The “Tests” Of The American Republic: Are We Failing The Final Test?

Aug 1st, 2020 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

Arguably, Abraham Lincoln was the greatest president in American History.  He led the nation through its greatest test—the Civil War (1861-1865).  As early as 1838, Lincoln argued that the Republic would not collapse from an outside invasion; rather, it would collapse from within.  He also believed that popular governments, which rest their sovereignty in the people, must undergo three tests.  Historian Allen C. Guelzo helps us understand Lincoln’s perspective: “Lincoln once made the comment that popular governments, governments that rest sovereignty in the people, like the American Republic, must undergo three tests. The first test is the creation of the government itself. The second test is getting it up and operating. And the third test comes when it must resist attack from insurgencies within. Lincoln had believed—and this runs all the way back to his first great speech in 1838 on what he called ‘The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions’—that the American Republic could likely never be overthrown by outside attack. Lincoln said if there is going to be an end to the American Republic, we are probably going to be responsible for it ourselves, and it will come from within. This thinking informed those three tests that he thought a Republic had to pass. The American Civil War was exactly what he described as that third test. Can we survive an attempt from within to destroy the American Republic? Lincoln believed that what had happened at Gettysburg and what was happening in the Civil War was the third test. If we dedicated ourselves to the principles of the Republic with the same fervor that those soldiers had dedicated themselves—even to the point of ‘the last full measure of devotion’—then we would indeed experience a new birth of freedom. It resembled a revival meeting at which the term ‘new birth,’ since the days of the eighteenth century, meant a renewal of spiritual vigor. If we could dedicate ourselves that way, we would experience exactly that new birth and America would pass that final exam that a Republic must pass. That is what he exhorted people to in the closing sentences of the Gettysburg Address. If that happened, Americans would not only experience that new birth, but it would ensure that government of the people, by the people, for the people would not perish from the earth.”


Lincoln believed that the Union’s victory during the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery were the ratification of the Declaration of Independence and its principles, especially that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights . . . .” These rights provide the basis for the national identity of the United States.  Historian C. Bradley Thompson argues persuasively that the difference between the American Revolution (1776-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799) is fundamental:  “Whereas the Americans began with the individual as the primary unit of moral and political value, the French Jacobins wanted to create a collective will.  But in order to create a collective will, you have to destroy all those wills that are counter to your vision of the general will.”  For that reason, America’s Revolution ended with constitutional government and France’s with terror and tyranny, culminating in the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and 15 years of war.

Next to the Bible, the Declaration of Independence is the greatest document in world history arguing for the abolition of slavery.  This was critical for the new American constitutional government, for, in allowing slavery to persist, it fell short of its ideals.  But, those ideals informed the development of the nation.  As Thompson shows, “every state in the North began the process of gradual emancipation . . . . The Continental Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which prohibited slavery in the territory north and west of the Ohio River.”  Thompson also shows that as abolitionists seeking to end slavery grew in numbers and influence between 1830 and 1860, the South responded with a dreadful defense of slavery.  In addition to a selective and perverted use of God’s Word, Southern intellectuals were also influenced by the German philosopher Gerog Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who argued that “all truth is relative to time and place.”  Proslavery advocates “became pre-Marxian Marxists in their criticism of limited government and capitalism.  They argued that capitalism is a system of exploitation, which necessarily forces workers into an exploitative relationship with owners of capital, thereby forcing their wages and their livelihood down to subsistence levels.  They even claimed that slaves had it better than Northern workers.”


Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in November of 1863 called for a “new birth of freedom.”  As the War ended, many believed that Gettysburg and the “new birth” doctrine would become the means for national reconciliation.  It could become the symbol that would triumph over other symbols, especially the Confederate flag.  Guelzo provides a helpful perspective as to why the Confederate flag has no place in our present day time of troubles: “Not very long after the battle [of Gettysburg], people were already hoping to use Gettysburg as a platform for promoting reconciliation between North and South. As early as 1869, a promoter in Gettysburg wanted to arrange for all the senior officers who had been involved in the battle, North and South, to come to the Gettysburg battlefield to point out what they considered to be the significant moments of the battle. And they would do it together. George Meade for the Union Army and Robert E. Lee for the Confederate Army were invited. It did not quite work out, because Lee declined and would not come. His response was that reconciliation would be better achieved by simply burying the memory of the past.  In the 1880s, groups of veterans from both Union and Confederate armies came to Gettysburg and were supposed to have reunions of the Blue and Gray there. Almost invariably, these reunions broke down in quarrels between the old veterans. In many cases, Union veterans refused to countenance the notion that their Confederate counterparts would be allowed to parade through the town displaying Confederate flags. They had fought against those flags, and the flags represented treason to them. They were not going to participate in that. So, while from time to time well-intentioned people were able to stage photographs of Confederate and Union veterans shaking hands over the wall at The Angle on the Gettysburg Battlefield, what surrounded those photographs was a good deal less pleasant and sometimes not entirely printable.  This persisted straight up until 1913, when a tremendous jamboree was planned at Gettysburg that would bring Union and Confederate veterans of the Civil War together on the fiftieth anniversary of the battle for a great display of reconciliation. Even there, matters broke down because the Union veterans insisted on no display of Confederate flags. President Woodrow Wilson, a Southerner, was invited to address the gathering. Wilson took the train into Gettysburg, made his brief speech, got on the train and left. But when he came to make his speech, Confederate veterans who had concealed Confederate flags all burst out with these flags to wave them at the president because Wilson was from the South. This created tremendous consternation among the Union veterans who refused to applaud Wilson’s speech. So even in 1913 there was still great disagreement.  The last of these reunions occurs in 1938. And, once again, the effort was made to promote reconciliation. By this time, the number of veterans who survived to attend was very few. Most of them were very old, and there was not much concern of trouble to break out.”


The Confederate flag is not a worthy symbol of America.  It is a symbol of the “Lost Cause” that developed after the end of Reconstruction in 1876.  Added to that symbol of the South were the Ku Klux Klan and the institutionalization of the laws of segregation in the South.  Another dimension of the “Lost Cause” was the erection all over the South of statues of Confederate generals and politicians (e.g., Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson), who by any definition were guilty of treason.  They are tributes to slavery, secession and racial domination.  As historian Sean Wilentz shows, a more powerful and meaningful symbol occurred in May 1861:  “Following Virginia’s decision to join the Confederacy, Union troops seized the Arlington plantation and mansion owned by Robert E. Lee, whose wife had inherited it as a member of the Custis family, related by marriage to George Washington.  The site was of military importance, offering an unobstructed view of Washington across the Potomac.  General Montgomery Meigs, the Union’s quartermaster general, considered Lee an abject traitor and was determined that neither he nor his family would ever inhabit the place again . . . Meigs won Lincoln’s approval for using the plantation as a burial ground for Union soldiers . . . Thus was born Arlington National Cemetery, hallowed American ground expropriated from the leading general of the slaveholders’ rebellion.”  It became a memorial to those who sacrificed their lives for what Lincoln called “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”  In this way, Meigs and Lincoln “erased the soiled legacy of its previous Confederate owner.”


Symbols are important and use of the Confederate flag and the statues of Confederate heroes, who were in fact traitors, must be honestly death with.  Forts Bragg, Hood, Benning and seven other military installations named for Confederate generals should be renamed.  They symbolize an ugly part of our past.  They stand opposed to the “new birth of freedom” about which Lincoln spoke in 1863 and to the Arlington National cemetery, which symbolizes the triumph over the Confederate rebellion and the terror of slavery.

See “Lessons from Gettysburg: A Conversation with Professor Allen Guelzo” in Public Discourse (30 June 2020); Jason Willick “Abolition and the American Founding” in the Wall Street Journal (3 July 2020); and Sean Wilentz in the Wall Street Journal (27-28 June 2020).

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