Thursday, July 04, 2013

Happy United States Day!

For whatever reason, I have never noticed that the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg was on July 1-3. So yesterday was the 150th anniversary. It was the turning point of the Civil War.

The Gettysburg Address was not delivered until four months later, but in it Lincoln built on the fact that the battle was over on July 4. The South wanted to argue from the Constitution that it could have slaves and even leave the Union as states if it wanted. Lincoln pushed back to the more fundamental principles of the Declaration of Independence.  "All men are created equal" and the Union was for "for the people," meaning all the people, not just the ones in power.

As one article put it, prior to the Civil War, we were "these United States." After the Civil War, we were "the United States."  The Civil War sealed us as a nation. Now we cannot be divided. No state could ever secede now and would be foolhardy even to think of it given the advantages of being connected with the broader nation.

The spirit of Gettysburg is a far more noble spirit to commemorate than the spirit of independence. It is the spirit of coming together rather than the spirit of breaking apart. Lincoln reached into the Declaration of Independence and seized the principle that slaves were equal to any other human being in value. It is a sign of the Constitution's imperfection that it had not fully played out this insight.

Rights are not absolute. They are tempered by the rights of others. Living together in society always involves the surrender of some rights in order to receive the greater benefit of living together in a just society. I agree not to kill you and in turn receive an assurance that you will not kill me. Talk of state's rights has almost always been the ignoble attempt to escape these principles of Gettysburg.

Lincoln's assassination was far more horrific than just the death of a great man. It allowed Andrew Johnson to muck up the next hundred years. The freed slaves were left to a freedom with no power to act on it, perhaps a worse state than before in many cases. Lincoln would not have let that happen, and Johnson is usually in the running for the worst president of US history. And yes, he was a state's rights kind of guy.

So let no celebration of Independence Day pretend that we are in the situation of the revolutionaries of 1776. We have representation. We as a whole are the ones making the decisions--through the people we elect--not some foreign power detached from us. Most of the complaints we make are when the majority vote differently than we want or when the justice system keeps us from using our freedoms to impinge on the freedoms of others.

The theory of the United States remains sound, even if it hits some rough spots from time to time in the implementation.

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