When Abraham Lincoln, born 201 years ago today, delivered his immortal Gettysburg Address, he called for a "new birth of freedom." He had issued the Emancipation Proclamation more than a year before, which gave a wartime justification that he knew would ultimately be a peacetime bounty: the end of slavery in America. This "new birth" entailed shedding the remnants of old world conditions in the new by removing the massive contradiction between a free, republican constitution and the bondage of millions of human beings. No one understood more than Lincoln how revolutionary was this massive change in American life, but it took a man of his conservative thought and disposition to foresee its possibility long before and patiently await its consummation in the right circumstances. In his Lyceum speech given a quarter century before the enforcement of the Proclamation, Lincoln warned of a man of towering genius whose fame would eclipse the founders’ by either emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Men of the highest political ambition are not satisfied with serving in a regime of someone else’s making. But this was also an implicit warning that the nation’s unresolved dilemma could not forever be ignored.
Some of Lincoln’s critics, whether among the die-hard confederate sympathizers or liberal debunkers, saw in this early speech signs of a Caesarist temper. But Lincoln proved by his years in Whig politics that he was not an abolitionist and not thirsting for unmerited glory. Indeed, by constantly harking back to the founding fathers and their political principles, particularly in the crisis spawned by the Democratic party’s continual efforts to expand the territory of slavery, he reminded the nation that those principles are a rebuke to domestic slavery that are not to be forever ignored.
As to why the founders did not themselves abolish slavery, it had long been understood that its massive presence in half of the original states had rendered that eminently desirable object impossible. But Lincoln turned attention back to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which prohibited slavery in the future states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin; not to mention the Missouri Compromise of 1819, which prohibited slavery in most of the Louisiana Territory–at least until the Kansas-Nebraska Act opened it up to that evil in 1854.
It is also a fact that northern states all prohibited slavery by the time of the Constitution’s completion in 1787. Lincoln’s explanation was as simple as it was profound: the "central idea" of the Declaration of Independence was "the standard maxim for free society." While it did not result in the complete prohibition or elimination of slavery, it was "constantly labored for," however imperfectly, as "circumstances would well admit." Those principles of equality and liberty are eternally right, but require the consent of the governed for their full implementation.
The right circumstances came in the midst of the Civil War, a conflict in which Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, identified slavery as its cause. Not only the survival of the Union but the future of liberty was at stake in that war, which dragged on far longer than anyone had foreseen or desired, and had forced a choice on the commander-in-chief. Defeating the rebels required that they be deprived of a powerful asset, namely, the continued labor of their slaves while the masters and their sons fought the war’s battles. Sustaining support for the war in the North required that the sacrifices of thousands of its men not result in maintaining an institution that shamed the nation in the eyes of the world. Thus did the "ancient faith" of the American people impose their authority decades after its utterance in their founding documents.
As Union soldiers overran rebel strongholds and ultimately forced their surrender, slavery was doomed. The ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which prohibited domestic slavery or involuntary servitude was at war’s end a foregone conclusion, thereby fulfilling Lincoln’s lifelong but long-delayed hope. But the imperatives of equality and liberty did not cease with the end of fighting. There were civil rights and voting rights to be guaranteed, in order that the gift of freedom for millions of Americans not be devoid of promise. But in fact that promise was long delayed, until agitation for equal protection of the laws a century later culminated in the passage of comprehensive civil rights laws.
Given the oppression that slavery and racial segregation uniquely imposed on persons of African descent, it is not surprising that lovers of liberty should continue, for good or for ill, to dedicate themselves to improving the lot of the race so afflicted. Yet it is well to remember that America’s crisis developed precisely because a growing number of its leaders–primarily but not entirely in the South–came to believe that freedom was for white people only. The "domestic" character of slavery, as well as its confinement south of the Mason-Dixon line, tended to place it out of sight and out of mind, enabling Americans outside the South to ignore it. Such, dear readers of this piece, is the plight of unborn children, who are not only primarily a "domestic" matter but completely invisible in their mother’s wombs–however visible their impact on their mother’s bodies.
That the issues of the Civil War should be revisited in our time will surprise–or disturb–only those who believe that they concerned only the place of blacks in American society. But the principles are universal and only incidentally concern race, which is, after all, only an accidental and not an essential attribute of our human nature. It can hardly be doubted that everyone generated by the union of a male and female human being is a human being from the moment of conception. And while the founders (or Lincoln) could not be said to have had the unborn specifically in mind when they dedicated their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to winning independence from a despotic regime, their principles are no respecter of persons. No member or class of the human race can claim a monopoly on liberty and equal rights.
The language of the Declaration of Independence is clear: "All men are created equal." Children are not created at the moment of their birth, but rather nine months prior. However unequipped to exercise or understand their rights (and what child is before his or her majority?) , unborn children are at the very least entitled to equal treatment and freedom from oppression or death at the hands of those nurturing them. With ultrasound technology, we no longer have the excuse of not knowing that children are developing before birth and we see bodily features and movements which settle the question of their humanity.
From the moment the United States Supreme Court issued its infamous decisions in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton in 1973, the nation has not been wanting in conscientious citizens who argued for the humanity of unborn children, and thus their entitlement to the law’s protection; and in due course the parallel they saw with the plight of blacks held in slavery. More to the point, an earlier Court, in an equally infamous decision in 1857, Dred Scott v. Sanford, declared that black men had no rights which white men were bound to respect. It galls today’s cast of sensible and not-so-sensible civil rights leaders for anyone to make the comparison between Negroes and unborn children, partly because they fear that it distracts attention from a more compelling issue and partly because they have adopted the feminists’ claim that women’s rights entail the right to an abortion at any time during the entire nine months of pregnancy.
But the founders’ principles and Lincoln’s recurrence to them continue to work out their consequences in the hearts and minds of Americans. Just as the premises "All men are created equal" and "all blacks are men," lead to the conclusion that "all blacks are created equal," so too do the premises, "All men are created equal," and "all unborn children are men," lead to the conclusion that "all unborn children are created equal." We must not be tempted, as the nation was tempted in the mid-nineteenth century, to abandon the faith of our founding fathers. And perhaps we will be spared from paying the heavy price it paid for that apostasy.