Trump and Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech

Posted on July 5, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Welcome to part four of our series on the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign. Here we take a look at Abraham Lincoln’s speech at the Cooper Institute in New York City (now Cooper Union) on February 28, 1860 and compare one part of it with the rhetoric coming from Trump supporters in 2016.

Again, our point of comparison between the 1860 and the 2016 presidential campaigns is sectionalism. In 1860, slavery drove sectional division north and south. In 2016, as we say in our first post,

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…

Sub out “slavery” for “gun control”, “immigration”, or “war on Christianity”and you find that the language used in the 1860 campaign is strangely similar to the language used so far in the 2016 campaign.

In the Cooper Union address, Lincoln represented the new Republican Party, in only its second presidential election season. He was in 1860 still walking the fine line of saying that while the Republican Party was dedicated to stopping the spread of slavery into the west, it would not try to abolish slavery in the south. In most of his speeches on the campaign trail, Lincoln tried to do two things at once: force southerners to accept a Republican victory, if it came, by emphasizing that winning the popular vote would mean that most Americans wanted to stop the spread of slavery and therefore southerners could not claim that the election had been hijacked by a radical minority; and convince southerners that this antislavery majority did not mean that the south would have to get on board with the rest of the nation and abolish slavery.

This is the context for the statement we’re about to quote from the Cooper Union address, in which Lincoln addresses proslaveryites and debunks their claim that they have a Constitutional right to enslave other people and, therefore, an implied right to secede from the Union if slavery is abolished or even limited to the south. Here is the candidate:

…But you will break up the Union, rather than submit to a denial of your Constitutional rights.

That has a somewhat reckless sound: but it would be palliated, if not fully justified, were we proposing, by the mere force of numbers, to deprive you of some right plainly written down in the Constitution. But we are proposing no such thing.

When you make these declarations, you have a specific and well-understood allusion to an assumed Constitutional right of yours to take slaves into the Federal Territories, and to hold them there as property. But no such right is specifically written in the Constitution. That instrument is literally silent about any such right. We, on the contrary, deny that such  right has any existence in the Constitution, even by implication.

Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is, that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.

Sub out “slaves” and the right to enslave for the right of anyone and everyone to buy and openly carry guns anywhere in public, even schools, or the right of self-professed Christians to deny public services to people who they feel offend Christianity, or the right of anti-choice legislatures to deny women access to health care from providers that also perform abortions, and you have a Democratic speech right out of 2016.

Many people today who self-identify as conservative in our new sectionalism of conservative v. liberal consistently claim a constitutional right to deprive others of their personal liberties. Yet the Constitution, as Lincoln points out, is “literally silent about any such right”. The Second Amendment does not protect private gun ownership for private use; it protects the right of American citizens to own guns so they can fight in local militias sanctioned and controlled by local governments. The Constitution does not mention Christianity in any way, and the Founders officially denied any Christian basis for the United States. Abortion or the rights of fetuses are not in the Constitution.

Too often an American’s right to freedom of speech, which actually is in the Constitution, is construed to protect “rights” that are not in the Constitution. Ever since the Supreme Court decided that actions could be identified as speech, this has happened. If it’s constitutional to protest outside an abortion clinic, clinics must be unconstitutional. If religious freedom is protected in the Constitution, then all of my religious beliefs must also be constitutionally protected (nope—see Gay Marriage, Religious Freedom, and the First Amendment for a rundown of the difference between religious worship and religious belief).

But conservatives who believe that all their beliefs are enshrined in the Constitution are often deaf to these arguments. As Lincoln put it, they will destroy the Government, unless they be allowed to construe the Constitution as they please, on all points in dispute between them and liberals. They will rule or ruin in all events. The eagerness of Trump’s supporters to destroy the federal government that they see as denying them their constitutional rights is a harvest sown by neoconservative Republicans for over thirty years now. This anti-government, Constitution-bending activist section may likely dispute the outcome of the presidential election if Clinton wins. And so we find ourselves, like Lincoln, facing a possible contested election over chimerical Constitutional rights. Secession seems slightly less likely today than in 1860… but it seemed unlikely to most observers in 1860.

Next time: on with the 1860 campaigns

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )

A Holiday Gift: Religious Tolerance

Posted on December 22, 2015. Filed under: American history, Bill of Rights, Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

Here’s a sharp video from Dr. Larry Schweikart, University of Dayton, on the PragerU site that explains the origins of religious tolerance in the English colonies of North America, and the astounding breakthrough that was the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. He even gets the Puritans right! Since WordPress won’t let us import the video, we just have to give you the link:

Religious Tolerance: Made in America

Enjoy, and enjoy watching a short video rather than reading reams of text from the HP crew. That’s our gift to you!

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )

Saying the Pledge of Allegiance: A Test of Citizenship?

Posted on July 2, 2010. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

Every so often a public debate occurs over the question of whether saying the Pledge of Allegiance aloud in public school classrooms should be mandated or abolished. As it stands, each school district is free to decide whether to require the Pledge to be recited aloud or not.

Those who want it to be recited usually do so because they feel that such recitation at once compels and displays patriotism. Students who say the Pledge in school will be more patriotic, in part because they are part of a town or city or district that demands public shows of patriotism, thus prioritizing them.

It’s unclear that reciting the Pledge each school morning really creates patriotism; anything performed by rote, without being explained and discussed and thought over, becomes just one more task to perform in the minds of the children saying it. The lack of explanation or discussion of the Pledge is bound out in the myriad examples of the misunderstandings children have of the words, such as “I pledge allegiance to the flag and the United States of America, and to the republic of Richard Stands…”.

But even above and beyond whether the Pledge recitals are thoughtful and thought-provoking is the issue of turning the Pledge into a test of citizenship. The Founders were against setting up tests of citizenship, such as those in Europe; having to swear loyalty to the monarch and/or the state church was anathema to them. They set up a republic in which citizenship was easy to get—if you’re born in the U.S., or naturalized, you’re a citizen. You don’t have to prove it in any way. Look at the Constitution: there is nothing in it defining citizenship beyond birth and naturalization, and even the naturalization process is not defined. The important thing is how to use your citizenship, not proving it through any kind of statement or oath.

In fact, you have to wait for the Fourteenth Amendment, in 1868, to get a reiteration of the definition of citizenship, and again it is straightforward: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction  thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Citizenship tests are “laws which abridge the privileges and immunities of citizenship”, and can lead to depriving citizens of life, liberty, and property. Requiring proofs of patriotism to justify one’s citizenship is un-American. Demanding that the Pledge be mandated on the basis that anyone who doesn’t agree is unpatriotic and doesn’t love their country is un-American. It is precisely the fact that Americans are not required to prove their patriotism through statements, oaths, or any act beyond upholding democracy by voting and obeying the Constitution, that makes Americans truly free.

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

The Constitution: harder than it looks

Posted on April 7, 2008. Filed under: U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , |

We kind of hate the Constitution today. We wish it wasn’t so elastic. It allows for so many interpretations; we wish it would just tell us what to do. But of course the only reason it’s a viable document is that it doesn’t tell us what to do.  It gives us a framework of justice to apply to specific instances, and it’s not the document’s fault if we sometimes use its safe space for evil. That’s our fault. We make that choice.


“We the People, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of this liberty to ourselves, and to our posterity do ordain and establish this Constitution, of the United States of America.”

Most of us are familiar with this long sentence. Perhaps you, like me,  learned it on Schoolhouse Rock, and prefer to sing it. But by now, you may see the revolutionary principles and ground-breaking ideals in it more clearly.


After years of trying not to have a real centralized government, and years of trying to put state interests below national interests while keeping individual interests above national and state interests, we get this line. We, the people (not the states) of America, realize that if we want to make this experiment work, and if we want to experience the best government ever attempted in human history, we have to create and honor a binding legal document that establishes a unified, federal government.


The year is 1787. The Articles of Confederation have been in place for 10 years. The Revolutionary War ended in 1783, so we have been an independent nation for just four years. All in all, Americans have been in turmoil for 12 years. This is the point at which most new governments fall apart and the descent into civil war and terror begins. But we fulfilled the principles of our revolution, and peacefully assembled delegates to work together to write a new Constitution.


Even that majority of Americans who did not want a powerful central government were persuaded that it was necessary to keep the states from dissolving the union. They sent delegates to Philadelphia to figure out how to create a government strong enough to protect its people, but bound enough by principles of natural rights not to turn to tyranny.


These delegates were not the famous men who signed the Declaration. Adams was not there; Jefferson was not there. The delegates were mostly unknowns; lawyers, farmers, businessmen. They were not professional politicians. But they were those well-read, revolutionary Americans the rest of the world marveled at. Those men produced a great document because they put themselves second to the ideal of America. They had their moment of absolute power and used it to enshrine natural rights.


We all remember learning about the debates over how to make sure big and small states were equally represented in Congress, the federal government. We feel bored, again because we know how it ended, and the solution is so obvious, it just seems stupid to waste time reading about how they took so long to figure it out.


But the point of those debates about representation is not what ideas were tossed around, and which idea finally won out. It’s that the debates happened at all. We’ve already established that most revolutionary governments quickly implode. Here, faced with a real problem, with no clear answer (despite all our hindsight insisting it was clear), delegates to the convention insisted on figuring out what the best solution was,  on coming up with a solution that really lived up to the principles of the revolution. Instead of saying “We can’t fix this; there’s no solution that everyone will agree on”, and getting out their guns and starting a civil war, these delegates put themselves through hours of philosophical debate in a stiflingly hot room until they fulfilled the trust put in them.


The Founders didn’t “know” that the average American had to consent to this government for it to work; they decided that the average American had to do so, and they subordinated themselves to that purpose. And so they created, as delegate Peirce Butler said, “not the best government they could devise, but the best the people would receive.”


Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )

Liked it here?
Why not try sites on the blogroll...