Saturday, March 1, 2014

"Fighting Himself Out of His Own Coat"

We tend to make sense of our past political divisions by casting them in the light of our modern day political conflicts. More cynically perhaps, we look to add weight to our modern political persuasions by "claiming" luminaries from the past for our cause. Many of you have probably seen any number of bogus Lincoln quotations that float around on the internet, in which Lincoln seems more intent on staking his position with the modern Tea Party than in commenting on any possible issue that reared its head in Lincoln's own time. "Claiming" Lincoln though is not a partisan issue, both sides do it. I've often heard the argument that the Republican and Democratic parties have simply "switched sides" since Lincoln's time, an overly simplistic notion that fails to take into account the fact that we live in a different world today, with different issues to face.

Our tendency to fight over Lincoln's approbation is not a new tactic. Lincoln himself was guilty of the same sin, and used it to great effect. Take for instance a letter written by Lincoln on April 6th, 1859, declining an invitation to speak in Boston on the occasion of Thomas Jefferson's birthday:
...Bearing in mind that about seventy years ago, two great political parties were first formed in this country, that Thomas Jefferson was the head of one of them, and Boston the head-quarters of the other, it is both curious and interesting that those supposed to descend politically from the party opposed to Jefferson should now be celebrating his birthday in their own original seat of empire, while those claiming political descent from him have nearly ceased to breathe his name everywhere.
Remembering too, that the Jefferson party were formed upon its supposed superior devotion to the personal rights of men, holding the rights of property to be secondary only, and greatly inferior, and then assuming that the so-called democracy of to-day, are the Jefferson, and their opponents, the anti-Jefferson parties, it will be equally interesting to note how completely the two have changed hands as to the principle upon which they were originally supposed to be divided.
The democracy of to-day hold the liberty of one man to be absolutely nothing, when in conflict with another man's right of property. Republicans, on the contrary, are for both the man and the dollar; but in cases of conflict, the man before the dollar.
I remember once being much amused at seeing two partially intoxicated men engage in a fight with their great-coats on, which fight, after a long, and rather harmless contest, ended in each having fought himself out of his own coat, and into that of the other. If the two leading parties of this day are really identical with the two in the days of Jefferson and Adams, they have performed the same feat as the two drunken men.
Having claimed Jefferson for his own party, Lincoln's letter goes on to cloak the Republicans in the mantle of defending the principles of the Declaration of Independence:

But soberly, it is now no child's play to save the principles of Jefferson from total overthrow in this nation.
One would start with great confidence that he could convince any sane child that the simpler propositions of Euclid are true; but, nevertheless, he would fail, utterly, with one who should deny the definitions and axioms. The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society.
And yet they are denied and evaded, with no small show of success.
One dashingly calls them "glittering generalities"; another bluntly calls them "self evident lies"; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only to "superior races."
These expressions, differing in form, are identical in object and effect--the supplanting the principles of free government, and restoring those of classification, caste, and legitimacy. They would delight a convocation of crowned heads, plotting against the people. They are the van-guard--the miners, and sappers--of returning despotism.
We must repulse them, or they will subjugate us.

This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it.

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.
Your obedient Servant
A. Lincoln--
This 1859 letter previewed the rhetoric Lincoln deployed in the Gettysburg Address, which identified the Declaration of Independence as the founding principle of the country, and called for a new birth of freedom.

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