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.
Indeed, Progressives such as Herbert Croly saw the idea of individual rights as an irrational impediment to progress, and Woodrow Wilson sought to overcome the separation of powers in the American scheme of government for the same reason. Modem government, Progressives thought, requires visionary leaders, expert elites, and enhanced (and in principle unlimited) government power to direct and promote the grand unfolding of human progress.
One of the less understood implications of the Progressive view is that equality is really a subsidiary principle. If some people aren’t “equal” to their fellow citizens, it isn’t because their rights have been violated. Rather, it is because progress hasn’t caught up with them yet. Equality actually has a very small place in most Progressive tracts. It is important to note, for instance, that the rhetoric employed by the “multiculturalists” in academia today emphasizes not equality but “empowerment” for the “disenfranchised.” At bottom, the “empowerment” theme isn’t based on an argument for equality and genuine diversity (despite the many rhetorical bows to “diversity”), but on the view that white, Eurocentric “culture” is illegitimate and must be overthrown. In the end, the “empowerment” rhetoric reveals itself to be a manifestation of the Nietzschean will to power.
When one sees that the explicit goal of Progressivism was to refound the nation on new principles, substituting progress for nature and rejecting the Founders’ understanding of equality and natural rights, it helps put the contemporary Civil War dispute, and the revisionism that preceded it, in a new light. “The endless cycles of wheel-spinning revisionism,” as historian Lee Benson calls it, took two distinctive forms.
First, historians began to deny that the Civil War was an “irrepressible conflict,” the phrase William Seward made famous before the war. Rather, it was bumbling political leadership, or Lincoln’s ruthless ambition, that led to a “needless war.” The second and sometimes subsidiary strain was that the war’s real cause wasn’t political but economic. The cause wasn’t slavery or constitutional principle, but rather Northern industrial capitalism. (Yup, the Marxists are grinning in the background.) A closely related argument held that slavery had already reached its natural limits, was becoming less productive and economical, and therefore was probably on its way out. Remember, the original goal of Lincoln and the new Republican Party was to place slavery “in the course of ultimate extinction.” The revisionists said it was on this course anyway; therefore, it was a needless war begun for bad motives.
Much of the revisionist scholarship reflected the new Progressive view that since nature is changeable, wars are an unnecessary phenomenon. James M G. Randall, for instance, in his 1945 book Lincoln the President wrote that “one of the most colossal misconceptions is the theory that fundamental motives produce war.” But revisionism also well served the partisan motives of the Progressive movement. Just as the Progressives, beginning with Charles Beard, challenged the disinterestedness of the Framers of the Constitution to buttress the Progressive view that American government needed to be refounded on new principles, so too they needed to overcome Lincoln’s interpretation of the Civil War and his position about the eternal sufficiency of the American Founding (even as they admired Lincoln as a strong, activist president). And revisionism as a whole tended to support the Southern line that the Civil War had been “a war of Northern aggression.”
The early reaction to the revisionists was based almost wholly on categorical moral grounds. In 1945 Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., attributed the “vogue of revisionism” to “the modem tendency to seek in optimistic sentimentalism an escape from the severe demands of moral decision ... it is the offspring of our modem sentimentalism.” Taking issue directly with Randall and another leading revisionist, Avery Craven, Schlesinger wrote that “To reject the moral actuality of the Civil War is to foreclose the possibility of an adequate account of its causes.” The Dutch historian Pieter Geyl wrote in 1951 that the “vision of a ‘blundering generation’ does not do justice to the past. That vision belittles what had real greatness.” But there wasn’t much new historical investigation and evidence offered by the counter-revisionists. Surveying the scene of revision and counter-revision in 1959, Kenneth Stampp wrote that it can be “discouraging. ..that twentieth-century historians often merely go back to interpretations advanced by partisans while the war was still in progress.”
The subsequent generation of counter-revisionist scholarship delivered the hard goods. Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided and Don Fehrenbacher’s Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s did much to sort out the mangled political interpretations revisionists held. Jaffa and Fehrenbacher defended Lincoln from the charge that he was purely an opportunist and argued that the legal and practical tendencies toward the continued expansion of slavery were genuine. A major breakthrough came in 1974, with Robert William Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, which painstakingly analyzed economic and demographic data about the slave economy of the South. Their findings scotched the revisionist line that slavery was a less efficient mode of production that would eventually resolve itself of its own accord.
Fogel has revisited and expanded the analysis in his 1989 book Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. Fogel convincingly demonstrates the economic viability of the slave economy (slave farms often outproduced Northern farms), along with its gradual spread to the West. Fogel’s evidence shows that the political dispute over the expansion of slavery to the Western territories wasn’t in the least artificial or contrived. The “new synthesis of scholarship,” Fogel concludes, is that “if the foes of slavery had waited for economic forces to do their work for them, America might still be a slave society, and democracy, as we know it, might have been a subject only for the history books.” Other recent books that reinforce the older view of the political causes of the Civil War, and its inevitability, include Kenneth Stampp’s America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink and William Freehling’s The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854.
Even if Lincoln isn't held responsible for the radicalization of equality, and even if recent scholarship tends to buttress the case that the Civil War was a fundamental and unavoidable conflict, it doesn’t immediately follow that Lincoln and the Civil War should be celebrated by libertarians. There are many other aspects of the problem, such as states’ rights and the centralization of government, that must be considered. Notwithstanding Lincoln’s defenders on the right, it is easily understandable why libertarians and conservatives would be uncomfortable with, if not hostile to, Lincoln.
The broad case against Lincoln is easily made. As Llewellyn Rockwell put it recently, “he fastened the federal leviathan on the body of the old republic.” Lincoln and the Civil War led to the aggrandizement of executive power and the centralization of government. The Civil War provided the precursor to the national income tax and was the precedent for the New Deal. Clinton Rossiter, in his famous textbook on the presidency, argues that Lincoln “pushed the powers of the Presidency to a new plateau high above any conception of executive authority hitherto imagined in this country.” In fact, Don Fehrenbacher adds, “serious scholars have applied the word ‘dictator’ more often to Lincoln than any other president.” In Patriotic Gore, Edmund Wilson compared Lincoln to Lenin. Some now compare Mikhail Gorbachev ’s crackdown on the secessionist-minded Baltic republics to Lincoln’s war against secession—never mind the crucial distinction that the Baltic states never consented to join the Soviet Union in the first place.
More fundamental is the criticism of Wilmoore Kendall and George Carey, who argued in their persuasive book The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition that Lincoln’s emphasis on equality had “derailed” our authentic political heritage, which Kendall thought was a compact-oriented majoritarianism. Not to be outdone, M.E. Bradford, in his A Better Guide Than Reason, even suggests Hitler (“a firm higher law man”) as a “useful analogue” to Lincoln. (On the other hand, we should note that Hitler said that the victory of the Union was the great tragedy of American history.)
As if the direct attacks on Lincoln weren’t enough, it is equally disconcerting to note some of his admirers. Herbert Croly heaps lavish praise on Lincoln in his notorious blueprint for the Progressive movement, The Promise of American Life. Croly wrote that “the life of no other American has revealed with anything like the same completeness the peculiar moral promise of genuine democracy.”
On the contemporary scene, the book that arrests one’s attention is a collection titled Lincoln on Democracy, edited by ... Mario Cuomo! Conservative defenders of Lincoln must surely cringe when Cuomo writes, “I’ve always admired Lincoln because he’s reassuring to politicians like me.” (Emphasis added.) Cuomo has even visited and delivered a speech at Gettysburg, describing Lincoln’s presidency as a crucial turning point in the evolution of democracy. He also cited Lincoln’s remark that government exists to do what people cannot do for themselves or cannot do as well themselves as justification for Cuomo’s vision of big government.
The significance of the Cuomo project is this: Having captured the issue of equality from the Republican Party through the electoral success of the New Deal and the intellectual success of Progressivism, the Democratic party is now trying to capture Lincoln away from the Republicans as well. This comes at a propitious time for Democrats, for Republicans seem poised at last to mount a limited challenge to Democratic vulnerability over the meaning of equality, particularly on the issue of affirmative action and civil rights.
Cuomo's rhetoric on Lincoln is reminiscent of the politician Cuomo most obviously wishes to emulate-not Lincoln, but Franklin Roosevelt. Before he became president, FDR said, “I think it is time for us Democrats to claim Lincoln as one of our own.” Later, FDR stepped up his attack. “Does anyone maintain that the Republican party from 1868 to 1938 (with the possible exception of a few years under Theodore Roosevelt) was the party of Abraham Lincoln?” Like Cuomo, FDR cited Lincoln’s passage about government doing what the people cannot do for themselves as justification for New Deal measures. Despite Republican protests, FDR was so successful that by the 1940 campaign Republican nominee Wendell Willkie pleaded for an armistice in the partisan fight over Lincoln’s legacy: “It will do us no good to draw these historical illusions [sic].”
So far today the only Republican to pick up Cuomo’s thrown gauntlet is HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, but even he hasn’t built his case on a principled understanding of equality, without which any Republican rhetoric against affirmative action will be vulnerable to charges that it is merely the low politics of racial resentment. Kemp instead adapts Lincoln for the purpose of advancing the “new paradigm” theme of “empowerment”- the same term used by the radical multiculturalists on the campuses.
It is astonishing that no Republican has used Lincoln’s many statements that clearly run against the redistributionist ethic at the heart of modem liberalism. In his letter to the Democratic Republican Workingmen’s Association of New York, for example, Lincoln wrote, in words that could instantly correct Cuomo’s moral indignation about wealth, that “Property is the fruit of labor—property is desirable—it is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich, shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.”
One of the small ironies of the Cuomo collection is that it includes Lincoln’s letter to his stepbrother John D. Johnston, in which Lincoln refused Johnston’s request for charity. Lincoln instead offered to match dollar for dollar for one year what Johnston earned by working. But Johnston didn’t wish to work. Clearly, Lincoln recognized that unlimited charity will corrupt the character of the recipient, and he would likely be aghast at today’s welfare state, which offers a legal “entitlement” to charity.
For the most part, people on the right have abandoned Lincoln to the left. But in doing so we have given up solid ground on which to base a principled argument from the American tradition about the meaning and proper application of equality and, by extension, for limiting the expansion of government power. This requires making a case for Lincoln’s understanding of politics. The case for Lincoln requires not only recovering the natural-rights understanding of equality, but also understanding how these principles relate to the questions of states’ rights, majority rule, and the rule of law.
It is important to understand why Lincoln thought the argument for secession was an “ingenious sophism” that threatened the very basis of free government. Some libertarians today defend a right of secession in principle as a means of checking the power of centralized government. For instance, Nobel laureate James Buchanan delivered a paper at last year’s Mont Pelerin Society meeting arguing that a right of secession is essential in any scheme of European union. Buchanan lamented that the Civil War foreclosed this possibility in America.
But while the right to break a compact might help fight one evil—centralized government—it opens the door to another evil—majoritarianism. Secession is a two-way street. If it is right that the people of South Carolina may secede without the consent of the other states, then it is equally right for a majority of other states to “secede from” (in effect, to expel) South Carolina without the consent of South Carolina. Indeed, many Northern abolitionists in the 1840s and 1850s wanted the North to expel the South from the Union on the grounds that the slave states violated the constitutional mandate that each state have a republican form of government. What would defenders of secession say if, today, even a supermajority of states wanted to secede from California, on the grounds that California had become disproportionately powerful within the federal government (52 members of the House, sucking up more federal money than the state puts in, etc.)?
Lincoln’s view, in short, can be taken as an adaptation of Jefferson’s remark that for majorities to be rightful, they must be reasonable. In other words, there must be an antecedent purpose to the legislative authority of the people, and that purpose can only be understood within the context of the doctrines of equality and natural rights. An unqualified majoritarianism will lead to the erosion of liberty. The question of states’ rights cannot be disconnected from the substantive question of what the states intend to use their authority for.
This is where slavery must be confronted squarely. It was acknowledged at the time of the Founding, even by nearly all Southerners, that slavery in a regime of liberty was a jarring anomaly. When the Missouri question of 1820 first revealed the future conflict in its full severity, Thomas Jefferson—a slave owner—wrote: “This momentous question, like a firebell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once the death knell of the Union.” When the next step came in 1832—South Carolina’s nullification doctrine—James Madison wrote in dismay that the country was losing sight of the Founders’ understanding of the principles of the nation’s fundamental compact and denied that his and Jefferson’s Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 were a valid precedent for asserting that a single state could nullify the actions of the national government.
Slavery having been swept under the rug in the interest of compromise during the writing of the Constitution, it was becoming clear that it would be more difficult to eradicate than the Founders had hoped. Indeed, Lincoln understood that under the Constitution it was difficult to see “how [slavery] could be at once eradicated, without producing a greater evil, even to the cause of human liberty itself.” Far from being contemptuous of states’ rights, Lincoln frequently acknowledged that because slave property was protected by the Constitution, the federal government couldn’t rightly touch it in the states where it existed. He parted company with the abolitionists and argued that Congress was obligated to pass, and the states were obligated to enforce, a fugitive slave law.
The postwar Southern line that the Civil War was about states’ rights cannot really square with Lincoln’s stated views about the relation of the federal government to the states. Lincoln’s position was that slavery could only be lawfully abolished in a gradual way, by prohibiting its spread to the territories and new states (as had been done in the Ohio valley by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787—passed under the old Articles of Confederation), and by convincing the South to accept a program of compensated emancipation over several decades. Lincoln had no illusions that freed slaves would be easily assimilated into American society, which is why he favored a program of repatriation of freed slaves to Central America or Africa.
The most significant factor in the equation wasn’t states: rights or nullification or the doctrine of concurrent majorities. Rather, it was the gradual abandonment of the view that slavery was a great evil that should somehow be ended someday. Southern public opinion had hardened to the point where Lincoln’s moderate policy was impossible. In Lincoln’s view, the real cause of the Civil War was the spread of the opinion that slavery was a positive good and that there should be no legal limit to its extension. The “peculiar institution” had shed its embarrassing peculiarity. Recall Alexander Stephens’s “cornerstone” speech, which stated that the Southern constitution would be based on the “great truth” of inequality and the rightness of slavery. Stephens’s speech was merely the culmination of the writings of proslavery apologists such as George Fitzhugh and John C. Calhoun, who argued that the Declaration’s phrase “all men are created equal” really meant “all white men are created equal.” Lincoln replied that if such was the case, then each of us would be rightly enslaved by the first person we met with fairer skin. (Or if intelligence were the operative principle, then by the first person we met who was smarter.) At the same time the South came to this view, many Northern leaders, such as Lincoln’s great rival Stephen Douglas, became neutral about slavery and its further extension. Douglas was the perfect majoritarian, advancing “popular sovereignty” as the highest principle of democracy and caring not whether the people voted slavery “up or down.”
It is in the light of these changes in public opinion that the meaning of Lincoln’s famous phrase about “a new birth of freedom” becomes more clear. A people that reinterprets its fundamental charter of freedom to justify an institution (slavery) so obviously inimical to those principles cannot do so without placing at risk all of their other rights. The American Founding was preeminently a theoretical undertaking. Controverting the fundamental principles of liberty to justify slavery undermined the basis of all rights. Thus the Civil War wasn’t just about whether the Union would be preserved or slavery abolished, but whether the people would recall and cherish the great principles of the nation’s Founding, without which the cause of free government is lost.
Today in many respects public opinion about the principles of free government is in a worse state than it was before the Civil War. The mainstream of political science today teaches that the idea of natural rights is nonsensical. Today’s heresy about equality is that rights belong to groups, not to individuals. Hence the hateful doctrine has crept into Supreme Court decisions that policy must be made to serve not individuals but members of “discrete and insular minorities,” as the Court first put it in the Carolene Products case in 1938. This equality is incompatible with liberty.
The modern principles of administration by bureaucracy have trampled on the older principles of the separation of powers. Modern bureaucratic government increasingly resembles slavery in that it governs us without our consent. Bureaucracies are designed to be largely sealed off from public opinion and are only remotely accountable to the ordinary political process. Elections don’t change things very much. Bureaucratic policy and personnel carry on even if a strident ex-actor is elected president by a landslide.
Reversing this trend may require a struggle greater than the Civil War-not in terms of blood and bullets, but in terms of the change in public opinion that is necessary to bring reform about. Politics in a democracy necessarily involves teaching the people. That is why Jefferson and Madison labored so seriously over the civic education curriculum when they founded the University of Virginia. Neither of the major political parties appears willing, let alone able, to make the principled case about equality and limited government.
Reforming our government along the lines designed by the Founders may require a division of the house no less severe than that caused by Lincoln’s “house divided” speech. Rather than vilifying Lincoln as the author of centralized government (surely the blame for the centralizing effects of the Civil War must be shared equally by the South), we should study Lincoln as the model of how fundamental political realignments are made by reclaiming and rearticulating the principles of the Founding. For in one sense the poets and sentimentalists are right: The American Revolution and the Civil War are never over. Every time the people forget what they mean, they have to be fought again.
Contributing Editor Steven Hayward is director of the Claremont Institute’s Golden State Project.