Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Opportunity: Recalling Our Principles
February 9, 1995
How do we honor someone like Abraham Lincoln? In part, we honor him by taking him seriously, by keeping his spirit alive. And we keep that spirit of freedom alive by keeping the Republican Party the party of freedom and a robust defender of that principle. But we need to recall this is a birthday party, honoring not only President Lincoln, on the 12th, but also another great Republican President, Ronald Reagan, on last Monday, the 6th.
Now to properly celebrate a birthday, we need a song. And it happens there is a new Republican congressman from Palm Springs, California, Sonny Bono, who has a hit new song, "I’ve got you Abe."
But I think President Lincoln himself wrote his birthday song, a hymn known as the Gettysburg Address. I remind long-winded politicians from the highest to lowest offices that this greatest of all American political speeches takes only two and one-half minutes to recite.
So let’s all sing Happy Birthday to President Lincoln and our cause of freedom by reciting the Gettysburg Address. I’m sure many of you still know the words by heart.
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.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived
and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come
to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that
nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a
larger sense, we can not dedicate we can not consecrate we can not hallow this ground. The
brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to
add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never
forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work
which they who fought here have thus so far nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated
to the great task remaining before us that from these honored dead we take increased devotion
to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion 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
What magic in these words! Four score and seven years
ago. . . . The majestic opening of the Gettysburg Address recalls the 90th Psalm. There a lifespan
of a man was said to be three score and ten. "The days of our years are threescore years and
ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for
it is soon cut off, and we fly away."
So Lincoln was reflecting that we as a nation
are older than any individual man can expect to be. What is it that can keep a nation not only alive
but healthy and constantly in its prime? Can a nation expect and deserve such an existence, that is
denied to individual human beings?
Lincoln tells us the answer at the same time he
poses this dreadful question: The four score and seven years, the 87 years before the Nov. 1863
speech, led back to July 4, 1776, when America was born.
So we celebrate Lincoln’s
birthday by celebrating the nation’s birthday. It’s February, but it’s really the Fourth of
America did not begin with the Constitution, crucial as that document is to our
existence. It did not begin with the Pilgrims. Or with the Boston Tea Party. America began with
a statement of political principle.
Lincoln once described the Declaration, in his typically
understated way, as more than "a merely revolutionary document." It contained rather
"an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times." An abstract truth with the most
enormous practical consequences. Namely that equality and liberty are the basic principles of all
In the midst of a war for the existence of a nation, Thomas
Jefferson and the Continental Congress virtually began the Declaration by saying, "We hold
these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That
to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving just powers from the consent
of the governed." Though in the midst of war, Americans spoke in terms of rational discourse.
With both friends and enemies around the world and to their divided fellow colonists, America
sought to reason.
So the first lesson of the Declaration is that we reason with fellow
human beings. We argue with them, debate them. God does not need to reason with us. He may
test us. And we must show our faith.
Similarly, we humans do not need to reason with
our pets. Moreover, we can’t reason with them. We discipline them. Men are in between God and
And that’s the problem with a government that treats us like pets. A shepherd
may be good to his sheep but only for the sake of the sheeps’ wool and lamb chops.
So that’s the first lesson of the Declaration: Take the truth seriously. As though people can be
persuaded. And to justify our governing of others, our governing of ourselves, self-government, we
need to be able to persuade people.
We take the truth seriously by taking ideas seriously.
And that means great books. Plato and Aristotle, the Bible and Shakespeare, The Federalist
Papers and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. And don’t forget to listen
to Rush. He’s America’s version of Socrates.
Thus our government is an affirmation of
men’s ability to make the proper judgments. "Most governments," Lincoln argued,
"have been based . . . on the denial of equal rights of men . . . ; ours began by affirming those
rights. They said, some men are too ignorant, and vicious to share in government. Possibly
so, said we, and by your system you would always keep them ignorant and vicious. We
proposed to give all a chance; and we expected the weak to grow stronger; the ignorant, wiser; and
all better, and happier together."
Now just as we assume men can govern themselves,
so we presuppose liberty not the need for police everywhere. We don’t suppose, as many
Democrats do, that reducing taxes means letting people keep what they earn as though tax
reduction should be seen as a favor by those in power. Those who presuppose freedom take a
fundamentally different view of taxes.
The inequalities of life of status, income, and
other achievements are just when they come to be as a result of equality of opportunity. Liberty
always produces inequalities. The sign that we have equality of opportunity is the existence of
inequalities. And of course it follows, if we are serious about rewarding merit, that we assure that
the inequalities that do occur reflect merit, and not just privilege. So Lincoln argued:
That some should be rich shows that others may become
rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull
down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example
assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.
So in response to President Clinton’s taxation policies let us not respond that he is provoking
class warfare. That may be true, but it is not the principled issue. The principled issue is
that he is attacking achievement. The leftist policies attack excellence and urge their partisans to
enjoy the pleasures of resentment in place of cultivating excellence in themselves.
Lincoln warned against such divisive policies. They are particularly destructive when the divisions
occur on racial lines. Now as much as I respect Jack Kemp and support his efforts to make the
Republican party more diverse by seeking to be a true majority party, I disagree with his criticism
of the Republican record on civil rights. In 1964 Republicans supported the great Civil Rights Act
passed that year in a greater proportion than did Democrats. That victory was quite similar in fact
to the passage of NAFTA.
This first great victory on civil rights reflected a moral
consensus in this country that racial discrimination in vast sectors of our public life was immoral and
that the federal government had an obligation to enforce laws against it. Since that original
consensus the bureaucracy and courts have devised a host of means to undermine the intent and
purpose of the 1964 Act. In place of the original colorblind and individual-oriented law, the
bureaucracy and courts turned the 1964 Act into a nightmare of quotas and racial preferences, set-asides and lowered standards. No Congress ever approved of these controversial measures. Yet they
grew and continued.
Now my friend and old boss Clarence Thomas knew all this, from
his years in various positions in Washington. And that is why thoughtful Republicans wanted him
in a high position, preferably the Supreme Court. For he was one of the few people, of whatever
race, in Washington, who understood what was going on and why it was so destructive to the future
of constitutionalism. Being black was not the central reason for him being chosen.
speeches that would later horrify those assigned to guide him through Senate confirmation hearings,
Thomas bluntly attacked the grotesque monster Congress had become. Can anyone doubt why
Democrats would want to destroy Clarence Thomas for having said the following words back in
It may surprise some but Congress is no longer
primarily a deliberative or even a law-making body. The President is still, of course, a single
Executive, but the Chief Executive is no longer the principle actor in the administrative or policy-implementation process. To put it simply, there is little deliberation and even less wisdom in the
manner in which the Legislative branch conducts its business. And, there is not much energy in the
The characteristic activity of the Legislative body appears to have been
transformed by the growth of the Administrative State. As a result, the primary function of the
legislator ceased to be legislation, or even representation of local constituencies. Rather, the
Administrative state presupposes the centralized control of every aspect of social and economic
life in a complex society.
As it truly has been said that the
election of 1994 was Ronald Reagan’s third presidential election, it can also be said it was Clarence
Thomas’s second victory over Congress.
Now what do these fundamental principles of
equality and liberty say to us today? What do they say about Republican party principles in
In this election, the electorate returned to the principles of equality and liberty in
the Declaration of Independence. Are we good enough students of Abraham Lincoln and America
to understand what really went on? Certainly virtually no journalists or opinionmakers are.
Contrary to many pundits’ view that the election represented an outpouring of angry white males,
the election results reflected an extraordinary rationality on the part of the electorate. They wanted
fundamental change and they knew this could occur only through electing Republicans.
In this way, this past year’s elections remind us of 1946, when the Republicans swept the
congressional and state elections. And in 1948 President Truman won re-election.
we just go through another 1946? The only way to prevent such a loss is to think about the wisdom
of the Founder of our party, and return to the Republican principles of equality and liberty.
Is the Republican Revolution succeeding? Or is it all show; has it compromised too
A couple of disturbing clues: Only last month a friend of mine who works for
a Republican Commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights feared that Congress would
abolish his Commission and hence his job. He no longer is afraid for his job. An old friend of mine,
one of the shrewdest political minds I know, thinks Clinton may well win re-election. He was the
one who, immediately following the Gulf War, predicted Bush’s defeat.
And then consider
the following. What if President Bush had won the 1992 election? Would we have had the massive
Republican victory of 1994? Though it’s impossible to tell in hindsight, I doubt it strongly. Liberal
Democrats would have controlled the agenda; they would have proposed a health insurance proposal;
President Bush would have compromised. And we would have health insurance today.
The Democrats would have increased taxes even more than they have under President Clinton,
and President Bush would have compromised, as he did in 1990.
The Democrats would
have proposed civil rights legislation, possibly even homosexual rights amendments to civil rights
laws, and President Bush would have compromised, as he did with the Civil Rights Act of
The Democrats would have proposed a minimum wage increase, and President
Bush would have compromised on that.
The lesson? This is not about President Bush,
who has performed a lifetime of virtuous deeds. This is about a new political world, about
Republican congressional strategy in the next two years and a Republican presidential candidate in
1996. We must admonish and reject those who fail to recognize issues of principle and who
compromise on them.
I do not advocate dogmatism or fanaticism. I condemn them. But
we must recognize that principled politics IS the only practical politics. The problem with
pragmatism is that it just doesn’t work. Recall the governing party in Canada of a few years ago,
the Progressive Conservatives. After an inept term in power, this party was not only toppled from
a majority position it now occupies a total of two seats.
What does a politics of
principle mean? I’ll dwell on just a couple examples, which illustrate the key points.
Politics is about making friends who will support you, not about anathematizing people. And
support can come in all varieties: from fanaticism to acceptance. These are all friends. And so we
see that the controversial issue of abortion is actually a rather easy one. President Clinton has stated
that it is his intention to make abortion legal, safe, and rare. Let’s compromise with President
Clinton on the abortion issue and agree that it ought to be rare. What is he doing to make it rarer?
Surely not through this Surgeon General nominee.
The National Endowment for the
Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the big scheme of things these would not
appear to be major issues. Only a few hundred million dollars are involved. But this is a litmus test.
If the Republican Party cannot cut middle-class welfare, then what welfare can it cut? If
only the government can give deserving scholars and artists, and those truly in need,
assistance, then we are not longer Americans. The attitude that government has to do it is saying that
we no longer truly govern ourselves. That we as individuals and as members of churches, civic
groups, and community organizations no longer have the generosity of soul or the wit to care for
those in need.
And shipping federal money to the states to allow them to make their
choices is not an answer. In cases involving issues of fundamental principle, this is cowardly
evasion. Just remember Lincoln and Douglas, as they debated the issue of slavery. Lincoln favored
a policy resulting in the ultimate extinction of slavery. Douglas said, let the states vote on
Well, many policies can and should be left up to the states. But not when the policy
itself is questionable, as slavery was. It does not become less questionable if the states choose to
permit it. And the NEA does not become less obnoxious when it is split into 50 parts.
I should add here my own consideration of self-interest: I have benefited to the tune of several
thousands of dollars from the NEH. And if it exists in the future, I suspect I would get even more.
So abolishing the NEH means I am giving up tens of thousands of dollars of federal money. I hope
to persuade enlightened private sources to fund my work. But whatever value my work has, it
should not require your tax dollars.
The Republican victories of 1994 provide a
revolutionary opportunity, on the order of the collapse of the Soviet Union, to restore constitutional
democracy to America. The opportunity and the dangers of failure must be seen in this light.
To restore self-government the first step is to put a chokehold on centralized bureaucratic
government. It cannot be destroyed overnight, but it must surely be put in the course of ultimate
extinction. And the changes cannot be cosmetic.
As Winston Churchill remarked, one
cannot guarantee victory, one can only deserve it. Let us conduct ourselves so we deserve
Very early in Lincoln’s political life, when he was only 31, Lincoln declared his
commitment to acting on behalf of what is right.
If ever I
feel the soul within me elevate and expand to those dimensions not wholly unworthy of its Almighty
Architect, it is when I contemplate the cause of my country, deserted by all the world beside, and
I standing up boldly and alone and hurling defiance at her victorious oppressors. Here, without
contemplating consequences, before High Heaven, and in the face of the world, I swear eternal
fidelity to the just cause, as I deem it, of the land of my life my liberty and my love. And who, that
thinks with me, will not fearlessly adopt the oath that I take. Let none falter, who thinks he is right,
and we may succeed. But, if after all, we shall fail, be it so. We still shall have the proud
consolation of saying to out consciences, and to the departed shade of our country’s freedom, that
the cause approved of our judgment, and adorned of our hearts, in disaster, in chains, in torture, in
death, we NEVER faltered in defending.
And in his last speech: "Important principles
may, and must, be inflexible."
So we may say that the Republican Opportunity of
the next few months and the next few years is one of realizing the principles that guided Abraham
Lincoln’s political life, the principles of equality and liberty. For they remain, "Important
principles [that] may, and must, be inflexible."