Lincoln as exemplar for GOP today

If Republicans are serious about recovering constitutional government, it's hard to imagine how they would be successful without Lincoln. Editor: So writes Prof. Tom Krannawitter of Hillsdale College in an IBD opinion piece today. Amid a news cycle now measured in minutes, we need the perspective of the centuries to realize Lincoln's relevance for the momentous decisions of 2009. Here is the article in full:

Lincoln's Defense Of Constitution Is Moral For Today's Republicans By THOMAS KRANNAWITTER

This is the 200th birthday of the first Republican to win a national election, Abraham Lincoln. It is good for Republicans today to remember Lincoln, not to be antiquarians, but to learn from his principled defense of the Constitution.

By becoming students of Lincoln, Republicans can win elections and would deserve to win by helping America recover its constitutional source of strength and vitality.

The greatest political crisis America faces today is neither the recession nor Islamic terrorism; it's not health care, education, immigration or abortion. It is that the United States Constitution has become largely irrelevant to our politics and policies.

All three branches of government routinely ignore or twist the meaning of the Constitution, while many of our problems today are symptoms of policies that have no constitutional foundation.

If we are to recover the authority of the Constitution and the many ways it restrains and channels government power, someone or some party must offer a principled defense of the cause of constitutional government.

They must understand not only the Constitution, but also the principles that informed its original purposes and aspirations, principles found in the Declaration of Independence among other places.

No one understood that better than Lincoln.

Employing a biblical metaphor, Lincoln once described the leading principle of the Declaration of Independence — equal natural rights — as "the word fitly spoken which has proved an apple of gold to us," while the Constitution stands as "the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it.

"The picture," Lincoln argued, "was made not to conceal or destroy the apple, but to adorn and preserve it."

Lincoln's right. The declaration's assertion that legitimate governments derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed" because "all men are created equal" is precisely why "We the people" are authorized to "ordain and establish this Constitution."

Further, the Constitution limits the power of government because, as the declaration makes clear, the purpose of government is limited to securing the God-given, not government-granted, rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And a government of limited purpose should be one of limited power.

The Constitution, however, has suffered two nearly fatal criticisms: It's old and it's racist.

The former was launched by "progressive" thinkers more than a century ago and backed up by sophisticated theories of social and political evolution. Woodrow Wilson, for example, once compared the Constitution to "political witchcraft."

The charge of racism, mainly due to the Constitution's accommodations for slavery, found its loudest voice during the civil rights movement in the 1960s and following decades. Justice Thurgood Marshall voiced this critique in a 1987 Bicentennial essay when he refused to celebrate the original Constitution of 1787 because, he alleged, it was racist and therefore immoral.

The progressive and civil rights critiques have given us a century of New Freedom politics, New Deal politics, Great Society politics, Third Way politics, Compassionate Conservatism politics and now Responsible politics.

What we need, however, is a revival of constitutional politics. But the Constitution cannot be defended against these powerful criticisms unless someone can demonstrate that the Constitution incorporates principles that are both timeless and good.

And any such defense must confront two stubborn facts: The Constitution was indeed written long ago, and it did offer certain protections for slavery.

It was Lincoln's purpose to remind all Americans, white and black, that political freedom rests on an "abstract truth applicable to all men and all times."

That "abstract truth" is the principle of equal natural rights, a principle that cuts across time and space and is, contrary to progressive opinion, valid always and everywhere.

Regarding slavery, Lincoln explained that a constitutional regime dedicated to the declaration's principle of equality is a regime where slavery must be "placed in the course of ultimate extinction."

"If we do this," Lincoln said rightly, "we shall not only have saved the (constitutional) Union. . . . We shall have so saved it as to make and keep it forever worthy of the saving."

At Gettysburg's cemetery, as he struggled mightily to save the Constitution, Lincoln rededicated America to its original noble purpose in one of the most beautiful speeches of all time.

Lincoln understood that slavery did not make America unique. America's uniqueness is being the first constitutional government built on a foundation of equality and the terrible price America paid for ridding itself of slavery.

Lincoln's constitutionalism, I believe, is the only effective rebuttal to progressive and civil rights criticisms. Thus if Republicans are serious about recovering constitutional government, it's hard to imagine how they would be successful without Lincoln.

With Lincoln, it's hard to imagine how they would fail.

Krannawitter teaches political science at Hillsdale College in Michigan and is author of "Vindicating Lincoln: Defending the Politics of Our Greatest President." This article appeared in the Investor's Business Daily on 2/12/09.