America has been described as an ongoing experiment in self-government, an experiment that can and will fail if the American people ever lose sight of the principles upon which America was founded. The same challenge faces our democratic friends around the world, including those in Iraq who are bravely attempting to bring self-government to a region of the world where it has been little known.
The central principle of free government is the principle of equality. But many people today misunderstand or confuse this principle. It is not the leveling spirit of an administrative state that tries to make all people the same in their material possessions. It is, rather, the simple recognition that all human beings, whatever their differences in appearance, or talent, or education, possess the same human nature, with a free will and reason to direct it. No man is so superior as to be a god among men, or so inferior as to be ruled over without his consent, the way we govern our pets without asking them first. In other words, every human being is equally human. And it is because we are all equally human that we are, by right, equally free.
In political terms, equality means that only government by consent is legitimate government. But equality also requires that the consent of the governed be directed toward the equal protection of the equal rights of all who live under the government, the minority no less than the majority. Combining consent with the equal protection of equal rights, or transforming popular government into good government, while easy in theory, turns out to be one of the most difficult and rare achievements in human history. No one has understood this better, and no one has confronted the problem more directly, than Abraham Lincoln.
Immediately after Lincoln's election in November 1860, some Southerners began a movement for secession from the Union. In Apostles of Disunion, historian Charles Dew reviews the speeches of "secession commissioners" as they traveled throughout the South during the winter of 1860-61, trying to persuade fellow Southerners to leave the Union. In this critical moment, with nothing less than the future of the United States and constitutional government at stake, the defense of secession had little to do with the old sectional squabbles over tariffs or banks. The turning of the tide toward disunion and civil war rested squarely on the question of race and slavery. Leroy Pope Walker, Alabama's commissioner dispatched to Tennessee, and later the first Confederate secretary of war, predicted that if the South did not secede immediately, everything it valued would be lost: "First our property," then "our liberties," and finally the greatest Southern treasure of all, "the sacred purity of our daughters" would be lost to "pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans."
This is the ugly truth of the American South on the eve of the Civil War. No one reading the literature of the antebellum period can honestly deny that slavery and race were at the heart of the Southern resolve to make war on the Union rather than accept Lincoln's election. It is why, on the eve of the Civil War, Lincoln wrote to Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens that "the only substantial difference between us" is that "you think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it wrong and ought to be restricted."
When citizens of eleven states rejected his constitutional election as president and attempted to secede, Lincoln faced the awful choice of allowing the only union in history based on equality to crumble, or drawing blood to preserve it. In the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln penned his famous letter to Horace Greeley, stating that his first priority was saving the Union, not destroying slavery. But for Lincoln, saving the Union was tantamount to solving the problem of slavery: In a constitutional government where the principle of equality was safe, slavery was not. When he wrote to Greeley, Lincoln had already announced to his Cabinet his plan for the Emancipation Proclamation. The Union Lincoln was trying to save was a Union where slavery was about to be dealt a lethal blow. It is the essence of American tragedy that in order for a government of consent and equal rights to survive, civil war had to come, and many young men would give the last full measure of their devotion.
The story of Lincoln provides a window for us to see clearly the principles of freedom and the obligations they impose on those who would defend them. We should continue to remember Lincoln and discuss him, not to prattle on about the past, but to learn the immutable principles according to which free people govern themselves. In this decisive respect, we learn that Lincoln's fight is our fight as well.