Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Lincoln And King

When Abraham Lincoln died after having been assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, Secretary of war Edward Stanton said, “Now he belongs to the ages. There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen."

Lincoln, who always had a modest appreciation of his own merits, probably would have disagreed that he was a perfect ruler; or, at least, he might have made some joke about it. Lincoln and humor were always on good terms with each other. A heckler in an audience once charged he was “two-faced.” Lincoln stopped in mid-sentence and shouted back at the heckler, “If I had two faces, do you think I’d be wearing this one?”

On August 28 of this year, the nation will be celebrating in Washington DC, within sight of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.


Lincoln’s Second Inaugural -- delivered on March 4, 1865, about a month before the end of the Civil War on April 9 and a little more than a month before Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, Good Friday -- ends with a plea for peace at the expected close of a brutal war. The last paragraph is an eloquent plea for national concord:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

But more martial notes are earlier sounded, and Lincoln here views the horrors of the war as a Godly judgment. The body of the speech on slavery and God’s judgment on the nation begins with this trumpet blast:

“Both [the North and the South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

But Lincoln – and, more importantly, the God of Abraham -- does judge. Between man’s purposes in time and God’s purposes in eternity, the great Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard reminds us, “there is an infinite qualitative difference.” Lincoln was sensible of the difference:

“The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

These words, graven on the North Wall of the Lincoln Memorial, were burned into the brain and bone of King and other notable black leaders such as Fredrick Douglas. They fittingly serve as a backdrop for the “I Have A Dream” speech.

Like Lincoln, Martin Luther King belongs to the ages. His justly celebrated speech compares well with other famous speeches. Both Lincoln and King were prose poets of a high order. Lincoln occupied the public stage at a time when the world was moving from the Victorian Age towards Edwardian Age. Although King was a modern, he was also preeminently a Baptist preacher given to adorning his speeches with Biblical and other references.

The “I Have A Dream” speech, originally designed by King as an homage to Lincoln's “Gettysburg Address” and timed to correspond to the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, was studded with scriptural references, as befitted a Baptist preacher. The anaphoric use of the phrase “I have a dream” in the speech appeared to have been an improvisation of the moment after singer Mahalia Jackson cried out to King from the crowd, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.”



On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King did, and the wobbly knees of black oppression buckled.

5 comments:

peter brush said...

In the Gettysburg Address The Lincoln said that in 1776 the country was founded in dedication to "the proposition that all men are created equal." Of course, this is false on two counts. The country wasn't founded in 1776 but circa 1789, and putting aside whatever was meant by the "equality" clause in the Declaration, there was no mention of equality, zero, in the Constitution.

In the 1865 inaugural address Lincoln suggests that it was the South that "made" the Civil War, says that the "the insurgents would rend the Union even by war..." But, the Confederate States had no inclination to invade the North, no inclination to change the North's social arrangements previously accepted by the U.S. Constitution. Jefferson Davis,in his 1861 inaugural address said the South was "moved by no interest or passion to invade the rights of others, anxious to cultivate peace and commerce with all nations, if we may not hope to avoid war, we may at least expect that posterity will acquit us of having needlessly engaged in it." There should be no question which nation initiated the war, and no question that at the end of the day the Constitution would be changed in the direction of centralization, no question that the notion of government by consent of the governed would now be qualified if not destroyed.

It may not have been unique to him or the Republican Party, but one thing that strikes me upon re-reading Lincoln's second inaugural is his use of the phrase, "the Government." It is emblematic, perhaps, of the transformation of the nation through the War. True, the Republican Party was not statist in the sense that we have now become through the good offices of folks like Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Baraq Obama. But,it was responsible for an activist centralized national government on a moral crusade unrelated to the Constitution's purposes. It did set the tone for the emasculation of the States that, after all, had created a federal government of limited (i.e., enumerated) powers.

Say what you want about The Emancipator; neither he nor his party were conservative. The Republican Party is not primarily responsible for the tyrannical national Government through which we subjects are controlled, but in viewing itself as the party of Lincoln, and in viewing the country as dedicated to an egalitarian idea, it has been, and continues to be, in no position to forcefully resist. I'm all in favor of consideration of amendments proposed by Mark Levin; God Bless him whether or no he split rails in his Philadelphia childhood. But, I'm afraid he too doesn't see the problem with Lincoln, Locke, or the elevation of (one clause of)the Declaration. We don't favor secession, slavery, or Jim Crow, but we should be able to agree with President Davis in favoring an
"American idea that governments rest on the consent of the governed, and that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish them at will whenever they become destructive of the ends for which they were established. The declared purpose of the compact of the Union from which we have withdrawn was to "establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity;" and when, in the judgment of the sovereign States composing this Confederacy, it has been perverted from the purposes for which it was ordained, and ceased to answer the ends for which it was established, a peaceful appeal to the ballot box declared that, so far as they are concerned, the Government created by that compact should cease to exist."

Don Pesci said...

Some few comments on what you have written:

Part 1

“The country wasn't founded in 1776 but circa 1789, and putting aside whatever was meant by the "equality" clause in the Declaration, there was no mention of equality, zero, in the Constitution.”

Not exactly. Lincoln said that that the nation was founded ON THE PROPOSITION that all men are created equal, a reference to some lines in the Declaration of Independence, written by men who had come under the influence of enlightenment thought, the Glorious English Revolution, John Locke and Montesquieu. The GOVERNMENT was founded at the constitutional convention; the NATION had, in addition to the constitution, other antecedents reaching all the way back to Magna Carta. John Adams’ appeal for independence from England had no roots in either a Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution, both of which arose out of a call for independence soundly anchored in English liberties.

“In the 1865 inaugural address Lincoln suggests that it was the South that ‘made’ the Civil War, says that the ‘the insurgents would rend the Union even by war...’"

There probably is a legitimate quarrel concerning who threw the first military stone in the Civil War. Lincoln thought the firing on Fort Sumner, a national fort he was attempting to fortify after a Southern blockade, was a pretty obvious first stone throw.

“But, the Confederate States had no inclination to invade the North…”

The inclination would not have been practical militarily or politically.

“…no inclination to change the North's social arrangements previously accepted by the U.S. Constitution…”

Well sure, Lincoln said he had no intention of disturbing slavery in the states where it already existed prior to the firing on Fort Sumner. In the light of his Emancipation Proclamation, it is an open question whether he was being disingenuous.

Don Pesci said...

Part 2

“There should be no question which nation initiated the war, and no question that at the end of the day the Constitution would be changed in the direction of centralization, no question that the notion of government by consent of the governed would now be qualified if not destroyed.”

Right. War and the ever present imperial temptation does tend to lead to a centralization of powers.

“True, the Republican Party was not statist in the sense that we have now become through the good offices of folks like Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Baraq Obama. But it was responsible for an activist centralized national government on a moral crusade unrelated to the Constitution's purposes. It did set the tone for the emasculation of the States that, after all, had created a federal government of limited (i.e., enumerated) powers.”

No question that in Lincoln’s mind moral political solutions trump immoral political solutions, and you are right to ascribe excessive executive centralization to “Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Baraq Obama,” all progressive statists. The emasculation of state’s rights by the northern power during the Civil War is part of the mythological rational of southern states that wanted to establish a separate government. Lincoln wanted a uniform government – which is to say, he wanted to preserve the union and the nation as it existed following the signing of the U.S. Constitution.

“Say what you want about The Emancipator; neither he nor his party was conservative. The Republican Party is not primarily responsible for the tyrannical national Government through which we subjects are controlled, but in viewing itself as the party of Lincoln, and in viewing the country as dedicated to an egalitarian idea, it has been, and continues to be, in no position to forcefully resist.”

But the Republican Party HAS embraced both Lincoln and – just to mention one modern conservative – Bill Buckley, who forcefully resisted the statist imperative.

“I'm all in favor of consideration of amendments proposed by Mark Levin; God Bless him whether or no he split rails in his Philadelphia childhood. But, I'm afraid he too doesn't see the problem with Lincoln, Locke, or the elevation of (one clause of) the Declaration. We don't favor secession, slavery, or Jim Crow…”

I too like some of Mark Levin’s prescriptions. But secession founders upon the inescapable effect of secession: You cannot allow secession and have a nation. The nation was, as you point out, established through an assent to Constitutional provisions. But it was the WHOLE PEOPLE that assented to formation, and only the whole people can assent to dissolution.

Jefferson Davis did not get this, which is one of the reasons why Lincoln went to war.

peter brush said...

The bottom line is that the Republican Party was founded on, and acted on, a commitment to a moral principle not found in the Constitution. This commitment obviously involved an activist central government; i.e. The Civil War. The purpose of the war was to force the South back into the Union. And, when the war was won, the commitment involved amending the Constitution in the direction of centralization, of federal power over the states.
The point isn't that getting rid of slavery wasn't a good thing to do. Rather, it is that the Republican Party was not founded in a commitment to limited government, but in a commitment to social justice. It paved the way for all those executives, judges, and legislators over the decades now who either misread the Constitution to find in it a commitment to social justice or who consider the objective of social justice more important than constitutional and legal technicalities.
In short, Lincoln and the original Republicans were RINOs. Or, as M.E.Bradford, appropriating Oakshotte, put it; Lincoln and the Republicans gave us a teleocracy where our Constitution had given us a nomocratic government. Our great problem, one I fear too late to solve, is getting the Federal government, all three branches plus the bureaucracies,to behave not with an eye to social justice but to the Constitution and the law. The Republican Party is our only available vehicle, and our frustration with it has to do with the fact that it wasn't originally designed to perform a conservative, let alone, reactionary function.

peter brush said...

The Lincoln/MLKjr. misunderstanding of the Founding is a recipe for endless revolution. How often do we hear that we've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go? Unfortunately, we'll be hearing it in perpetuity.
The abolitionist movement contained within it anti-constitutional sentiment. The Constitution was understood to be immoral at worst, and incomplete at best because of its tacit endorsement of slavery. The Republican Party may not have been anti-constitution, but it bought into the notion that the Founders had given us a morally flawed Constitution.
The crisis we've reached today is a result of decades of bi-partisan conventional wisdom to the effect that the Constitution is growing to accommodate equality of ever grander proportions. I'll bet Abe Lincoln didn't know that Sherman marched through Georgia to install gay marriage.
We need a Constitutional Liberty party. The question is whether the Goldwater/Reagan/Teaparty wing can seize control of the Republican Party before the country is simply too far gone.
-------------
Garrison argued for "immediate and complete emancipation of all slaves". On July 4, 1854 he went so far as to publicly burn a copy of the Constitution condemning it as "a Covenant with Death, an Agreement with Hell,"

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