Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Abraham Lincoln’s conservative principles

Jerry Stratton, November 5, 2018

This election is exactly 158 years from Abraham Lincoln’s election as United States President—on November 6, 1860. Sometimes it seems as though our United States are as disunited now as they were then.

I’ve been slowly reading through Abraham Lincoln’s letters and speeches, and one of the really striking things about them is how durable the basic tenets of conservative political thought have been. The right of people to be just left alone whether you agree with them or not; the necessity of equality under the law; the right each individual has to the fruits of their own labor. This would not have been called conservative at the time, as the labels we apply to political movements have changed since then. But they are clearly the conservative philosophy as we now understand it, and were the bedrock of Lincoln’s political philosophy.

Just as striking is how alien these principles were to the enemies of conservative thought, to the beltway class. If you thought slavery was wrong, you believed in setting the slave over the non-slave. If you disagreed that slavery should spread, your disagreement was the same as—or worse than—violence. And if you believed that everyone had the right to the fruits of their own labor, you were a hypocrite who believed that the national government should regulate everything from cranberries in Maine to oysters in Virginia.

There was no sane ground for Democrat politicians then as now. If you’re not for banning effective self-defense, you’re for blood in the streets. If you’re not for government control over health care and doctors, you’re for bodies piling up in inner cities. There is no understanding of the universal benefits of a democratic republic, of letting people buy, sell, and work the way they want, of ensuring that the law is simple, understandable, and evenly applied, of just letting people be.

Equality of opportunity, as we call it today, simply didn’t register then with the Democrat leadership then any better than it registers with them today. As soon as Lincoln talked about equality of opportunity, Douglas heard equality of outcome. Equality of opportunity was so alien, then as now, that they simply couldn’t understand what Lincoln was saying.

I’m pretty sure this has not been the case uninterrupted between then and now. I’m pretty sure JFK, for example, was neither a Stephen Douglas nor an Elizabeth Warren.

Lincoln says a lot of things that are wrong, about moral and intellectual superiority among the races. He is either saying these things because he must in order to end slavery1 or he says them because he does believe them.

But whether stated to win votes or because they reflect his true beliefs, his faith in conservative principles is so strong that they overcome his prejudices. He fights for the conservative principles that unequivocally stand against his prejudices, and in the strongest possible manner.

Neither possibility reflects well on him, but his adherence to conservative principles in opposition either to his own prejudices or to the prejudices of the voting public, reflects very well on him. He states unequivocally that rights are for all equally, and more than once.

For example, he says during the first of his and Stephen Douglas’s joint debates that “I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.” But then he goes on to conclude that:

…there is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man… in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man. — Abraham Lincoln (First Joint Debate at Ottawa)

The ellipses hide what we would now consider very racist statements. But they were the height of rationality compared to what Douglas and the Democrats argued in favor of slavery. And despite Lincoln’s racism, he still was able to say unequivocally that slaves, and all blacks, were his equal and the equal of every living man. His conservative principles overrode his racism.

JFK at Doo Drop Inn

“We have nothing to fear but people who disagree with me!”

His conservatism also enabled him to see through the hypocrisy of Douglas and the Democrats who supported expanding slavery into the territories. When they started retroactively rewriting the Declaration of Independence to apply only to white men2, Lincoln replied:

When we were the political slaves of King George, and wanted to be free, we called the maxim that “all men are created equal” a self-evident truth, but now when we have grown fat, and have lost all dread of being slaves ourselves, we have become so greedy to be masters that we call the same maxim “a self-evident lie.” — Abraham Lincoln (Letter to Joshua F. Speed)

Douglas argued that inferior peoples needed expert administrators to direct their lives—an argument in other phrasing still common today. Lincoln called that logic out for the elitism it was:

They are the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of kingcraft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people—not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden. That is their argument and this argument of the judge is the same old serpent that says, “You work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it.” — Abraham Lincoln (The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln)

Lincoln was also conservative in the traditional sense—of keeping to traditions, and original intent. He didn’t look at the Declaration of Independence and think, it cannot possibly mean what it says, how can I redefine it, as Douglas and the Democrats did, and do today with the constitution. He asked, why would the founders have written that? What else did they do to make it come true? In so doing, he, again, transcended his own flaws, learning from the best that the past had to offer and discarding the worst.

Lincoln concluded an 1858 speech at Chicago in defense of the Declaration of Independence as it was written and not as Douglas and the Democrats wanted it to read:

Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man, this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position. Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal. — Abraham Lincoln (Speech at Chicago)

Yes, Lincoln also said horrible things in that speech; perhaps from the perspective of someone living in slavery, they would have seemed more positive. But to then discard his prejudices at the end and declare that we must “once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal”, it’s no wonder he could withstand the storm when southern Democrats turned out to be everything they’d accused him of being, and broke out in violence against the Union.

Lincoln was wrong. He was flawed and prejudiced like his contemporaries. But because he was animated by conservative principles, he rose above his prejudices and became unequivocally right. He became better than his prejudices. His contemporaries who were not conservative, like Douglas, were also flawed and wrong. But because they lacked conservative ideals, they became worse than their prejudices.

Lincoln’s principles are the principles that animated our founders as well. When we are conservative—when we let people alone, when we let them keep what they earn, when we treat them equally under the law, then we rise above our prejudices and become a greater nation than we could hope for. But when we don’t, when we throw out conservative principles, we end with factionalism, mobs, and violence. The principle that the government directs the people rather than the people direct the government—Douglas’s policy, the policy of the left today—sinks us below our flaws into slavery and dependence. Conservatism raises us above them.

Let us discard all this quibbling about this identity or that identity making this or that victim superior. Let us today stand up to declare yet again that all men are created equal, in the right to what they earn, the right to be left alone, the right to equality under the law.

It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity, and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You toil and work and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle. — Abraham Lincoln (Seventh Joint Debate at Alton, Illinois)

In response to Embarrassed by our president: “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”

  1. Lincoln usually couches his worst statements as that they “may be” or that “I do not perceive” or “I have never held to the contrary” the notion or even “because I’m white, sure I’d believe that”. In his private notes, he was working on an argument where he writes “Suppose it is true that the Negro is inferior to the white in the fights of nature…” Usually, “suppose it is true” means precisely that the stipulation is in contention and often that the speaker believes the stipulation to be false. But I have not yet reached a speech where Lincoln uses that construction publicly.

  2. In their initial attack on the Declaration, Douglas and the Democrats confined its meaning to white Englishmen. They immediately backtracked when Lincoln called them on their exclusion of Germans, French, Russians, and so on. It was a real unforced error on their part, the kind of error you make when you don’t adhere to conservative principles.

  1. <- Vulgar Republicans