February 12th marks the 201st birthday of Abraham Lincoln. There is much that we can learn today from this great champion of the Constitution and of the principles of the American founding.
This is especially true today, when our founding principles are under relentless attack. Even in Lincoln’s time, these principles were “denied, and evaded, with no small show of success,” as Lincoln himself put it . Lincoln dedicated all of his public life to the preservation of these principles, and we should aspire to live up to his example.
Lincoln knew that the eternal truths of the Declaration must be guarded by the carefully balanced republic of the Constitution. His beautiful analogy for the relationship between the Declaration and the Constitution, where he likened the former to a golden apple and the latter to a “picture of silver, framed around it,” is well worth quoting: “The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple-not the apple for the picture.”
It fell upon Lincoln, as a matter of historical circumstance, to guide the nation through a bloody civil war to eradicate the evil of slavery and to forge the two divergent regions into “a more perfect Union.” It is easy to underestimate the gravity of the choices Lincoln had to make, treading carefully between the Scylla of letting the Union fall apart, and the Charybdis of maintaining it at the cost of the Constitutional Republic.
Lincoln wanted freedom for the slaves, but he was no progressive. He was a prudent statesman, as Allen C. Guelzo points out in a First Principles essay, and in this prudence lies the essence of his conservatism. He recognized the inherent flaws and limitations of human nature. He did not want to somehow “supersede” or “go beyond” the Constitution, as progressives do. He instead wanted to see his beloved country live up to its founding principles, while upholding the Constitution.
We are not alone in the fight to preserve the self-evident truths that are the foundations of this nation. Nor is our fight new, or unique. We are but the newest carriers of the torch of American liberty in the midst of the darkness of despotism. It is a sometimes daunting but always honorable duty, one in which we have Honest Abe as a most shining example. So let us act as he did, with the goal “that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken.”