Let me share this with you:
July 4, 1861 — exactly a hundred and fifty years ago — witnessed the reading aloud, on the floor of Congress, of Abraham Lincoln’s Message to Congress in Special Session.
The circumstantial appeal of Lincoln’s message turned on his defense of the Union against the threat posed by secession, and that is the part most people have in mind when they recall the most famous words of the address: “This is essentially a People’s contest.” Lincoln was speaking for democracy. He was also speaking for a Union, popular in character and progressive in direction, as the heart of all future hopes for democracy.
Another part of the Special Message matters more to us today. For Lincoln saw an unresolvable tension between the constitution of a democratic republic and the policies of aggrandizement and intemperate self-interest that lead from the manners of freedom to the slavish love of power. He spoke of the difference between the work of establishing a constitutional republic and the longer task of maintaining it. But maintaining it against what? Lincoln’s answer was always the same: against the internal pressure of greed, and the external pressure of war. The predicament of the country in 1861, he said, “forces us to ask: ‘Is there, in all republics, this inherent, and fatal weakness? Must a government,
of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?'”
We are now ten years into a policy shared by two successive administrations to plant a new understanding of the spirit of the laws in America. That policy has pretended there is a “trade-off” between liberty and security, and that in a time of crisis, security ought to have the upper hand. The Cheney-Bush and Obama administrations have accustomed us to laws and language concerned above all with the “protection” of citizens — as if there were something higher or more worth protecting than the liberty that is guaranteed by our laws and
the framework of laws, the Constitution. (more…)