SAN JOSE, September 17, 2014 – Over 150 years ago, as the United States fought with itself over its own identity as a nation, the Constitution of the United States, was at the heart of the struggle. It was at the core of the crisis within the nation that led to the Civil War, which essentially ripped the nation apart by its own people. The United States Supreme Court, in the Dred Scott decision in 1857, declared that a human being was a slave – merely a piece of property. Such a decision prompted Abraham Lincoln to decide to enter once again the political arena. It caused William Lloyd Garrison, among others, to increase even more his great antipathy toward the U.S. Constitution. It caused slaves to lose hope in the vision of freedom alluded to in the founding documents.
As early as 1838, a young Abraham Lincoln was speaking of the importance of adhering to the laws based upon the Constitution –even if they were unjust laws – until the laws could be changed. At the age of 29, Lincoln gave his first major public political address at the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. He spoke of his concerns for the perpetuation of the American political institutions as based upon the principles of the Founding Fathers. In the speech, Lincoln he stressed that Americans had received a great inheritance from the Founding Fathers. He explained that the threat to American political institutions was more likely to be an internal or domestic threat rather than any threat that could come from outside the nation:
At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasures of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Bonaparte for a commander, could, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge…
At what point then is our approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.
Over 150 years ago, the United States of America almost dissolved due to the horrendous force that arose from within the nation. The American Civil War was a crisis of monumental proportions and almost left the United States a broken nation. 1864 was an election year, and although the Union had begun to turn the tide in winning many decisive battles, the war raged on through the summer months, and on into September. The year before in January, he had announced that his Proclamation of Emancipation went into effect, which doomed slavery. But it fell far short of freeing many slaves. In reality, the war still raged on, and Lincoln had little to show for his four years in office. His opponent was his former Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, the peace candidate, George McLellan.
The year before in November, Abraham Lincoln had made his famous Gettysburg address, and in his brief remarks, had expressed his concern whether the nation could survive: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated (conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal), can long endure…” There was no certainty that the Union would be able to be re-established as “One Nation Under God.” In 1864, the war had still raged for another long year, and the fabric of the Union seemed to be shredded. Winning the war was one thing, but bringing the Confederate States back into the Union was another.
In stark contrast to Lincoln’s efforts to use the Constitution to outlaw slavery and to preserve the Union, many ardent abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, the editor of the “Liberator” had no regard for the Constitution and believed it had perpetuated the institution of slavery. Garrison believed it sanctioned slavery and he even went so far as to publicly burn copies of the document. He even generated a public resolution that denounced the U.S. Constitution as a document sanctioning the criminal activity of slavery. On January 27, 1843, Mr. Garrison specifically charged that “The compact which exists between the North and the South is a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” The resolution was adopted by the American Anti-Slavery Society.
Garrison held the views that had originally been shared by the Southern Democrat Party for a good period of time. Such a view, that the Constitution condoned slavery was hollow although it was reinforced by the Supreme Court in the Dredd Scott decision. Yet, the most rigid Southern Democrats eventually utilized secession from the Union as the path to get what they wanted – a new constitution legalizing slavery. By their very actions, the Confederates admitted that slavery could not be continued under the Constitution. However, in their act of leaving the Union, and confiscating U.S. federal forts and properties, Lincoln viewed it as a flagrant violation of contractual law. His efforts at using the Constitutional amendment process to change unjust laws was successful.
As horrible as the Civil War was, and it was horrible well beyond the sheer destruction and loss of life, as it had threatened the very existence of the foundations of the government that the Founding Fathers had established. It made Americans question who and what the nation represented. In this time, there was no certainty that the Union would survive. This historic moment of darkness and disaster in the nation’s history threatened the very existence of the United States since the Constitution and the nation are one. If one or the other is destroyed, the dream of a government that is tasked with protecting the rights of the people also crumbles into dust. Lincoln’s stubbornness and his reverence for the ideals and the values of the Founders prevailed despite the dark clouds of doom engulfing the nation.
In essence, Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg echoed what he said as a young man of 29, “As a nation of free men, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” At Gettysburg, Lincoln admonished those of all future generations of Americans:
…It is for us the living… to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
And from the ashes of the Civil War, the Union experienced a new birth of freedom for an entire race of people. Yet, freedom is not free, and freedom requires work, and freedom requires responsibility, and in order for freedom to exist it needs the ones who value it to protect it – the vigil keepers – those who love the Land of the Free, must always be willing to give the full measure of devotion to preserve it.