Don Pesci: Of Lincoln and today's politics

Don Pesci, a Vernon, Conn.-based political writer and frequent contributor to New England Diary, have the address below at Meriden’s Fourth Annual Lincoln Day Dinner.

The day is named after Abe Lincoln, and well named too. I suppose this year those attending these remarks will thank God – who else? – that they are not called upon to celebrate the Jefferson, Jackson Bailey Dinner, which used to be a day of feasting and merriment for Connecticut Democrats. This was before conscience-stricken Democrats re-named their annual event. They did so because Democrats decided, three quarters of a century after President Jackson died, that he had owned slaves – who knew? -- and was not kind to American Indians. Though somewhat debased, Jackson, revered as a populist, is still regarded as the founder of the modern Democratic Party.

 

Lincoln owned no slaves and, in fact, prosecuted a bloody Civil War to emancipate them. He had a wicked sense of humor, unlike the stern, forbidding, disputatious and humorless Andy Jackson. On one occasion, in the midst of a speech, a heckler in the audience cried out that Lincoln was two-faced. Lincoln replied, “If I had two faces, do you think I’d be wearing this one?” His was a face only his wife and Mathew Brady, the famous photographer, could love.

I like to think that the modern Republican Party carries within its political DNA some of the characteristics of its founder. One has to have a robust sense of humor, after all,  to have survived eight years of President Barack Obama, or the possibility that his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, might have become president, a near miss for which the nation must thank God – who else? – or six years of Gov.  Dannell Malloy, whose approval rating, when last I looked, was scraping the bottom of the barrel at 25 percent – not as low as the approval rating of many journalists, but getting there.

So, what Lincolnian virtues should Republicans carry forward into the still nascent 21st Century?

Foremost, I think, would be an unflinching regard for the founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution itself. Superman presidents come and go, but we are still a nation of laws dedicated, as Lincoln would have it, to certain timeless principles, among which is that government should interfere as little as possible with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This last formulation – the pursuit of happiness – properly understood, may grate on modern ears. The founders thought the pursuit of happiness was intimately bound up with property rights, the right to own, enjoy and dispose of property. Most scholars agree that the expression comes down to us from John Locke, who wrote in his Two Treatises of Government  that political society existed to protect property, which he defined as a person’s “life, liberty, and estate." For “estate,” Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, had substituted “the pursuit of happiness.”

The Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason and adopted in June 1776, relying heavily on Locke, states, “That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” A Virginian himself, Jefferson would have been familiar with the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Jefferson regarded Locke as one of the most important apostles of liberty. He was himself, modern libertarians will tell you, a champion of liberty viewed as the absence of governmental force, and also, sexual liberationists never tire of reminding us, a bit of a hedonist. George Washington defined government in a single word:  “Government,” he said, “is force.” And because it is force, it must be used sparingly and well.

So then, rights of property, liberty, which is the absence of unnecessary coercion, rational general laws and public virtue, best secured by republican forms of government, are the principle movers of right human action. Lincoln most heartily believed this, and he prayed for an end to the Civil War so that our nation would experience “a new birth of freedom” rooted in republican perceptions. Near the close of the Civil War, speaking for the nation at large, his words drifting over Gettysburg’s hallowed and blood-soaked ground, Lincoln prayed “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.”

Self-government, then, is intimately related to natural-law rights, or God-given rights, or imprescriptible rights that are part of our nature as human beings. We have a right of assembly because human beings are by nature social animals; we have a right of unhampered speech because as social animals we communicate with each other by means of words and signs, and if we were not at liberty to do so, there could be no social forms – no families, no neighborhoods, no municipal governments, no state governments, no federal governments; we have a right of freedom of religionbecause religious institutions, like political institutions, provide a theatre in whichwe may freely speak and assemble; a church – which is the gathering of the faithful, and not a brick building with a pulpit inside -- is a social theatre of thought and action, like a town hall.

Where are we today? Emerging from the Continental Congress that gave to the nation a Constitution of liberty -- a form of governance -- Ben Franklin was accosted by a woman who asked him, “Well Sir, what have you given us?” And his reply rings down the ages as a challenge thrown at the feet of future generations. “A republic, madam,” he said “— if you can keep it.” All the founders, students of history, every one, knew that republics were perishable forms of government, giving way, usually, to ambitious autocrats and followed by borderless displays of power. So it was with Rome, a promising republic at the beginning that ended with Suetonius’ “The Twelve Caesars,” many of whom – but most emphatically Caligula and Nero – proceeded to govern as demi-gods in whom naked power had replaced honor and public virtue. Caligula is the real precursor of Hitler, Stalin and Mao, three demoniac, totalitarian disturbers of the peace operating in the 20th century, possibly the bloodiest century in the history of the world.

So then, let’s take a survey of what V. I. Lenin used to call “the correlation of forces” right here in Connecticut in year 2017 to see if we have kept the republic.

Governor Malloy, no stranger to the use of naked force, is the most progressive governor Connecticut has had since Wilbur Cross, a Yalie belle lettrist and a Depression0-era governor. I do not here mean to suggest that Malloy is a belle lettrist – far from it; I cannot recall a single line of his uttered during his two terms as governor that is quotable or even memorable. But both he and Cross may properly be characterized as progressives; Cross in the era of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, no mean progressive himself, and Malloy in the era of progressive President Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, a Vermont socialist who may justly be compared with Eugene Debs, Sanders’s political guardian angel. Debs ran for president as a socialist a number of times. 

Progressivism is the doctrine that anti-republican government not only knows best; it can and should be both omni-present and omni-competent, somewhat like the demi-god Caligula who, following his mother’s death, tore open her womb because he wanted to see the place where Caligula-The-God had been born. Progressivism is the doctrine that government is productive of good, an article of faith among both progressives and socialists. Given this presumption, government should be unbounded by such restraints as constitutions, the traditional balance of powers constitutionally hardwired into our republican form of government, long-standing traditions – all of them considered by progressives to be outworn social artifacts -- a lucid view of history and the collective common sense of a people that continues to insist, perversely, that theirs should be a government of, by and for the whole people. There are and must be no limits to true progressive government. We should have known something was up when the newly elected Obama told us that the U.S. Constitution was a document that insured “negative liberties.” The Constitution, in Obama’s view, said what the government may not do. But what the country really needed at the beginning of a regime committed to radically changing the political DNA of the United States was a living constitution that would spell out in precise terms what the government ought to do, a declaration of progressive action. After implementing this new declaration of dependence, the people should let Obama be Obama.

With some very few critics chirping in the background, the nation did allow Obama to be Obama. The results were not encouraging. Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the central pillar of the former president’s legacy, such as it is, carelessly implemented, became unaffordable; in due course, insurance companies took a hike. Obama’s two Secretaries of State – Hillary Clinton and John Kerry – brought war not peace to the Middle East. Vladimir Putin, now nuzzling up to President Donald Trump, bit off a large piece of Ukraine, successfully supported Bashar Assad – a tyrant even more bloody-minded than his father – in Syria, where Obama once drew a quickly disappearing red-line. ISIS, settling into northern Iraq and Syria, claimed responsibility for having blown up Paris -- numerous times. Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, is still dead, his tortured ghost crying out for justice. At Obama’s leave-taking, the national debt stood at $20 trillion, the now former president having doubled the debt within the space of eight years. Obama concluded a disastrous treaty with Iran, which is quickly becoming a client state of Putin’s, the terms of which were never submitted to congressmen such as U.S. Sen. Dick Blumenthal, who signed off on a “deal” that exploded a successful Iranian embargo and gave the mullahs there, all of whom have pledged to push Israel into the sea, millions of dollars in cold cash they doubtless will use to finance the services of Hamas, the militant spear-point cunningly fashioned to pierce Israel’s heart. In his last few weeks in office, the out-going president tried his best to hobble the incoming president – but there are only so many hours in the day, and the days ran out. Thanks to term limits, future damage has been halted, for the time being, and any repair job on Obama’s disastrous legacy was cut short by the unexpected victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. These are some of the bitter fruits of a borderless “rule by executive order” government.

Here in Connecticut, Malloy has followed a similar progressive course. Almost everywhere today, it is assumed that Connecticut does not have a revenue problem; how could it, following Malloy’s two major tax increases, the first the largest and the second the second largest in state history? It is now generally agreed, except in some “of course the earth is flat” quarters, that Connecticut is suffering from a spending problem. Malloy had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to this golden perception. He has several times promised there will be no new tax increases, but he is not opposed to measures that will enhance revenue, and lately he has waffled on the matter of tax increases. He also has waffled on the ideological nature of his administration. Allow me a parenthetical remark: I am here using the word “ideological” in its non-pejorative sense. An ideology is a logical and ordered – not necessarily desirable – body of thought. The opposite of an ideology is a thoughtless, random assemblage of illogical, half-baked ideas.

Malloy has said both that his is the most conservative and the most progressive government, depending upon which group of people he is addressing. Mr. Malloy asked Connecticut reporters at the beginning of the New Year, “Who is the most conservative governor that any of you have worked with in the last whatever period of time you’ve been here?” Here we find him taking an undeserved conservative bow. A couple of weeks later, he was telling reporters that he had accepted an invitation to Trump’s inauguration ceremony because he thought progressive governors should be represented atthe affair. No Connecticut reporter has yet shouted out at a media-availability that Malloy is two-faced.

Only those willing to be fooled are fooled by any of this. Malloy is a progressive, pure and simple. At the beginning of Malloy’s second term, Jim Dean, Howard Dean’s brother, noted that Malloy “has been cited by some progressives like Mayor (Bill) de Blasio, of New York City, as an example of a Democrat who can win by emphasizing progressive themes, while many Democrats who moved in the other direction were defeated." And de Blasio himself draped the progressive mantle over Malloy’s shoulders: “And don't forget Gov. Dan Malloy -- who was written off by so many in his re-election bid in Connecticut. Malloy raised taxes so he could invest more in education each year (at a time when other governors were slashing education to close budget gaps). Malloy passed earned sick time and a minimum wage hike. And in his re-election bid, he proudly stood alongside Obama.” Malloy’s most articulate apologist, Roy Occhiogrosso, recently popped up to confirm that the earth is not flat and his former boss is indeed a progressive.

Lincoln, who believed that men and women should retain the wealth they had earned by the sweat of their brows, was neither a progressive nor a socialist.

Three lines are sometimes quoted from Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address to show that he harbored socialistic tendencies. Here are the lines: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” One imagines Karl Marx, whose articles appeared in New York Papers from 1852-1861, nodding his head in affirmation. The First Inaugural Address was delivered years earlier than Marx and Engles’s Communist Manifesto, and if both had paid close attention to it, incorporating its measures into their ideology, the world would have been spared much trouble.

It is true that labor is superior to capital and must be attended to. “The effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government,” Lincoln says, leads to a series of false assumptions. The false assumption that capital rather than labor is preeminent leads to other dangerously false assumptions.

Here is Lincoln again: “It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded so far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.”

The notion that laborers, once fixed in their jobs, do not advance and improve their lot but remain part of a permanent class – the central presumption of Marxist socialism – is simply not true in Lincoln’s United States.

Listen closely to a uniquely American perception of the relationship between labor and capital:

“Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them. A large majority belong to neither class--neither work for others nor have others working for them. In most of the Southern States a majority of the whole people of all colors are neither slaves nor masters, while in the Northern a large majority are neither hirers nor hired. Men, with their families--wives, sons, and daughters--work for themselves on their farms, in their houses, and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand nor of hired laborers or slaves on the other. It is not forgotten that a considerable number of persons mingle their own labor with capital; that is, they labor with their own hands and also buy or hire others to labor for them; but this is only a mixed and not a distinct class. No principle stated is disturbed by the existence of this mixed class.”

Lincoln never thought in bumper-sticker captions. His last law partner, William Herndon, said of him that Lincoln “not only went to the root of the question but dug up the root and separated and analyzed every fiber of it.” A fellow attorney, Leonard Swett, warned, “Any man who took Lincoln for a simple-minded man would very soon wake up with his back in a ditch.”

Listen now, and try to hear Lincoln’s words with the ear of your heart:

“Again, as has already been said, there is not of necessity any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life” – no permanent class structure. He continues, “Many independent men everywhere in these States a few years back in their lives were hired laborers. The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent energy and progress and improvement of condition to all. No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty; none less inclined to take or touch aught which they have not honestly earned. Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which if surrendered will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them till all of liberty shall be lost.”

The substance and tone here is Reaganesque; no one would be surprised to find these words, or words like them, printed in a contemporary conservative press – not, of course, in Connecticut.

Lincoln left us a legacy we can draw on to advance liberty, the foundation stone of republican government. He was a man ahead of his time because his thoughts were not entirely bound up with momentary political events – which are not to say that Lincoln was not a political creature. He most certainly was a better politician than most men of his period, such as General McClellan, whom Lincoln more or less fired because McClellan, unlike Grant, was not overly concerned with the destruction of the South’s army. McClellan – who ran for the presidency against Lincoln and got shellacked – was a lesser general than Lincoln, who was intimately familiar with Napoleon’s successful military tactics, and who glimpsed in Grant the steel necessary to win a war and keepFranklin’s republic.

 

Studying the speeches of Lincoln – even his casual remarks – and comparing them with the sound-bite rhetoric of any modern politician you care to mention, one is forced to the conclusion that the Darwinian notion that a final product is more complex and perfect at the end of any developmental process is pure hokum. Only a political process that retains what is best and purifies our politics by speaking to the angels of our better nature can be called an improvement, a step forward toward beauty and perfection.

We must understand this about Lincoln: Secession, the abolition of slavery and most importantly the Civil War are the distortion lenses through which the character of Lincoln shines through. Lincoln used to say that all men can abide adversity; but if you want to test a man’s character – give him power. He wended a tortuous way during his own time between Radical Republicans rushing forward at warp speed, less impulsive Conservative Republicans, War Democrats who turned against him mostly for political reasons, and Copperheads, the foot-draggers of the age. Lincoln understood the mind of the country better than any other president before or after him. And he was a masterful commander-in-chief, says James McPherson in a book called Tried by War; Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief.

The war ended; the union was preserved; slavery was abolished. Ten years after Lincoln was assassinated, Fredrick Douglas was asked to say a few words about Lincoln on the occasion of the dedication of the “Freedmen’s Monument” in Lincoln Park east of the U.S. Capitol. This is what he said: “The honest and comprehensive statesman, clearly discerning the needs of his country, and earnestly endeavoring to do his whole duty, though covered and blistered with reproaches, may safely leave his course to the silent judgment of time. Few great public men have ever been the victims of fiercer denunciation than Abraham Lincoln was during his administration. He was often wounded in the house of his friends. Reproaches came thick and fast upon him from within and from without, and from opposite quarters. He was assailed by abolitionists; he was assailed by slaveholders; he was assailed by the men who were for peace any price; he was assailed by those who were for a more vigorous prosecution of the war; he was assailed for not making the war an abolition war; and he was most bitterly assailed for making the war an abolition war.”

 

A man of character was Lincoln. I think it was Henry Adams – the black sheep of the Adams family who, consciously attempting to wound puritanical sensibilities in Boston – placed the highest point of Western Civilization in the 12th Century. It was all downhill from there, Adams thought. Having written columns about Connecticut politicians for some 35 years, I hope you will forgive me if I say Adams may have a point.