Henry Cabot Lodge.

The democracy of Abraham Lincoln : address by Henry Cabot Lodge before the students of Boston University School of Law on March 14, 1913 (Volume 2) online

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H3i> Congress 1 SENATE j Document

1st Session f l IN o. 18

Democracy of Abraham Lincoln


- ON MARCH 14, 1913

May 5, 1913.— Ordered to be printed



D. OF 0.
MAY 23 1913


Address to the students of Boston University School of Law, March It. L913,
Bv Hon. Henry Cabot Lodge.

In his History of Twenty-five Years Sir Spencer Walpole says:

Yet, perhaps, of all the men born to the Anglo-Saxon race in the nineteenth century,
Mr. Lincoln deserves the highest place in history. No man ever rose more quickly
to the dignity of a great position. No man ever displayed more moderation in counsel,
or more resolution in administration, or held a calmer or steadier course. Through
the channel of difficulty and danger he kept his rudder true.

This is high praise, but I think that we may go a step further.
As the nineteenth century recedes into the past it becomes constantly
more apparent that the three great events of that period, the three
great facts with a supreme influence upon western civilization and
upon the world, were the preservation of the American Union, the
consolidation of Germany, and the unification of Italy. With these
three events the names of three men are indissolubly associated —
Lincoln, Cavour, and Bismarck. They stand forth as embodying
the cause of national unity in the United States, in Italy, and in
Germany. They were the leaders, the directing minds in the mighty
conflicts which produced the great results, and they loom ever
larger and more distinct as the years pass by like high mountain
peaks, which at a distance separate themselves from the confused
masses of the range from which they rise. I have mentioned these
three great men in the order in which, as it seems to me, they stand,
and as I think they will stand when the final account is made up.
But comparisons are needless. The greatness of Abraham Lincoln
is admitted by the world, and his place in history is assured. Yet
to us he has a significance and an importance which he can not have
to other people. It is impossible to translate a great poem with-
out losing in some degree the ineffable quality, the final perfec-
tion which it possesses in the language in which it was written.
In its native speech the verse is wedded to the form and to the
words, and has tones in its voice which only those who are "to the
manner born" can hear. So Lincoln, whose life, rightly considered,
was a great poem, speaks to his own people as he does to no other.
What he was and what he did and said is all part of our national
life and of our thoughts as well. We see in him the man wh > led in
the battle which resulted in a united country, and we have watched
his crescent fame as it lias mounted ever higher with the incessant
examination of his life and character. Xo record lias ever leaped
to light by which he could be shamed. Apart from all comparisons
it is at least certain that he is the greatest figure yet produced by

1 History of Twenty-five Years, vol. 11, p. 65.


modern democracy which began its onward march at the little
bridge in Concord." If ever a man lived who understood and loved
the people to whom he gave his life, Lincoln was that man. In him
no one has a monopoly; he is not now the property of any sect or
any party. His fame* is the heritage of the people of the tinted
States, and as Stanton said, standing by his deathbed, "He belongs

to the ages." . , *■•**•

For ail these reasons, it seems to me, in these days ol agitation
and disquiet, when the fundamental principles upon which our
Government rests and has always rested are assailed, that nothing
could be more profitable and more enlightening than to know just
what Lincoln's opinions were as to democracy and the true principles
of free government. I am well aware that objection may be made to
Lincoln, as an authority for our guidance, of the same character as the
one brought against tlie framers of the Constitution, which is that he
died nearly half a century ago and that, therefore, however excellent
he was in' his own day and generation, he is now out of date as a
guide in public questions because all conditions have so completely
changed. It is quite true that Lincoln, like Washington, never
saw a telephone, an automobile, or a flying machine, and that economic,
conditions as well as those of business and finance have been radically
altered since his day. But this is really an inept objection because the
subject upon which we seek to know his thoughts concerns the relation
of human nature to certain forms and principles of government among
men, most of which were as familiar to the speculations of Plato and
\ristotle as they are to us; some of which are older than recorded
history while the very youngest have been known, discussed, and
experimented with for centuries. So I think we may dismiss the
suggestion that Lincoln is antiquated and realize that upon the prin-
ciples of free government and the capabilities of human beings m that
direction he is an authority as ancient as the Greek philosophers and
as modern as the last young orator who has just discovered that this
very comparative world is not abstractly and ideally perfect.

What, then, were the thoughts and opinions of Abraham Lincoln
as to the principles upon which free and ordered popular government
should rest ? He alone can tell us. No one is vested with authority
to proclaim to us what Lincoln thought or believed upon any subject.
There is no high priest at that altar to utter oracles which no one
else can question and which he alone can interpret. Lincoln s
convictions and opinions are to be found in only one place, in his own
speeches and writings, which, like his fame, belong to his country-
men and to mankind. Fortunately we need not grope about to
discover his meaning. Few men who have ever lived and played
a commanding part in the world have had the power of expressing
their thoughts with greater clearness or in a style more pellucid and
direct than Lincoln. Of him it may truly be said that his state-
ments are demonstrations. You will search far before you will
find a man who could state a proposition more irresistibly, leaving
no avenue of escape, or who could use a more relentless Logic than
the President of the Civil War. We feel as we read his hie that
he had in him the nature of a poet, the imagination which pertains
to the poetic nature and which was manifested not only in what
he said and did hut in his intuitive sympathy with all sorts and
conditions of men. Combined with these attributes of the poetic


genius, which is as rare as it is impalpable, were qualities seldom
found in that connection. He was an able lawyer and had the
intellectual methods of the trained legal mind. He was also the
practical man of affairs and the great statesman, looking at facts
with undazzled eyes and molding men and events to suit his pur-
pose. There is no occasion for guesswork, assertion, or speculation
in regard to him when he turned away from the visions of the imagi-
nation to confront and deal with the hard problems of life and
government, never to any man harder than they were to him.

Let us then examine his writings and speeches and see what light
they throw upon the questions now subject to public discussion
which relate to the Constitution of the United States and to the
principles upon which that great instrument was based.

Let me remind you at the outset that I am going to deal only with
the fundamental principles of government embodied in the Constitu-
tion and not at all with the many provisions which simply establish
the machinery or mechanism by which the government is to be carried
on. It is important to keep this distinction in mind, for it is fre-
quently lost sight of and the ensuing confusion is deleterious to intel-
ligent comprehension. The mechanism of government may be very
important and a change in it maybe either beneficent or unfortunate
but it is not vital, whereas il the fundamental principles are altered,
weakened, or abandoned the whole structure will come crashing to the
ground. For example: To change the method of electing Senators
may be harmful or beneficial yet it is in reality only a change of
mechanism. But to abandon the equal representation of the States
in the Senate is a vital and destructive change of principle, for the
extinction of the States would mean, the extinction of our govern-
mental system and would involve hi its ruin the basic principle of
local self-government. The number of judges in the Supreme Court
is a matter of machinery and expediency. But the appointment
and tenure of those judges embody principles which go to the very
root ol all ordered and stable government.

It is on questions of principle alone that 1 would seek lo learn
the opinions of Lincoln, and before entering upon that inquiry let
me define the questions upon which it seems to me well that we
should seek his guidance at this tunc. They are two in number —
representative government as involved in the agitation in favor
of the compulsory initiative and referendum; and the independence
of the courts, which is at stake in the demand for the recall of judges
and the review of judicial decisions by popular vote. In an attempt
to set forth Lincoln's opinions upon these questions it would be
impossible to consider the arguments for or against these two propo-
sitions, for each one by itself requires a discussion of great length
and elaboration. I shall make no effort to show that the com-
pulsory initiative and referendum, so loudly demanded in the name
of the people, is in essence a plan to secure not the rule of the people
but arbitrary government by small, highly organized and irresponsible
minorities of voters. Nor shall I try to demonstrate that the judicial
recall and the review of judicial decisions by popular vote would no
only, like the compulsory initiative and referendum, establish the
power of highly organized minorities among the voters, but would
also give us servile and subservient courts controlled by an outside
force and therefore incapable of honestly interpreting the law and


doing justice between man and man. I will, however, pause long
enough to point out that both schemes lead consciously or uncon-
sciously to the same result. If successful, they would bring us to
a government composed of the Executive and the voters. It is
inevitable that this should be the case, for if you reduce to impotency
the representative and judicial branches of the Government nothing
remains but the voters and the Executive. The last conspicuous
example of this kind of government was the second empire in France.
By a vote of over seven millions to two, hundred and fifty thousand
Napoleon was made emperor. On May 8, 1870, his constitutional
changes, continuing the Empire on a more liberal basis, were sus-
tained by a vote of over seven millions to a million and a half, and
within six months after this immense expression of popular approval
his Empire had crumbled into ruins and he was himself a prisoner in
Germany. The result of this form of direct democracy was not
happy in that instance at least. And at bottom the question is
between direct democracy on the one hand and self-limited democ-
racy on the other. The first is very old, the second very new, dating,
on a large scale at least, only from our own Constitution of 1787,
which Lord Acton speaks of as an achievement in the way of self-
limitation which men had up to that tune regarded as impossible.

I have no intention of discussing the merits or demerits of the two
systsms, but the fact that direct democracy is old and our self-
limited democracy is new must not be forgotten. When it is proposed
to emasculate representative government, as was done by the third
Napoleon, or to take from the courts their independence, it may be
a change for the better, as its advocates contend, because almost
anything human is within the bounds of possibility, but it is surely
and beyond any doubt a return from a highly developed to a simpler
and more primitive stage of thought and government.. A system of
government which consists of executive and people is probably the
very first ever attempted by men. Among gregarious animals we
find the herd and its leader, and that was the first form of govern-
ment among primitive men, if we may trust the evidence of those
tribes still extant in a low state of savagery who alone can give us
an idea of the social and political condition of prehistoric man. Mr.
Andrew Lang, in Custom and Myth, to illustrate a very different
subject, says (p. 237):

Even among those democratic paupers, the Fuegians, "the doctor-wizard of each
party has much influence over his companions." Among those other democrats, tin
Eskimo, a class of wizards called Angakuts, become "a kind of civil magistrates,'
because they can cause fine weather and can magically detect people who commit
offenses. Thus the germs of rank in these cases are sown by the magic which is fetich-
ism in action. Try the Zulus: "The heaven is the chief's;" he can call up clouds
and storms, hence the sanction of his authority. In New Zealand every Uangatira
has a supernatural power. If he touches an article, no one else dares to approach it
for fear of terrible supernatural consequences. A head chief is "tapued an inch thick
and perfectly unapproachable." Magical power abides in and emanates from him.
By this superstition an aristocracy is formed and property (the property, at least, of
the aristocracy) is secured. Among the red Indians, as Schoolcraft says, "priests
and jugglers are the only persons that make war and have a voice in the sale of the
land." Mr. E. \Y. Robertson says much the same thing about early Scotland. If
Odin was not a god with the gifts of a medicine man and did not owe his chiefship to
his talent for dealing with magic, he is greatly maligned. The Irish Brehons also
sanctioned legal decisions by magical devices, afterwards condemned by the church.
Among the Zulus "the Itonyo (spirit) dwells with the ureal man; he who dreams is
the chief of the village." The chief alone can "read in the vessel of divination."
The Kaneka chiefs are medicine men.


The chiefs here described derive their authority from the popular
belief in their magic powers, but the germ of government which is
apparent is that of people and executive. Out of these wizards and
medicine men, these chiefs protected by the "tabu," came the king,
as Mr. Frazer shows in his "Early History of the Kingship." The
machinery was constantly elaborated and perfected as the centuries
passed and the king steadily absorbed more power, as was inevitable,
but the system remained in essence the executive and the people.
On the other hand, we may study experiments in direct democracy
in Athens and in Rome more than 2,000 years ago and at a later time
in some of the mediaeval Italian cities. This examination will reveal
the fact that representative government on a large scale is a modern
development originating in England, and also that while the people
began long ago to place limitations on the once unrestrained power
of the crown or the kingship it was in our Constitution that a people
for the first time put limitations upon themselves, which has hitherto
been considered an evidence of unusual intelligence and of a high
civilization. I have ventured upon this digression because it seems
to me important to emphasize the fact that these efforts to get rid of
representative government and the independence of the judiciary,
whether good or bad, are not attempts to advance from what we
now have, but to revsrt to earlier and more primitive forms of social
and political organizations. This point of reversion to earlier forms
so far as it relates to the courts has never been more vividly and
strongly stated than by Mr. Roosevelt in an article upon the Vice
Presidential candidates, which he contributed to the Review of
Reviews in November, 1896 (p. 295):

The men who object to what they style "government by injunction " are, as regards
the essential principles of government, in hearty sympathy with their remote skin-
clad ancestors, who lived in caves, fought one another with stone-headed axes, and
ate the mammoth and woolly rhinoceros. They are interesting as representing a
geological survival, but they are dangerous whenever there is the least chance of
their making the principles of this ages-buried past living factors in our present life.
They are not in sympathy with men of good minds and sound civic morality.

Furthermore, the Chicago convention attacked the Supreme Court. Again, this
represents a species of atavism — that is, of recurrence to the ways of thought of remote
barbarian ancestors. Savages do not like an independent and upright judiciary.
They want the judge to decide their way, and if he does not they want to behead him.
The Populists experience much the same emotions when the)' realize that the judi-
ciary stands between them and plunder.

Let us now examine what Lincoln said or wrote and try to deter-
mine whether he stood for the new or the old, for self-limited or for
direct and unlimited democracy with especial reference to the
two points of government by representation and judicial independ-
ence. On one most memorable occasion Lincoln told the world
what the Government was for which the people whom he led were
pouring out their treasure and offering up their lives. 1 will not
use my own words to describe what he then said but those of an
impartial English historian.

One of them (these "beautiful cemeteries"), on the held of Gettysburg, will be
dear to Anglo-Saxons for all time, because it inspired the famous two minutes' speech
which is, perhaps, the most perfect example in our language oi what ouch a speech
on such an occasion should be. 1

1 The History of Twenty-five Years, by Sir Spencer Walpole. Vol. 11, p. 6"


I will read to you the Gettsyburg speech thus characterized by
Sir Spencer Walpole. Only a portion relates to our subject, but
that speech can not be read or repeated too often by Americans,
and there never has been a time since the hour of its utterance when
it should be more reverently and thoughtfully pondered by all
who love their country than in these days now passing over us.
It was on the J Oth of November, 18(63, a little more than four months
after the great battle, that he spoke as follows in dedicating the
national cemetery at Gettysburg:

Fourscore and seven years ago our lathers brought forth on this continent a new-
Nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created
free and equal.

Now we are engaged in a greal civil war. testing whether that Nation, or any nation
so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a greal battle field
of that war. We have come to delicate a portion of that field as the final resting
place for those who here gave their lives that the Nation might live. It is altogether
fitting and proper that we should do this.

But. in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not
hallow this ground. The brave men. living and dead, who struggled here have con-
secrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note
nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
It is for us, the living, rather, to he dedicated here to the unfinished work which they
who fought here have tints far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to lie here ded-
icated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take
increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devo-
tion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain: 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.

The last sentence is the one which concerns us here. What Gov-
ernment did lie refer to in those closing lines as the one for which
the soldiers died and to the preservation of which he asked his
countrymen to dedicate themselves? It was the Government of
the United States. It could have been no other. His own title
was President of the United States; the uniform which the soldiers
wore and the flag they followed were the uniform and the flag of
the United States of America. He defined this Government to
which he gave his life as a "government of the people, by the people
and for the people." This famous definition, familiar in our mouths
as household words, was applied to the Government of the United
States as created, established, and conducted by and under the
Constitution adopted in 17S9. With the exception of the three
war amendments, and those just adopted, establishing the income
tax and the election of Senators by popular vote, it is the same
Constitution and the same Government to-day that it was in
November, 1863. Lincoln thought it a popular government.
lie did not regard it as a government by a President, or by a
Congress, or by judges, but as a government of, by, and for the
people, and hi his usual fashion he stated his proposition so clearly
and with such finality that there is no escape from his meaning.
We might well he content to stop here and, accepting Lincoln's
definition, stand upon his broad assertion of the character of our
Government and look with suspicion upon those who in the name of
the people seek to tear down that Constitution which has given us

what he declared to he in the fullest sense a government of the people.
Even it' we could conceive 1 that he was mistaken, 1 for one should still
feel that it would he —

Better in err with Pope Hum shine with Pye.


But it is neither necessary nor desirable to stop with the Gettys-
burg speech, for it is important to learn, if we can, in more detail
what Lincoln thought of the limitations established by the Constitu-
tion with especial reference to the principle of representation and the
power of the courts. Very early in his career, when he was not vet
27 years of age, he said in an address before the Young Men's Lyceum
at Springfield, 111., on January 27, 1837:

We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions conduc-
ing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty than any of which t lie
history of former times tells us. * * * Theirs was the task (and oobly they per-
formed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves us, of this goodly land, and
to uprear upon its hills and its valleys a political edifice of liberty and equal rights;
'tisours only to transmit these — the former unprofaned by the fool of an invader, tin-
latter undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation— to the latesl genera-
tion that fate shall permit the world to know. * * *

At what point, then, is the approach to danger to be expected? I answer: It ii
ever reach us, it must spring up among us: it can not come from abroad. If destruc-
tion be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen
we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

In these sentences we see at once that the great style of the Gettys-
burg address and of the second inaugural is still undeveloped, that
the power of expression so remarkable in later years has not yet been
found; but the conviction as to the character of our Government,
which attained its final form at Gettysburg, is here and the closing
w r ords warning us that destruction of our Government can come only
from ourselves demand our attention now as insistently as when they
were uttered by an obscure young man in Illinois looking far into the
future and thereupon passed over unheeded b} T a careless world.

Such, then, was Lincoln's belief in the character of our Govern-

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Online LibraryHenry Cabot LodgeThe democracy of Abraham Lincoln : address by Henry Cabot Lodge before the students of Boston University School of Law on March 14, 1913 (Volume 2) → online text (page 1 of 3)