Almost everyone who met Abraham Lincoln liked him. Look at his speeches, and you sense his gentleness and decency. Not only conservatism's skeptics but also its fans win by knowing Lincoln better. Mine his speeches and deeds, and you unearth the what, how, and why of American conservatism.
Right at the foundation of America, Lincoln found a moral principle. The self-evident truth proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence — that all men are created equal — "is the father of all moral principle among us," Lincoln said. He saw that the Founders had discovered the principle of equality in "the laws of nature and of nature's God" and laid it down as America's cornerstone.
The principle of equality — and the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution that embody it — describe precisely what Americans must conserve. On all that, Lincoln was clear.
How are we to proceed? "With malice toward none," and "with charity for all," Lincoln said. In that way he approached even the most controversial political issues.
Lincoln was among the founders of the Republican Party and wrote its controversial platform. Animated by the principle of equality and acting with charity for all, Lincoln advanced the Republican Party Platform of 1856, which was resolved against "those twin relics of barbarism — Polygamy and Slavery."
One man engaging in multiple marriages: that is polygamy, a personal matter of sex, marriage and family. Nonetheless, personal matters are often social and shape the civic order. In polygamy men display the markings of tyrants and harem masters: tyrants take favors from whom they want as they will.
Beyond saying that, how might a Lincoln-type conservative speak about such personal matters?
"As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master." That, Lincoln said, defined democracy and self-government. Just as the Constitution supported self-government through the separation of powers and through checks and balances such as a bicameral congress, the Founders also supported self-government — governing one's own passions — in citizens' personal lives. Even today, it still may be safe to say that trifling with women, children, or men (in order to indulge sexual or other passions) does not promote self-government. And it may still be safe to say such behavior does not constitute a natural right — natural rights being those things our government was instituted to secure.
The democratic argument against slavery proceeds along the same lines as the one against polygamy. Again, slavery sets up some as masters. Where one man rules another man without that man's consent, self-control and self-government get lost. No man can reasonably consent to be a slave (Lincoln echoed the Founders here), for that would violate the natural order of things: no man is a god, fit to be master of other men, and no man is a brute animal, for other men to saddle and ride, to paraphrase a Founder.
Accordingly, Lincoln, the gentle man, firmly resisted "popular sovereignty," "local government," and "states' rights" arguments that suggested otherwise. Lincoln proved wrong those who assert that government in America would be democratic as long as a popular majority voted in its laws and institutions. There is no right to do wrong, Lincoln explained, even if a majority favors the wrong. So, Lincoln resisted local governments that would institute slavery in the territories. He rejected "states' rights" arguments for slavery and Southern secession. For him, the core issue in the political crisis leading up to the Civil War was not the number of votes cast or the level of feeling and compassion shown. Rather, the test of a democratic republic was whether the government is limited. Does government limit itself to securing the natural rights set forth in the Declaration and Constitution?
Lincoln was benevolent, but the war came. Lincoln was called bad names, but he was as firm as he was gentle.
Finally, Lincoln was shot dead, but not before he told us Americans what to preserve: the principle of equality, the Declaration, and the Constitution. He showed us how: "with malice toward none; with charity for all; and with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right." He told us why: "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth."