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Lincoln and the Transcendent Constitution: (2) The Apple of Gold and the Picture of Silver

by Professor Will Huhn on December 31, 2008

in Abraham Lincoln,Constitutional Law,Wilson Huhn

     The first evidence of Lincoln's view of the Constitution for us to consider is from an undated fragment found among Lincoln's presidential papers after his death.  Some scholars believe that this was written shortly after Lincoln took office in 1861, and that it may have been intended as a response to his friend Alexander Stephens, the Georgia Congressman who became Vice President of the Confederacy.  Stephens had been a unionist, but In March of 1861, Georgia seceded from the Union and adopted a new State Constitution recognizing slavery.  On March 21 Stephens delivered his famous "Cornerstone" address, in which he rejected the principle that "all men are created equal" expressed in the Declaration of Independence.  In support of the new Georgia Constitution, Stephens employed a biblical allusion. Stephens referred to the principles of the Declaration as a "sandy foundation," and that the new Georgia Constitution was built upon a more solid foundation. He stated:

Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

     Perhaps in response to Stephens, Lincoln used competing biblical imagery.

     In the following passage Lincoln is evidently reflecting on the causes of the success of the American experiment in self-government.  Here is what Lincoln wrote, in its entirety:

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.

     The medium of expression exemplified by this fragment is one that Lincoln would employ to great effect througout his Presidency.  All through the Civil War Lincoln used letters, addressed to private individuals but widely published, to communicate with the American people.  He typically polished these missives, sending them through repeated drafts.  This letter, never sent nor published, is still rough, and yet both its message and its imagery are powerful. 

       The entire metaphor Lincoln uses here is from the Book of Proverbs, 25:11, which says:

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.

      Lincoln plays with this idea on several levels.  First of all, the Declaration, not the Constitution is given primacy.  The Declaration is the golden apple, while the Constitution is merely the silver picture.  The Constitution was entered into to give life to the Declaration; it serves the Declaration, not the other way around.  The Union, as important as it is, is subordinate to the principles of the Declaration.

     Second, Lincoln is making another powerful religious metaphor by equating the Declaration with "the word."  The Declaration is "the word fitly spoken," while the Constitution is merely the current expression of "the word."  Just as, for religion, "In the beginning was the word," for the American republic, in the beginning was the Declaration. 

     Finally, Lincoln asserts that we could have separated from Great Britain without the statement of great moral truth in the Declaration – we could have become an independent people – but, he contends, we could not have become a free and prosperous people without the Declaration.  Absent the Declaration, the Revolution would have been nothing more than "a mere change of masters" – a veiled criticism of slavery.

     Lincoln could have extended the metaphor to attack slavery directly as a great moral wrong, as he had previously, but in this passage he does not.  At this time Congress was proposing to adopt an amendment to the United States Constitution that would have protected the institution of slavery in the South, while prohibiting its extension to the West.  The South would not accept this compromise because it would eventually tip the balance of power in Congress and the Electoral College to antislavery states, and it would inevitably lead to the extinction of slavery.  Perhaps this is why Lincoln did not send the letter – he was still hopeful that the southern states would rejoin the Union.  Lincoln would not draft the Emancipation Proclamation until the following year, and it would not become effective until January 1, 1863.

     The basic point that Lincoln is making in this fragment is that the principles of the Declaration are transcendent, while the provisions of the Constitution are merely temporal.  Like our understanding of "the word," our understanding of the Declaration will always be imperfect, but we must strive to understand it and to bring the Constitution into closer conformity to it.

     To my readers – sorry this column did not appear yesterday.  The flu bug hit our home – five out of six of us are down with it.  The dog's OK – he ate an entire ham, pretty good for an 11-year-old Lab!  This series will continue next Tuesday.

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