Of All the Things to Forget

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.


My Second Conviction

It was my second conviction in a month.  The prosecution called their witnesses –modern commentators at the peak of their popularity – and I called a witness, too, but his age and obscurity made that a colossal mistake.

It was a cold case, and their witnesses speculated confidently about the defendants’ character.  (My witness had only lived among the defendants and their children.)  Their witnesses forcefully denounced the crime of which they accused the defendants.  (My witness had merely eradicated that crime, following instructions from the defendants.)  Their witnesses lived, they said, for justice.  (My witness was just the last in a long train of men to die for it.)

Well, as I said, it was my second conviction in a month.  In the court of public opinion, disputing the idea that America and its founders were racists now makes you a racist, and not even eye-witnesses like Mr. Abraham Lincoln can defend America against its passionate accusers.

I don’t question the accusers’ sincerity so much as their accuracy; not the fullness of their hearts, only the fullness of their heads.  They speak as if the United States was conceived in Eden among a race of unfallen creatures and, like the snake, our founders led those innocents into the sin of slavery.  It is ineffective, I have learned, to point out that slavery had long existed on every continent, or that by declaring the equality of “all men” the founders really intended the revolutionary phrase “all men”.

There was never a plan for getting slavery into this nation, only for getting it out.  The founders’ Declaration of Independence and their efforts to abolish the slave trade make that clear – especially so when we remember that for much of that period they were fighting for their lives.  The mandate Mr. Lincoln felt to keep slavery on the path to extinction makes that clear, and the votes of the American people to support that mandate, and the violent rebellion of those who opposed that mandate, and the lives of half a million men sacrificed to finally decide if that mandate would be fulfilled.

To America’s accusers, this is all woefully inadequate, but what if they had been alive in the age of slavery?  As it happens, we don’t need to wonder because they are alive in the age of slavery.  A new class of persons has been declared less than human, and from them we tear not only freedom but arms and legs and life.   And the accusers, so anxious to charge their fathers and grandfathers with brutality, are strangely quiet.

Here is the heart of the matter.  The accusers speak incessantly of right and wrong, but morality is their tool, not their objective.  For Progressivism to work, the present must defeat the past.  Our history must be emptied of its nobility and inspiration.  A new history must be written, hiding and distorting the past, projecting upon it the assumptions of the present.  A new ethic must emerge, shaming those who contest the distortions.

Though I have been twice shamed as a racist for defending our nation (and this may make three), I maintain that there is much in American history for all of us to honor, especially our foundational truth that all men are created equal.  Our nation’s founders were born into a culture just as we were born into a culture, and they, like Mr. Lincoln, spent themselves to change it for the better. For all of our fervent talk about justice, I wonder if we will do so well.