At this point it is probably futile to try to reverse the deification
of Abraham Lincoln. Next year, if I know my countrymen, the bicentennial
of his birth will be marked by stupendously cloying anniversary observances,
all of them affirming, if not his literal divinity, at least something
mighty close to it.
No doubt we will hear from the high priests and priestesses of the
Lincoln cult: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Garry Wills, Harry V. Jaffa, and
all the rest of the tireless hagiographers of academia, who regularly
rate Honest Abe one of our two greatest presidents, right up there
with Stalin’s buddy Franklin D. Roosevelt, father of the nuclear
age and defiler of the U.S. Constitution. Such, we are told, is the
Verdict of History.
But if Lincoln was so great, we must ask why nobody seems to have
realized it while he was still alive. The abolitionists considered
him unprincipled, Southerners hated him, and most Northerners opposed
his war on the South. Only when the war ended and he was shot did people
begin to transform him into a hero and martyr of the Union cause. But
that cause was badly flawed.
The Declaration of Independence, which Lincoln always quoted selectively,
says that the American colonies of Great Britain had become “free
and independent states” — separate states, mind you, not
the monolithic “new nation” he proclaimed at Gettysburg.
The U.S. Constitution refers constantly to the states, but never to
a “nation”; and this is a fact we should ponder.
Alas, it appears that Lincoln seldom thought about it. For him the
Union was somehow prior to its members, except in his younger days,
when, oddly enough, he had been a passionate advocate of the “most
sacred right” of secession — in other countries. When and
why he changed his mind, or the reason he never applied this principle
to his native country, we do not know; but Gore Vidal, among other
keen observers, has called attention to this most striking inconsistency
of his career. What he called “saving the Union” simply
meant the denial of this most sacred right, and he was willing to pay
any price in blood to achieve it.
No wonder his favorite play was Macbeth. He may have seen himself
in the tyrant who had waded too far into a river of gore to turn back.
Far more Americans died in his war than in any other in our history.
A few books have told the dark story of Lincoln’s suppression
of liberty in the North, including the thousands of arbitrary arrests
and hundreds of closings of newspapers; his war on the South required
a war on the Bill of Rights in the North as well. All in the name of
freedom, of course.
Despite his symbolic importance, most Americans know little about
Lincoln. He was very secretive about himself and his family, and he
remains something of an enigma to his biographers. One fact is clear,
though: he was poorly educated. He made up for this with his rare rhetorical
and political genius; his eloquence continues to create the illusion
Maybe it would have happened anyway, but since Lincoln the Constitution
has meant not what it says, but whatever the U.S. Government decides
it shall mean. The very meaning of constitutionality has become entirely
fluid, so that the law itself has become exactly what law should never
Think of the U.S. Supreme Court’s notorious 1973 abortion ruling.
Nobody before then had ever suggested that abortion was a constitutional
right, but the Court suddenly discovered that it was, protected somehow
by the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments. The laws of all 50 states were
struck down at a blow, but thanks to Lincoln the remedy of secession
was no longer available to them.
Today’s United States of America would be constitutionally unrecognizable
to the authors of the original Constitution, because today the government
has become the wolf at the door. Do I exaggerate? A television commercial
asks, “Is the IRS ruining your life?”
Imagine what Washington and Jefferson would have said about that question!
They never dreamed that their countrymen would live in dread of the
government created to secure their liberty. But that is what has happened
to this country, and much of this is Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.
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