My current podcast is a discussion with a most excellent scholar, Michael Paulsen, on the book he has coauthored with his son, Luke Paulsen, introducing the U. S. Constitution to the general reader. Good as the book is in many respects, it did surprise me with its embrace of the idea that the Constitution of 1787 was a pro-slavery document.
In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln reprises the brevity and complexity that has made his Gettysburg Address so well known and so cherished. He also reprises the Biblical allusions and spirit that animated some of that earlier speech. But the tone is strikingly different. For us, the speech rings tragically in our imaginations because of its author’s fate—known well to us, but as yet unknown to him. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural is framed in terms of eternity and clouded by the inscrutability of God’s mind. It takes this perspective because of his very different aim: unity in the aftermath of approaching victory.
Of all the vapidities behind the claim that President Obama can invoke the 14th Amendment to raise the debt ceiling unilaterally, the crowning asininity must be the comparison of this to the Civil War and of him to Lincoln.
Lincoln himself tried to warn us that the greatest threat to liberty in future generations would be demagogues trying to play Lincoln when the times did not require it. Burke, for his part, tried to tell us that exceptions—and the Civil War was most certainly that—were not rules.
Sean Wilentz evidently got neither memo before writing an op-ed in the New York Times urging the President, who to his credit has rejected such calls, to “invok[e] the Constitution in this emergency.” By this Wilentz at first seemed to mean the debt clause of the 14th amendment—except that, to pay careful attention to his argument, he didn’t.
Most of our national holidays have some connection with the Civil War. Memorial Day has the most direct relationship, as an expression of national unity between North and South. The remembrance reminds us that a nation cannot be reduced to an army nor to a marketplace. Plato in the Republic and human experience show how the political community embraces those necessary purposes and others beyond them, which fulfill the higher purposes of life. As individuals and as nations we live for those higher purposes.
On the eve of the Civil War Abraham Lincoln plead with the Southern States to renounce secession and remain in the Union. He concluded his First Inaugural with these haunting lines:
I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle–field, and patriot grave, to every living” heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.