But the precepts and assumptions that underwrite the meaning of America were not new to Lincoln as he took office as president. No, in fact, it was Lincoln's heartfelt regard for the meaning of America's founding that motivated him to seek the presidency in the first place. Evidence of Lincoln's knowledge of the meaning of America's founding is found in early records of his pronouncements.
In one such account, having witnessed the repeal of the Missouri compromise in 1854, the future 16th President displayed his understanding of the American Theory as he echoed the earlier remarks of Washington and the other early presidents. He urged the adoption of national harmony with the principles of the Declaration of Independence. In so doing, Lincoln offered the result that millions of free happy people shall be “blessed to the latest generations.” (And Who, of course, might be better equipped to bless that many people than God?)
Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and, with it, the practices and policy which harmonize with it…If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union, but we shall have so saved it as to make and to keep it forever worthy of saving. We shall have saved it that the succeeding millions of free happy people. The world over, shall rise up and call us blessed to the latest generations.As the theory of America goes, leading up to its ultimate conclusion, the actual statement declaring independence for America, the Declaration of Independence lays out a train of rationale, incorporating certain of God's Laws, each derived from the New Testament, which entitled the American people to break the political bonds it had with Great Britain. The Founders theorized that a nation obeying these laws, and in so doing performing God's will for man and mankind, God would bless America, protecting it from the effects of a fallen world, by divine Providence. That was their theory, the Theory of America. In quotation above, Lincoln recognizes that theory for what it is and urges Americans to Re-adopt the precepts of the Declaration, and with it, 'the practices and policies which harmonize with it.' Lincoln proposes that if that goal can be accomplished, happiness among the America would abound, and people all over the world would recognize God's Providence for what it is, and agree that America was blessed among the other nations of the world.
In 1861, Lincoln jotted down one of the many notes he would keep in the drawer of his desk for future use, perhaps in speeches. That was his way of retaining certain thoughts he believed were important. Many of these notes are available to us today. In this particular note below, Lincoln refers to the principles offered to the world in the Declaration of Independence, and the prosperity that he believes would not have resulted without America's adherence to those principles:
All this is not the result of accident. It has a philosophical cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of "Liberty to all"—the principle that clears the path for all—gives hope to all—and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all.
The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate. Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. No oppressed, people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters.
The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, "fitly spoken" which has proved an "apple of gold" to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture.
So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken.
That we may so act, we must study, and understand the points of danger.This particular note, documenting Lincoln's thoughts, is ripe with meaning for us to consider today. According to Lincoln, yes, the Constitution, and the union of American states were vital in achieving the great prosperity of America at the time. But according to Lincoln, the revered Constitution and the nation to which it applies are NOT the primary reason for the prosperity to which he refers. No, according to Lincoln, there is something else, 'back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart.' That 'something,' is the Declaration of Independence, and what it means, and the authority that 'principle' conveys to America through its Constitution.
Using the Scriptures (Proverbs 25:11), according to Lincoln, the assertion into the world of that particular principle (the Declaration of Independence) at that particular time (1776) is a word fitly spoken. That word is golden fruit, a golden apple, to us if we select it. In other words, the Founders inserted a particular source of sovereign authority into the world, inspired by God, the 'principle,' at a particular time, 1776, which is a 'word fitly spoken.' According to Lincoln's interpretation of the proverb, a word fitly spoken is therefore a word that not only expresses God's intentions for the world, but is also spoken into the world at the time God intends. So a fitly spoken word is one appropriate to God's intentions, and also spoken at a time appropriate to carry God's intentions forward. Because Lincoln derives this meaning directly from Biblical Scriptures, and he obviously understood the authoritative nature of thoseS criptures regarding Constitutional interpretations.
In 1859, in a letter written to a Mr. Henry L. Pierce, in response to Pierce's invitation to speak at an occasion celebrating the birthday of Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln illustrates this same Biblical principle, one of a 'word fitly spoken,' into the world. Although Lincoln declined the invitation, he wrote down certain thoughts the invitation inspired him to consider. Among those thoughts, Lincoln wrote,
All honor to Jefferson--to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.The importance Lincoln ascribed to the principles of the Declaration is an overriding theme in many of his writings, but never more so than in these I bring up today. According to Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson should be honored because he had the 'coolness, forecast, and capacity' to introduce into a 'merely revolutionary document,' an abstract truth applicable to all men and all times, the effect of which was to embalm these principles, preserving them for all time. The content of these principles, and how they might remain preserved, is the subject of Lincoln's desk note above. According to that note, the union and Constitution are the 'picture of silver' which 'adorn and preserve' the principles, the 'apple of gold.'
Stay with me here. Lincoln thought deeply. And if you are to understand this, you must go where he went during certain quiet moments of contemplation. Here we go...
In embalming the principles of the Declaration, by 'fitly speaking' that word of God, at the precise moment in history God intended, Jefferson's principles would forever provide 'a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.' Vital though would be that the principles of the Jefferson be preserved. And according to Lincoln,
Preserving the principles of the Declaration of Independence is the primary purpose of the union and Constitution.
Lincoln writes, "The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture." Lincoln states here his understanding that the Constitution is therefore made for the Declaration of Independence, its primary purpose being to magnify and preserve its principles, and not the other way around. In Lincoln's thinking, the Constitution can therefore only be correctly understood as document subordinate to, and in service to, the Declaration of Independence. And the Constitution's primary purpose is simply to preserve the meaning of the Declaration for all time, the principles of which being 'applicable to all men and all times.'
In our next installment of America IS A Christian Nation, we will look further into the relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and discover that the Constitution is simply a practical expression, codifying the principles of the Declaration of Independence, an idealistic expression, into certain manageable, workable prescriptions of law.