of electoral contests with the usurpers (or their progeny), from John C. Calhoun—the man who began what Lincoln termed “an insidious debauching of the public mind”—to Stephen A. Douglas, whose doctrine of “popular sovereignty” effected a reinterpretation of the Declaration that left it “without the germ or even the suggestion of the individual rights of man,” thereby rendering it “mere rubbish” and “old wadding.” Even Lincoln’s prosecution of the war entailed teaching—namely, “teaching men that what they cannot take by an election, neither can they take it by a war.” Bullets were far from the only weapons employed to defend the sanctity of the ballot. As much as the rebel army, it was the rebel argument about the legitimacy of secession that had to be defeated. Lincoln did so by revealing the articulation of the principle of free elections, the doctrine of the social compact, and the original truth of human equality, at each point contrasting it with the counter-trinity of secession, state rights, and slavery.

The inscription on the Lincoln Memorial reads: “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people, for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” Despite those words, we must wonder whether there is anything imperishable in Lincoln’s statesmanship, never forgetting that in Lincoln’s own estimation, memory by itself is insufficient. This is true even in the First Inaugural, where he famously refers to “mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land.” Lincoln goes on to say, however, that the mystic chords of memory must be activated or sounded by something else within us, namely “the better angels of our nature,” which I take to mean intellect and understanding—after all, the whole of the First Inaugural is a carefully argued logical appeal which only waxes poetic in its final lines. Once again, it is reason that stirs reverence; it is dialectics that “will yet swell the chorus of the Union.” (The cosmos operates the same way: without mathematics there would be no music of the spheres.) The lesson I would draw is that the memory of Lincoln is vitalized only when we think the thoughts he thought. Accordingly, the Lincoln Memorial rightly includes, on flanking walls, the full texts of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural—texts that in turn direct the reader to other texts: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bible. As the Gettysburg Address tells us, it is fitting to grieve and pay our respects to the dead, but the only complete commemoration is for the living to dedicate themselves to the same “cause” and “unfinished task,” so that the dead “shall not have died in vain.”

Since it is a rare thing to encounter politicians capable of serving as preceptors of the people, the task of citizen education falls heavily upon the schools. To the extent that they have even bothered with it, their approach has been historical—tending to err either in the direction of hagiography or a debunking revisionism that essentially criminalizes the nation’s founding. It has not worked. And I don’t believe it can work. Students are much more receptive to a philosophic approach—one that puts reason before reverence (or irreverence). Such an approach, in fact, fits well with many of their predispositions and allergies. Being inclined toward cynicism, they are suspicious of pious story-telling. At the same time, despite having been exposed to a lot of “feet-of-clay” historiography, they long to have America’s past—and especially the idea of America—restored to respectability (so long as it can be done without a whitewash). While I have focused almost exclusively on Lincoln here, one would proceed very differently in a course, substituting dialectics for exhortation. Students would read works by Calhoun, Douglas, and the abolitionists (especially Frederick Douglass), in addition to Lincoln. Unlike so many other intellectual projects, this one grabs them because it is connected with their sense of self. They want to know how they ought to regard their nation. They want to know how to think about equality and liberty.

Despite the best efforts of the deconstructionists, young people often venerate the Constitution. When they encounter the debate between Jefferson and Madison on the desirability of regular change in the laws, they all immediately side with Jefferson (since “laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind”), but when they realize that Jefferson wanted a Constitutional Convention every twenty years, these supposed partisans of the new are horrified. It is as Madison had hoped: undisturbed longevity has produced veneration. The problem, however, is that the veneration is often devoid of any knowledge, and so the content of their political ideas is frequently at odds with the documents they claim to respect. Respecting a document is not as straightforward as respecting a person. Without philosophic literacy, it is easy for public opinion to be shanghaied.

To give an example: when affirmative action was adopted more than a generation ago, it was widely understood to be a violation of the fundamental principle of color blindness. It was justified as a temporary expedient to reverse the effects of discrimination and exclusion. In other words, it was thought to be a necessary evil—desirable in the circumstances, but not desirable in and of itself. Privilege and preference, once established, however, are not readily relinquished. To make the policy permanent a new rationale was needed: hence the call for “diversity,” which makes race-consciousness a positive good. “Diversity” dismisses the old standard of color-blindness, declaring it not only impossible, but also undesirable. This movement from affirmative action to diversity parallels the transformation in antebellum thought which began by recognizing slavery as a necessary evil and ended by hailing it as a positive good (the better to maintain race-based privileges). I don’t mean to suggest that the injustice of quotas is on a par with the injustice of slavery, but I do mean to say that the doctrine of the equality of rights-bearing individuals would condemn both. It makes no difference which group—white or black, majority or minority—is arguing for (or being benefited by) the permanence of race-based preferences. If it were understood that the genealogy of the “diversity” argument owes more to Calhoun (who pioneered the shift from the constitutional protection of individual rights to group rights) than to the Declaration’s assertion of natural human equality, then the generous lip-service paid to the notion might become less fashionable. Well-intentioned idiocy can be almost as detrimental as malice aforethought.

A better understanding of natural rights would improve the quality of public reflection (and the resultant public policy) not just on race, but on a whole range of issues, from foreign policy to genetic engineering and cloning, not to mention our contemporary equivalent of “the crisis of the house divided”: abortion. Although such an education can be readily accomplished through the study of the Founders and Lincoln, there are all sorts of other ways to do it as well, since it is not fundamentally an historical enterprise, but a philosophic one. However it’s done, it must challenge the usurping ideas that have slipped in over time—which turn out to be closely related (though not identical) to those Lincoln confronted. I am not suggesting a civic catechism (which is likely to be about as efficacious as the religious version).

What Americans need is a searching exploration of the meaning of the founding charters, and that would include an examination of the most powerful dissenting views. Moreover, as Lincoln understood, the recovery of old insights would not mean a return to square one, but an ascent—a “new birth of freedom.” The aim is not to get back to the past, but “back to the future.” Fundamentalism and progress are conjoined. Orthodoxy can be the most creative stance. No one, particularly not democratic man, wants to feel like an epigone. The example of Lincoln shows us how our pride can be satisfied, not through departures and deconstruction, but through fidelity and humility. It is by means of a refreshed and deepened understanding of self-government—by means of the building of new pillars—that we might make the bold claim of having secured for ourselves “the blessings of liberty.”

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 8, on page 4
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