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When Reading about Abraham Lincoln, in 2021

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“As historian James Oakes writes in his new book, The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution, the Republican Party was once home to a tight union of moral principle and constitutionalism.”

At the close of former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, just days before the former president would release a bizarre tirade against him, Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made a bizarre political stand of his own. Having just voted to acquit President Trump for inciting the January 6th insurrection against the Congress as it certified President Joe Biden’s electoral victory, Senator McConnell slammed the former president on the floor of the Senate, deeming President Trump “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day.” Yet, Senator McConnell could not bring himself to vote “guilty.” In Senator McConnell’s telling on the floor of the Senate and in a subsequent Wall Street Journal op-ed, the Constitution precluded him from holding the former president accountable via convicting him for the high crime, the deep violation of the public trust, which he had committed on the lead-up to January 6th and on that very day. Senator McConnell intones that impeachment was off the constitutional table since President Trump had left office, though civil and criminal repercussions could be in order.

Senator McConnell claims to have upheld the Constitution. In reality, he hid behind a false apparition of it. As The Dispatch editor-in-chief Jonah Goldberg remarked, “McConnell’s theory is that he can have it both ways: simultaneously denounce Trump and provide him cover in the hope of reconciling the divisions in the party that cannot be reconciled.” In the long-term, the GOP cannot be both the party of American conservatism (constitutional and otherwise) and Trumpism. Something will have to give. A choice will have to be made. Senator McConnell and others like him have long thought that they can split the baby, that they can have it both ways. Even the sickening violence of January 6th has not convinced them of how erroneous—and dangerous—this view is.

Slowly but surely, the Republican Party would do well not only to cast off its anti-constitutional, Trump-deranged, cultish elements but also the enabling ranks led by Senator McConnell. If the GOP is to have a positive rather than a corrosive effect on our politics, the future of the party must be forged by political leaders actually wedded to our constitutional order like Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse and Utah Senator Mitt Romney. 

Doing so would not just be good for our country and the party; it would square the GOP with its historical inheritance. 

As historian James Oakes writes in his new book, The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution, the Republican Party was once home to a tight union of moral principle and constitutionalism. Oakes tracks the emergence and evolution of what he calls the Antislavery Project—the belief in and advocacy of a broadly antislavery constitutional order, with some exceptions, that came to define the core of the Republican Party’s political thought and that of its first nationally elected leader, President Abraham Lincoln. For President Lincoln’s Republican Party, the Constitution was the practical enshrinement of the great moral principle of equal human dignity laid out by Thomas Jefferson—the “picture of silverframed around the “apple of gold” of the Declaration of Independence. For President Lincoln’s Republican Party, the Constitution—namely, the antislavery Constitution—was the animating force of the party. For the post-January 6th iteration of Senator McConnell’s GOP, on the other hand, the Constitution is perversely used as a rhetorical shield to deflect and downplay attacks on the constitutional order itself for the sake of party preservation.

“The Constitution” to which the Republican Party appeals here in 2021 has devolved into a vague and nearly meaningless talking point. In the lead-up to Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860 and throughout the Civil War, on the other hand, antislavery Americans and the Republican Party they formed took the Constitution quite seriously and literally. Their overarching argument was that, in Oakes’s words, “the Constitution made freedom the rule and slavery the exception.” For President Lincoln and his antislavery compatriots, the federal government did indeed have the authority—and even the duty—to bar slavery from the federal territories, to grant runaway slaves due process rights, and to outlaw slavery in the District of Columbia. In short, “freedom [was] the rule” enshrined by the constitutional order, and “slavery the exception.” This antislavery reading of the Constitution grew more radical over time as it interacted with the increasingly strident proslavery version of the Constitution being advanced by antebellum southerners like South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun. That said, the adherents of the Antislavery Project always sought to keep their antislavery and constitutional commitments aligned. As tempting as it might have been, they did not allow their antislavery views to run roughshod over the plain meaning of the Constitution—even when its meaning was morally reprehensible. 

As egregious an exception to the constitutional rule of natural liberty as slavery was, antislavery constitutionalists recognized that there were constitutional limits to the federal government’s authority to interfere with slavery within the existing slave states. As Oakes writes, the Antislavery Project of which President Lincoln was a part did not deny the “federal consensus”—“the assumption…that the federal government had no power to ‘interfere’ with slavery, or abolition, in the states.” Thus, “whatever else the federal government could do, the one thing nearly everyone agreed it could not do was abolish slavery in a state.” President Lincoln was no exception: “in every ‘fragment on government’ he jotted down, every passing remark he made about the relative powers of individuals, states, and the nation, President Lincoln was careful to respect the rights of states to determine their own ‘domestic’ affairs,’” including slavery.

Oakes lays out how President Lincoln’s commitment to the core tenets of the Antislavery Project—including the federal consensus—explains his actions on the abolition front during the war. Many assert that President Lincoln was transformed from a tepid, gradual abolitionist to a more committed, immediatist over the course of the war. In the final two chapters of the book, Oakes forcefully argues instead that President Lincoln’s twin commitments to constitutionalism and antislavery, not gradualism, shaped the progress and contours of abolitionism during the war. Given that slavery was a stubborn “domestic” institution, President Lincoln’s overarching goal “was to get the slave states to abolish slavery on their own.” He offered both carrots and sticks to slaveholding yet loyal border states in the hopes of accomplishing this objective, but he refused to overstep explicit constitutional constraints. After all, President Lincoln “still believed that the federal government had ‘no lawful power’ to abolish slavery in any state.”

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This is why the Emancipation Proclamation only applied to the Confederate states. Since the order was merely a wartime measure carried out under his Commander in Chief powers, President Lincoln understood well that the slavery issue required a more permanent resolution. The 13th Amendment provided the “king’s cure” to the ill of slavery, but, even then, state-level abolitionist action was crucial: “by January 1865 enough states had abolished slavery to make ratification of a nationwide abolition amendment possible.” Oakes concludes: “To the very end the states were the key.”

In times like the present, it feels foreign to learn about political figures who not only aligned their moral and political convictions with our Constitution but, in fact, derived those very convictions from the Constitution. Foreign and inspiring, that is, because at a moment of dramatic national crisis, President Lincoln and similarly minded Americans met the moment, while staying true to constitutional principles. President Lincoln’s Republican Party, a product of the Antislavery Project outlined so expertly by Oakes, saw the Constitution as a sword—a weapon to be wielded on behalf of great moral principles—not as a shield to degrade such principles. 

Now that some inane elements of the Left have decided that President Lincoln warrants cancellation, perhaps Republicans will be propelled by the forces of negative partisanship to shower the 16th President with the praise he deserves. In so doing, we can only hope that they also engage in earnest with President Lincoln’s political and constitutional thought as laid out by scholars like Oakes. Then, just maybe, the party can be reminded of its origins in the preservation and perfection of our constitutional order, not its destruction.

Thomas Koenig is a recent graduate of Princeton University and will be attending Harvard Law School in the fall of 2021. He can be found on Twitter @TomsTakes98

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