Abraham Lincoln and the U.S. Constitution
By Les Young
Aug 8, 2006, 00:00

(A speech delivered to the Yadkin River Patriots Chapter of the DAR, Albemarle, North Carolina, on the occasion of Constitution Week, September 19, 1997.) 



Madam Regent, Madam Program Chairman, Daughters of the American Revolution:


Year after year, it is you who remind the American public and instruct our school children about our United States Constitution and its promises of liberty and freedom.


People throughout the world wonder in amazement as American governments peacefully pass Power from one Administration to the next and American citizens trust instinctively in the promises of our Bill of Rights.   Again, this year, I am honored to be with you to celebrate Constitution Week.  


Quite often, we marvel at what was accomplished at Philadelphia in 1787.   Equally often, we praise the wise judgment of the People to demand a Bill of Rights which would define our individual freedoms.


For today's topic, I've come to discuss an altogether different subject than these.   It is said that the U.S. Constitution was written and adopted in the 18th century, tested by fire and confirmed in the 19th. 


Before the Civil War, our country was known in the plural, "These United States of America."  Since that War, it is known in the singular, "'The United States of America."  


A State's Right to secede from the Union, to obtain a divorce so to speak, was proclaimed widely prior the Civil War, often by people living in Northern States.  After Appomattox, the Right to secede is a mute issue.


The power of Abraham Lincoln's words at Gettysburg and elsewhere, and the strength and determination of his Army and Navy, transformed our Country.   It is for this reason, among others, that I choose to share with you what I have come to understand was Abraham Lincoln's conception, in part, of the U.S. Constitution and his determination to honor it and to follow it.


When Lincoln was a 28 year old Illinois State Legislator, an event occurred in his State that shocked him.  Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist Presbyterian minister and newspaper editor lived in Alton, Illinois.   Three times, in St. Louis and Alton, Lovejoy's printing presses were stolen, thrown in the Mississippi River or otherwise destroyed.   Each time Lovejoy obtained a new press and continued publishing his abolitionist papers.   One dark November night in 1837, a mob came for a fourth time to destroy his press, which he had locked in a warehouse.  The mob set fire to the warehouse, and when Lovejoy sought to stop them, he was shot and killed. 


Most Illinois settlers originated from Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas, and feelings against abolitionists ran high.  Although this was a delicate political issue for Lincoln, he determined that he must make a public statement against mob action such as that at Alton.   He chose to do so at a meeting of the Young Men's Lyceum in Springfield.  This is what Abraham Lincoln said.


"Whenever the vicious portions of population shall be permitted to gather and burn churches, ravage and rob provision stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this Government cannot last." 


Lincoln was confirming our Bill of Rights.  


By the early 1850's, fifteen years later, the cry of Manifest Destiny gripped the nation.  Now Texas and California belonged to the Union.  Our borders with Canada and Mexico were established.   It was America's God-given duty to settle the Continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific.


Not only were hordes of People moving from East to West, but also ship-load after ship-load of immigrants crossed the Atlantic, seeking freedom and prosperity in America.   Among these were Irishmen, Germans, Scandinavians and others.  


One result of the arrival of such vast numbers of immigrates was the surprising rise of a new political party, the American Party, which in the early 1850's won control of the Massachusetts Legislature and Governor's office, Mayoral offices in Philadelphia and Washington and received large numbers of votes in many states.  The 1856 American Party Convention, also known as the Know-Nothing Party, "declared that only native-born Americans should hold office, and foreign-born should vote only after continued residence of twenty-one years." 


In a letter to his best friend, Joshua Speed, Lincoln replied to a query about this American Party, providing us a glimpse of his view at that time of the Constitution and its promises for individual freedom.  This is what Abraham Lincoln wrote.


"I am not a Know-Nothing.  That is certain.  How can I be?  How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people?   Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid.   As a nation, we began by declaring 'all men are created equal.'  When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.'  When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty - to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, without the base alloy of hypocrisy."


It is clear that Lincoln understood that America is a Nation of immigrants. 


By 1860, when Lincoln was running for President, we know that he held two firm views about the U.S. Constitution. 

1)         That a State does not have the Right to secede from the Union and

2)         That Congress alone has authority to determine if Slavery is to be permitted or excluded in the National Territories and New States.


The second of these views was expressed clearly by Lincoln in his landmark February 1860 speech at the Cooper Union Institute in New York City.   Lincoln argued that our "Founding Fathers," those Framers of the Constitution and the Members of Congress who drew up the Bill of Rights, intended that Congress have Authority over decisions relating to Slavery in the National Territories and New States.  To support his assertion, Lincoln pointed to the Northwest Ordinance which specifically prohibits Slavery in the Northwest Territory, later to become the five States of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.  That Ordinance was passed in 1787 by a Congress containing within its number many of these same "Founding Fathers,' none of whom denied Congress's Authority to determine the Slavery issue in the Northwest Territory. 


By contrast, the Slave States of Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi each were formed from States in which Slavery existed, not from a National Territory.  


The main political conflict in our country during the 1850's concerned the extension of Slavery into National Territories and New States.   Lincoln wanted to prohibit the extension of Slavery into these areas.   His opponents wanted Citizens in each New State to determine for themselves, by vote, if Slavery were to be permitted or excluded from that State, that vote occurring after a State is organized, and after Slavery was introduced into that Territory.          


Lincoln said that he did not know what to do with Slavery where it already existed, to abolish it might be worst than allowing it to continue.  However, he maintained that we do know that Slavery is wrong and that we must not allow it to spread into the National Territories and New States.  This, he said, was his official view on the matter, even though his personal wish was that all men, everywhere, could be free.


After Lincoln was elected, but before he took office, South Carolina and five other states, not North Carolina, took action to seceded from the Union.   Lincoln's view throughout was that the rebelling States remained within the Union, never having left it, and that factions therein were merely in rebellion. 


After Lincoln took office, the first shot was fired by Confederate troops on Fort Sumter, a Union fort in Charleston harbor.   Congress was not in session, so Lincoln called up troops on his own authority, not waiting for Congress.  He considered such action to be within the President's Constitutional power in time of emergency.


Soon, many elements in the North sought to have Lincoln free the Slaves.  Lincoln refused to do so, saying that this was not within his Constitutional authority as President.   Even, when in September 1862, he announced his intention to free those Slaves on January 1, 1863 in such areas where active rebellion remained, he did so not with the power of the Presidency, but rather "by virtue of the powers in me vested as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion."


According to Lincoln, the freeing of these Slaves was a military necessity. 

Freeing them would interfere with the Rebels opportunity to use Slave labor to aid their War effort.


Freeing Slaves elsewhere was an altogether different matter.  In areas where there was no actual armed rebellion - in Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia, and in parts of Virginia (Norfolk) and Louisiana (New Orleans) which had been brought under Union control and authority - Emancipation must come from Congress and the States through an amendment to the Constitution, an act which was accomplished in 1865 by the 13th Amendment. 


With respect to Lincoln's honoring the Constitution, one authority writes, "Lincoln meant to govern these people when order was restored."


On still another issue, Lincoln differed with many of his generation.  He maintained that our country was founded in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence; not in 1787 with the Constitution, as had become popular doctrine among many who found it convenient to down-play the Declaration of Independence and its claim that "all men are created equal."  


Lincoln did not allow us to forget the Declaration of Independence; not then, not now.  


He opened his Gettysburg Address, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."  


Counting back from Gettysburg, eighty-seven years takes us to 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence.  Here is where Lincoln says our country began; not in 1787, the year of the Constitution. 


Lincoln ended his Address, "that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth," thereby bestowing upon the American Experiment a great, new, universal purpose.  America as a Test, an Example of what self-government could be.


A year and a half later came Appomattox. 


Lincoln lived only a few days longer, but his ideas live on and on, perhaps down to the last generation.  We, today, all over the world, interpret the United States Constitution and the American Experiment as did Lincoln.


The United States Constitution was tested in the Civil War; confirmed and interpreted at Appomattox.




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