As he placed his hand on the leather-bound Lincoln Bible and took the oath of office, Barack Obama deliberately evoked the memory of his hero. Not surprisingly, many comparisons between the men have been made: two tall, gangly politicians from Illinois with a gift for words but with relatively little national political experience who, to the surprise of many, won their party’s nomination and the general election, and then assumed the presidency in what has been called amoment of crisis. But remarkably little has been said about perhaps the most important comparison between the two Chief Executives: their understanding of the Constitution of the United States, which both swore to “preserve, protect and defend.” On that vital issue, what does our 16th President have to teach our 44th?
Abraham Lincoln entered the presidency with a deeply developed view of the Constitution’s meaning and significance. Alluding to Proverbs 25, he called it the “picture of silver” inside of which was the “apple of gold,” the Declaration of Independence. “I never had a feeling politically,” Lincoln declared, “that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence,” especially the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal” in their God-given natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Indeed, from his earliest days in politics, Lincoln maintained that equality of natural rights “is the great fundamental principle upon which our free institutions rest.” Americans are not bound together “by blood,” he declared; rather, it “is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.” It was the Declaration, not the Constitution, which formed the moral and political basis of the Union. The Declaration made Americans into “We the People” who then gave the Constitution its authority by their consent.
Unlike some people (especially abolitionists), however, Lincoln’s love of the Declaration never led him to denounce the Constitution or think that it should be set aside when it seemed to be in conflict with the principles of the Declaration. The Declaration and the Constitution had to go hand-in-hand so “that neither picture, or apple, shall ever be blurred, or broken.” Both were charters of freedom, and both part of the same great end: self-government.
Thus throughout his public life, Lincoln spoke and acted to keep the two together. In his early political career he was part of theWhig Party (before it disintegrated), and he embraced the “Whig” view that Congress has broad power under the Constitution’s “necessary and proper” clause to finance internal improvements like roads, canals, and railroads. Lincoln accepted this view of the Constitution not out of party loyalty but because of political principle: in his view, developing the country’s resources was a vital way to encourage the people to exercise (and be attached to) their rights, especially the right to the fruit of their own labor. For Lincoln, this right was “[m]ade so plain by our good Father inHeaven, that all feel and understand it, even down to brutes and creeping insects,” and the more individuals exercised their own right to labor, the more prosperous they would become and the more they would see the injustice of depriving others of their right. He therefore believed that the Constitution permitted federal policies that promoted the progress of free labor, which would show “to the world that free men could be prosperous.”
The idea of promoting “Liberty to all” through the Constitution (and not outside of it) underlay Lincoln’s view in the 1850s that Congress had the constitutional power to prohibit slavery in theWestern Territories (because “negro slavery is violative of” the natural liberty and equality of human beings), but did not have the power to abolish slavery in the states where it existed at the time of adoption of the Constitution. The people of many of the states would not have agreed to immediate abolition in 1787, so the Convention did not grant Congress the power. But in Article IV, section 3, the Constitution did specifically give Congress the “Power to make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting” the Territories, and so—in accord with “the great fundamental principle” of equality—it could prohibit slavery in the Western Territories as the earliest Congress did in the Northwest Territory that became Ohio, Michigan, and other states. Where Congress did not have power from the Constitution, it could not interfere with slavery; but where it did, Lincoln believed, it must promote freedom.
He knew that the Supreme Court had rejected his view in the 1858 Dred Scott decision. But, Lincoln said, the Supreme Court is not the Constitution itself, and the Constitution does not say that the Court has the final say on its meaning. The job of interpreting the Constitution belongs just as much to the president and Congress, and ultimately to the people themselves. Supreme Court decisions therefore bind everyone else only when they are indisputably “fully settled,” and Dred Scott clearly was not. In Lincoln’s view, the people and their representatives too must interpret the document because, as he told the country in his First Inaugural Address, “if the policy of the government on vital questions affecting the whole people … is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court … the people will have ceased to be their own rulers.”
The same constitutional views guided Lincoln in his speeches and actions as president, including his most famous. When he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he was very concerned that, as president, he had to articulate a constitutional basis for emancipation; so he did not free all the slaves in the US or even in all the slave states. Citing the constitutional power of commander in chief, the Proclamation freed slaves only in states where the people were “in rebellion against the United States,” and then only on the ground that it was “a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion.” Lincoln was criticized by those who thought he should do much more, and by those who thought he had no power to do what he did. He believed both criticisms were wrong constitutionally: where he had power as president, he could advance the principles of freedom; where he did not have the constitutional power, he could not. Even in his most controversial actions during the Civil War—such as suspending the writ of habeas corpus—Lincoln claimed that he always tried to follow the letter of the Constitution as closely as possible, given the overriding importance of saving the Union, without which “the Government itself would go to pieces.”
Lincoln believed that the “picture of silver” must not be tarnished in word or deed because it embodies what James Madison described as “that honorable determination, which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government” (The Federalist #39). In ratifying the Constitution through their “reflection and choice,” the American people made the idea of “the equal rights of men” into the organizing principle of their law and their lives. They made freedom their own. In Lincoln’s view, the success of the Constitution demonstrated that they made the right choice—that ordinary men and women really can govern themselves on principles of justice, not just self-interest. Freedom can work for everyone.
This was always Lincoln’s great concern: ensuring that the American people remained true to the constitutional principles of natural rights and the rule of law from their Founding. Even in his crowning constitutional act—the 13th Amendment—Lincoln saw himself not as changing the principles of the Founders’ Constitution but as making its words indisputably reflect its principles. At moments of national crisis, the Constitution and its principles didn’t need to evolve; they just needed to be remembered.They didn’t need to be updated; they just needed to be practiced. This was Lincoln’s constitutional lesson to the people of his day, and it is his lesson for us today, even for our President.
Jeffrey Sikkenga is Associate Professor of political science at
Ashland University, Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook
Center, and Senior Fellow in the Program on Constitutionalism
and Democracy at the University of Virginia.