What Would Lincoln Say About The Constitution And The Court

The Meaning of Lincoln: How He Changed America
by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.
Author of The Words Lincoln Lived By and Lincoln on Communication

The U.S. Constitution gave us a confederation.  Abraham Lincoln gave us a nation.

Prior to Lincoln it was common to refer to the United States in the plural. “The United States are.” After Lincoln, it has become customary to refer to the United States in the singular. “The United States is.”

If Abraham Lincoln were alive today, he would be troubled that many Americans—including some U.S. Supreme Court justices–regard the Constitution like holy Scripture. 

The writing of the Constitution was too recent for Lincoln to regard it as sacred and inerrant.   He knew the Constitution was not a golden tablet handed down from on high. Lincoln knew about the deal-making and the vote-swapping that took place in Philadelphia behind closed doors.  

They decided not to give women the right to vote. And the slave states got a deal.  For tax purposes and voting representation, slaves would count as a numerical fraction —three-fifths of a white male.

The business of writing laws has been compared to making sausage. And writing the U.S. Constitution was no exception.

The founding fathers, far from being divinely inspired, had already tried once and gotten things totally wrong in 1777 when they wrote the Articles of Confederation.

George Washington, in fact, wasn’t the first President of the United States.   The first President  to serve a full term after the Articles of Confederation was ratified was a man by the name of John Hanson.

The Constitution that was written in 1787–the one that is now regarded as a sacred document and whose words are divinely inspired–was another try by, gasp, politicians. 

Lincoln was a lawyer, and a good one. A lawyer’s choice of words is deliberate. He understood that the original intent of  the Constitution was to provide a framework for the people of a changing, evolving society to make laws to govern themselves with. That was what its writers intended.  It was not the words themselves.  Lincoln knew how dangerous it is to read the words –not the purpose–of the Constitution too strictly.

His was the generation of the Dred Scott decision, probably the worst Supreme Court decision in American history.

The Dred Scott Justices set out to discover the original intent of the men who wrote the 1787 Constitution. They concluded, rightly or wrongly, that those men did not regard African Americans as citizens. Hence, the descendants of those African Americans, almost a century later, had no citizen rights either. Those same Justices also ruled that Congress had no right to prohibit the spread of slavery. The Missouri Compromise thus was null and void.

And that decision, historians believe, led to the Civil War.

If the Court is now committed to viewing all laws through the lens of the original intent of the Constitution’s authors, the Court ignores profound changes that have taken place since 1787. We have no business going back to a time before the Civil War when the United States was a factious union of jealous, petulant states that thought of themselves as little republics. A confederacy, if you will; not a sovereign, indivisible nation.

That approach would set aside all the hard, bitter, bloody lessons of the Civil War. And it would disremember the wisdom of Lincoln.

When Lincoln gave his first inaugural address, he did not refer to the United States as a “nation” a single time. He called it “the Union.” Why? Because Lincoln was becoming president of a confederation.

Lincoln came to understand that a confederation is too fragile to survive rough treatment. When serious rebellion broke out in the slave states, the federal government—Washington—had to have more power or the whole thing would disintegrate, just like every other republic that had preceded it.

All republics eventually commit suicide because of internal factions is what John Adams said.  That came very close to happening.

At Gettysburg, just two years into the Civil War, Lincoln referred to the United States as a “nation” five different times. 

Lincoln knew what he was saying.  Something profound had happened.

Today, those who hate Washington, who glorify individual states, and vilify the federal government just might succeed in giving us another confederation.

And if they succeed, they will undo Lincoln’s legacy and unlearn many a hard-bought lesson.

—From the forthcoming book Lincoln on Communication.

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Gene Griessman is an award-winning professional speaker, actor, and consultant. His video “Lincoln on Communication” is owned by thousands of corporations, libraries, and government organizations. He has spoken at conventions all over the world. To learn more about his presentations, contact us at 404-435-2225 or abe@mindspring.com Learn more about Gene Griessman at presidentlincoln.com and atlantaspeakersbureau.com

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