July 4, 1861 -- exactly a hundred and fifty years ago -- witnessed the reading aloud, on the floor of Congress, of Abraham Lincoln's Message to Congress in Special Session.
The circumstantial appeal of Lincoln's message turned on his defense of the Union against the threat posed by secession, and that is the part most people have in mind when they recall the most famous words of the address: "This is essentially a People's contest." Lincoln was speaking for democracy. He was also speaking for a Union, popular in character and progressive in direction, as the heart of all future hopes for democracy.
Another part of the Special Message matters more to us today. For Lincoln saw
an unresolvable tension between the constitution of a democratic republic and
the policies of aggrandizement and intemperate self-interest that lead from the
manners of freedom to the slavish love of power. He spoke of the difference
between the work of establishing a constitutional republic and the longer task
of maintaining it. But maintaining it against what? Lincoln's answer was always
the same: against the internal pressure of greed, and the external pressure of
war. The predicament of the country in 1861, he said, "forces us to ask: 'Is
there, in all republics, this inherent, and fatal weakness? Must a government,
of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to
maintain its own existence?'"
We are now ten years into a policy shared by two successive administrations
to plant a new understanding of the spirit of the laws in America. That policy
has pretended there is a "trade-off" between liberty and security, and that in
a time of crisis, security ought to have the upper hand. The Cheney-Bush and
Obama administrations have accustomed us to laws and language concerned
above all with the "protection" of citizens -- as if there were something higher
or more worth protecting than the liberty that is guaranteed by our laws and
the framework of laws, the Constitution.
Today, as in Lincoln's day, we are involved in "a struggle for maintaining
...that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate
the condition of men -- to lift artificial weights from all shoulders -- to clear
the paths of laudable pursuit for all -- to afford all, an unfettered start, and
a fair chance, in the race of life." Yet the main peril in that struggle today
comes not from any foreign power capable of destroying us from without, but the
lapse of thought and faith that threatens us now from within. We are divided
between two parties: one that thinks government should be used for nothing but
wars, another that thinks government should be used for wars (whether justified
or not) in order to prove the value of government for other purposes.
Over the past decade we have taken many long steps across the divide that
separates a republic from an empire. The recovery of our proper ground depends
on our seeing again the rightness of Lincoln's recoil from wars that are not
wars of necessity. The words of his Special Message leave an incitement, too,
by listing the goods he valued above the new forms of power and luxury that war
can add to life. Elevating the condition of men. Lifting artificial weights from
all shoulders. Clearing the paths of laudable pursuit for all. By doing this at
home, we offer an example to those who would try it abroad. As Lincoln said in
other words in other places, that is the only honest way for a democracy to
advance the cause of democracy.