We are, as one old American said, a house divided. In his day, we were divided by the evil of slavery. In our day, we are divided by our memories of his day.
But memory is too strong a word, for none of us was there and few of us know much about those who were. Weakness in knowledge does not, apparently, diminish the strength of opinion and I hear mournful accusations to the effect that racism “is shamefully enshrined in our Constitution”.
Abraham Lincoln would understand our day better than we understand his. Not 75 years since the Constitution was written, some were already working to obscure our nation’s identity and history, defending slavery and setting us on the path to civil war. Lincoln responded as we should respond, by examining the facts.
In the Cooper Union speech Lincoln delivered as a presidential candidate in 1858, he carefully documented the voting records of “the thirty-nine framers of the original Constitution, and the seventy-six members of the Congress which framed the amendments thereto” in regards to slavery and demonstrated that “our fathers – the men who made the Constitution – decided this same Constitutional question in our favor, long ago – decided it without division among themselves”.
“We do,” he said, “in common with our fathers, who framed the Government under which we live, declare our belief that slavery is wrong”. He pleaded with his audience to “speak as they spoke, and act as they acted upon it. This is all Republicans ask – all Republicans desire – in relation to slavery. As those fathers marked it, so let it be again marked, as an evil not to be extended, but to be tolerated and protected only because of and so far as its actual presence among us makes that toleration and protection a necessity.”
Slavery existed on this continent before there was an America and, as Lincoln said while debating Stephen Douglass, “The fathers of the Government expected and intended the institution of slavery to come to an end. They expected and intended that it should be in the course of ultimate extinction.”
Lincoln appealed to the founders’ example to defend his own opposition to slavery – he never imagined they would be themselves accused of favoring that evil, but that is where we find ourselves today.
To those who would expand slavery, Lincoln complained “You will rule or ruin in all events” and “It was not we, but you, who discarded the old policy of the fathers”.
We, too, live among some who would “rule or ruin in all events”, those who – in Milton’s words – think it “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”. They use our fading memories against us and discard the old policy of the fathers, calling into question even our fundamental agreement that “all men are created equal”.
Please, let’s read some history (and Mr. Lincoln’s speeches are a great place to start) before we surrender our rightful pride in the founders’ vision for a free country.