Children of Abraham

To claim Lincoln's legacy is to define our nation's soul. But the advocates of "equality" distort the meaning of his message.

The Astonishing Success Of Ken Burns's Civil War documentary on PBS last fall has touched off a full-scale fad among the public and has revived the quarrels about the lasting significance of the Civil War. It seems the Civil War won’t go quietly into the history books. We keep coming back to the Civil War because it is the fundamental conflict about what America means, and what America’s principles are. The Civil War has serious lessons for contemporary American politics and may shape the debates of the 1990s over equality, civil rights, and federalism.

Historian Dwight Lowell Dumond called the Civil War “the most interesting war in all history.” There have been over 90,000 books and articles published on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, including even the unlikely Lincoln and the Coming of the Caterpillar Tractor. Each generation seems to go through its own Civil War fad, often spurred by a new epic treatment of the subject, such as Carl Sandburg’s several volumes back in the 1920s. The Burns film surely ranks as one of the most ambitious and stunning treatments ever, capturing the Homeric and paradoxical character of the Civil War. The Civil War can be considered the first “total war”-a preview of the mass slaughter of World War I. Even so, Winston Churchill’s judgment is equally true that the American Civil War was the last war fought between gentlemen.

But the enduring importance of the Civil War lies in its political dimension, in its legacy to the subsequent political thought of America. In his afterword to the film, Burns says, “Our consideration of the Civil War now raises all of the questions that it did then.” This implies that some of the questions were not settled, or at least have become unsettled. Early in the first episode, historian Shelby Foote, the author of a multivolume narrative of the Civil War who serves as the principal commentator in the Burns film, frames the task rightly:

“Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. I believe that firmly. It defined us .... The Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to what we became, good and bad things. And it is very necessary, if you’re going to understand the American character in the 20th century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the 19th century. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.”

Everyone agrees with Foote that the Civil War defined America, but they disagree about what that definition means and whether it is for good or ill. Depending on whom we consult, the Civil War was either a noble struggle to complete the unfinished work of the Founding Fathers and to enhance equality as the central idea of American politics or a desperate struggle to check the expansion and centralization of power in the federal government. Hence the controversy over the central figure of the Civil War: Abraham Lincoln.

The right is especially divided over Lincoln. His critics say that he was America’s Cromwell, that Lincoln’s insistence on equality was a cornerstone for today’s radical egalitarianism, and that the Civil War was a crucial step on the road to today’s federal leviathan. Lincoln’s defenders say he resolved the inherent contradiction of the Founding—slavery—through a principled understanding of free government that should be rearticulated today.

The chief issue raised by the Burns film is equality. “Every nation has a central idea from which all its minor thoughts radiate,” Lincoln said. At Gettysburg, Lincoln concisely summarized the central idea of America as “the proposition” that “all men are created equal.” Lincoln viewed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as harmonious and complementary political charters. The Declaration abstractly set out the just ends of government-to secure the natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness-and the Constitution set out the means to these ends. The rule of law, Lincoln thought, could not make sense without reference to these ends, which are based, remember, on the “self-evident truths” derived from the laws of nature. For Lincoln, as for the Founders, equality and liberty were complementary doctrines. Our liberties were based on our equal right not to be governed without our consent.

The Burns film reveals the problematic character of equality in the American political tradition, especially as it relates to the Civil War. At one point, for example, T Bums says that Lincoln at Gettysburg “probably said more than he knew,” suggesting that Lincoln foreshadowed an understanding of the meaning of the war that he didn’t comprehend. Burns and one of his commentators, historian Barbara Fields, supply this understanding in the final episode of the film. Burns says that America is “constantly trying to enlarge the definition and deepen the meaning of ‘all men are created equal’ ” and that “we have not fulfilled the promises that we made at the end of the war.” Burns endorses with enthusiasm Fields’s “struggle” over the meaning of the war in her commentary, in which she says that the war “established a standard that will not mean anything until we have finished the work .... If some citizens live in houses and others live on the street, the Civil War is still going on. It is still to be fought, and ... it can still be lost.”

It is deliciously ironic that Fields would try to appropriate Lincoln and the Civil War for today’s homeless, given Lincoln’s injunction “let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another.” This is, of course, precisely what today’s egalitarians wish to do. Yet Burns and Fields’s comments make explicit how the meaning of equality has changed. Fields presumes the legitimacy of contemporary radical egalitarianism- the leveling kind that requires massive government power. Clearly this kind of equality opposes liberty, which is why libertarians have rightly attacked equality as it is manifested today. What is less clear is how much of the blame for modem egalitarianism should be assigned to Lincoln and the Civil War.

When the question is framed this way, one soon discovers that arguing about Lincoln and the Civil War entails arguing about the meaning of the American Founding. Lincoln followed the Founders in believing that equality is the basis of individual natural rights. James Madison, in the famous Federalist 10, wrote that the first duty of a government founded on equal rights and individual liberty is to safeguard the unequal results such a regime will inevitably produce. Humans are not equal in natural attributes such as strength and intelligence, but they are equal in the decisive political respect that they cannot be governed without their consent and that their rights are inviolable by government, no matter how large the majority that wishes to violate their rights. This distinction, though subtle, was clear to the Founders and to Lincoln, but it is largely lost today.

Lincoln explicitly rejected the idea that the standard of equality is meaningless unless perfectly and comprehensively achieved. Lincoln knew what today’s egalitarians refuse to see, that the drive to have equality comprehensively and “perfectly attained” is a formula for tyranny. In criticizing the “obvious violence” done to the “plain unmistakable language” of the Declaration of Independence by the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1857 (which held that the black man had no rights that the white man was bound to respect), Lincoln said:

“I think the authors of the notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare men equal in all respects. This did not mean to say that all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal-equal in ‘certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ .... They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence.”

What is important to note about the Burns and Fields view of equality is not just that it is historically and philosophically wrong, but that it is based on a wholly different premise than the view of Lincoln and the Founders. In their efforts to “enlarge the definition” of equality, Burns and Fields are essentially saying that we are duty bound to understand equality (and other political principles) according to the sentiment of the moment. This sort of historicism (or Progress with a capital P), which has become so commonplace as to be beyond controversy among our intellectual elites, holds that the words in our nation’s political charters are without any fixed meaning and are merely empty vessels into which we are free to pour our own meaning. Call it the deconstructionist view of equality and the Civil War.

It would be mistaken to attribute the radicalization of equality in America to Lincoln, or even to Karl Marx. The Progressive movement was the real culprit. Within Progressive thought, “progress” replaces nature as the ground of politics. Hence, Progressivism rejects natural rights. For example, Richard Hoftstadter wrote in The American Political Tradition that “no man who is as well abreast of modern science as the Fathers were of eighteenth century science believes any longer in unchanging human nature. Modem humanistic thinkers who seek for a means by which society may transcend eternal conflict and rigid adherence to property rights as its integrating principles can expect no answer in the philosophy of balanced government as it was set down by the Constitution makers of 1787.” And Carl Becker, in his otherwise fine 1922 book The Declaration of Independence, wrote that “To ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false is essentially a meaningless question.”

Progressive thought begins with the premise that the revolution in natural science makes necessary a revolution in political science as well. Certainly Woodrow Wilson thought so. Wilson wrote that American government “was constructed upon the Whig theory of political dynamics, which was a sort of unconscious copy of the Newtonian theory of the universe.” But Darwin had eclipsed Newton; thus, Wilson thought, “Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice.” Nature cannot tell us anything definite about the rights of man or the limits of government because nature is changeable.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.