What’s in a Name?

Peter W. Schramm

February 1, 2002

Because this issue begins the tenth year of On Principle, I thought that a few words might be in order regarding its purpose and its origins.

Late in 1992 Charles Parton, then the new Director of the Ashbrook Center, had an idea. He thought that we ought to start a publication that would contribute to the overall educational effort of the Ashbrook Center. Since the beginning, Parton said, “the Center has championed an understanding and sober appreciation of the principles of limited constitutional government, civic morality and a free-market economy and he saw a publication of some kind as the newest contribution to that educational effort.”

We deliberated over a title. What should it be called? What do you call a publication of less than 5,000 words per issue whose chief purpose is to illuminate the pressing political and public policy questions of the day by revealing the fundamental principles that lie at the heart of them? Before the day was done, Cheryl Given had the bright idea of naming it On Principle. Her reasoning was clear and true: We are the Ashbrook Center, named after the congressman who above all things was reputed to be a man of principle. President Reagan opened the Center and was delighted to do so because it represented the principles of John Ashbrook and therefore his own.

So when we say something in print, to the public, we should say it on principle, never for the sake of anything else. We should say it because we thought it true and fair and just, because we think it ought to be said. We should never say or write anything merely because it is useful or self-serving. And, we must keep in mind that we are publishing for citizens of the Republic. We didn’t want to say or write anything merely to be heard. We weren’t writing as academics, for academics. Take Professor David Foster’s article on Israel in this issue, which is one of the clearest articles you will read on a very complex political issue.

It seemed almost inevitable that we use Lincoln and Churchill (and Ashbrook, of course) for the kind of writing we wanted to imitate in this new publication. These stalwarts of self-government said and wrote much. And the main purpose of their words always was clarity. Churchill (a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, let me remind you) said in 1949: “Short words are best, and the old words when short are the best of all.”

In a conversation in the Illinois state legislature Lincoln once said that he “wanted to call things by their right names, no matter who was offended.” A few months after he was elected president and after the war began, in a special message to Congress, he used the phrase the rebellion thus sugar coated. The government printer objected to the term because it was not dignified. We are told that this is how Lincoln responded: “That word expresses precisely my idea, and I am not going to change it. The time will never come in this country when the people won’t know exactly what sugar coated means.”

It is no small point, according to his law partner William Herndon, that Lincoln always wanted to be distinctly understood by the common people. He once criticized a speaker by saying the following: “He can compress the most words in the fewest ideas of any man I ever met.” In criticizing an all-too-lengthy speech of someone, Lincoln said: “It’s like the lazy preacher that used to write long sermons and the explanation was he got to writing and was too lazy to stop.” And in a speech in 1854 he indicates how much he is interested in clarity when it comes to the most important and pressing issue of the day, slavery: “I wish to make and to keep the distinction between the existing institution, and the extension of it, so broad, and so clear, that no honest man can misunderstand me, and no dishonest one, successfully misrepresent me.” (Lincoln’s emphasis.) Although he knew slavery to be a wrong as a moral matter (“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”), and that nothing could be done about where it currently existed as a legal matter, yet its extension could be legally prevented. Those distinctions had to be clear.

We, of course, cannot claim to be as clear as Lincoln was. But we can try, and we will always do it on principle.