Close Reading- Lincoln’s Fragment on the Constitution and the Union

By Katri Thiele, Civil War to Reconstruction (HIST 288), Spring 2015

Profound political, social, and moral divisions crippled the integrity of the United States leading up to Abraham Lincoln’s first election to presidency on November 6, 1860. In his efforts to preserve the remainder of the Union, Abraham Lincoln conversed with southern Congressman Alexander H. Stephens in what might be called “The Lincoln-Stephens Debates of 1860-1861.” Lincoln held steadily to the Congressman (who would eventually become the Vice-President of the Confederate States of America) as he tried to convince the president elect to promise southerners a future for the institution of slavery. A pragmatist, Lincoln knew not to directly threaten the southern institution, but would not allow his country to persist under a practice that, as he believed, was blatantly condemned by the Founding Fathers. Lincoln’s January 1861 “Fragment on the Constitution and the Union”  was a privately kept note in response to Stephens’s counsel that asked him to guarantee protection of slavery; a request which utterly contradicted his principles as a politician, but more so as a humane being. This note arguably reveals more about the foundations of Lincoln’s politics and morals, rooted in the Declaration of Independence, than do most known speeches or letters.

It was December 22, 1860. Short of two months following the controversial election of Abraham Lincoln to United States presidency, and only two days after the secession of South Carolina, the first state in the to-be Confederate States of America. Alexander Stephens, a Congressman hailing from Crawfordville, Georgia received a letter from the president elect, headed boldly with “For your own eye only…” The president elect was an old friend of Stephens’, the two having worked together as Whigs in Congress from the 1840s. [1] Both skilled politicians, they were in the midst of an exchange concerning the most significant political event to afflict the United States of America- the secession of southern states from the Union over Constitutional dissent.

Courtesy of “Alexander H. Stephens in Public and Private: With Letters Before, During, and Since the War”

Lincoln’s election in 1860 was hotly contested over his ideas regarding the institution of slavery. Southern states deeply feared that his interpretation of the Declaration of Independence focused too heavily upon the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal,” which would endanger the future of slavery- an institution in direct opposition of this moral principle. This threatened the way of life in the South and, especially frightening, the success of the southern economy. After South Carolina took initiative in December of 1860, the secessionist sentiment feverishly intensified throughout the South, becoming less of an empty threat and more of a reality. By February 1, 1861 seven more states had seceded from the Union. [2]

Courtesy of Wikipedia


On November 14, 1860- just five days following Lincoln’s election- Congressman Stephens traveled to Milledgeville, GA to acknowledge the expanding sentiment for secession in his state:

My object is…not to appeal to your passions, but your reason…In my judgment, the election of no man, constitutionally chosen to that high office, is sufficient cause to justify any State to separate from the Union. It ought to stand by and aid still in maintaining the Constitution of the country…The President of the United States is no Emperor, no Dictator– he is clothed with no absolute power. [3]

Stephens, counseling Georgians against a hasty decision for secession, held to the Constitution to make his point; the document had not been defied in Lincoln’s election, as pro-secessionists claimed. To consider secession out of fear that Lincoln might endanger their interests, Stephens claimed, would bestow upon them the burden of their own hypocrisy- rebellion against the Constitution. Stephens’ suggestion, instead, was to hold the threat of secession until the Republican president actively violated their Constitutional rights. Specifically, until he attempted to interfere with the institution of slavery under the law.

In late December of 1860 began the exchange between Stephens and Lincoln, opening with the president elect requesting a copy of Stephens’ Milledgeville speech, a request made out of admiration for the oration and its message. Stephens’ response initiated the necessary conversation regarding the state of the Union: “The country is certainly in great peril, and no man had heavier or greater responsibilities than you have in the present momentous crisis.” [3] The discussion maintained a cordial tone, as an attempt to cooperate in preservation of the remainder of the Union. Stephens earnestly advised Lincoln to make some action- a statement or otherwise- to appease those in the South who had not yet seceded; in other words, to guarantee protection of their ideals. “A promise from Lincoln to protect the constitutional status of slavery,” claims historian Jack Rakove, “would avoid the ‘consolidated despotism’ that any attempt to restrain seceding states by force would ultimately create.” [4] Stephens suggested some caution, respectfully reminding the president elect that he lacked the power, under the Constitution, to interfere with the institution of slavery.

Lincoln’s response to Stephens assured him that the South need not fear for their rights- the Republican administration had no intention to interfere with their treasured institution, either “directly or indirectly.” [2] His personal response however, in the form of a private note, was much more telling regarding his purposes and ultimate objectives as president of the United States. In this note, “Fragment on the Constitution and the Union,” Lincoln avows his devotion to the Declaration of Independence and, in turn, to the message of the Founding Fathers: a self-governing body shall only survive if it is true to liberty “not selfishly, but upon principle.” [5] Furthermore, Lincoln emphasized the importance of the people’s passion for liberty- as this liberty was the end to which the efforts of federal Union and governmental proceedings, such as the Constitution, were the means. Historian Lucas E. Morel highlights Lincoln’s point: “because the liberties each person possesses by nature are not self-enforcing, the mechanism by which these liberties were to be protected becomes especially important.” [5] Lincoln’s personal thoughts in response to Stephens begin as follows.

Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of ‘Liberty to all’ —the principle that clears the path for all— gives hope to all— and by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all.

The final sentence referred to those unalienable rights endowed by the Creator of men as stated in the Declaration of Independence: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” One of the biggest challenges that Abraham Lincoln faced during his presidency, however, was to clarify the meaning of liberty- the spirit that should govern the lives of all Americans in the ideal self-governing nation, but which was vehemently debated. In a speech to the Women’s Central Association of Relief in Baltimore, MD, on April 18, 1864, Lincoln identified the large-scale distinction between liberty in the Union and in the Confederacy that created their mutual animosity in the Civil War: “With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor.” [5]  

It was this difference in ideas that created a divided nation, as it was from 1861 to 1865. The latter belonged to Confederate minds; as it defined liberty for certain classes of men, it defined slavery for others. Unequivocally, this directly violated those beliefs expressed by the document most important to Lincoln- the Declaration of Independence- whose authors considered slavery a “necessary evil.”

Without this [Declaration of Independence], as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. No oppressed, people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters.

The final sentence of this section indicated that the citizens of the United States would not toil for a unified, flourishing nation without the eventual promise of idyllic liberty and freedom. But what would this liberty entail, and how would it manifest itself in the United States of America? Without a doubt, Lincoln believed that as long as slavery persisted, liberty could not be. The two were mutually exclusive. As long as liberty, in its proper sense, did not dictate the spirit of the Union, it could not be the prosperous, self-governing nation that the Founding Fathers dreamed of during the Revolutionary War. Lincoln draws a direct connection between oppression by British rule and oppression by slavery. It was clear that these dictatorship efforts were analogous- yet somehow no empathy was evocable in the Confederate people.

Lincoln’s most direct response to Alexander H. Stephens’ letters came in the next section of his note. In a lengthy response to the president elect, dated December 30, 1860, the Georgia Congressman alluded to Proverbs 25:11 of the Bible, to urge Lincoln to somehow deliver a message that would placate the remaining Southern states: “A word ‘fitly spoken’ by you now, would indeed be ‘like apples of gold, in pictures of silver.’” [5]

Abraham Lincoln 16th President of the United States Portrai

While not a man of vehement religious beliefs, Lincoln certainly understood Stephens’ allusion and intended message. He inverted the simile somewhat, applying it to his own position:

The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, ‘fitly spoken’ which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy, the apple; but to adorn, and preserve, it. The picture was made for the apple— not the apple for the picture.

The assertion of that principle, for Lincoln, is the Declaration of Independence and its emphasis on liberty. This, as the golden apple, enclosed by a silver frame- the Constitution and the established Union. Historian George Kateb evaluates this metaphor: “the Constitution and the Union were…instrumental: precious but not as precious as the golden…principle; neither thing of silver was an end in itself.” [7] Lincoln unequivocally established his opinion that the Declaration of Independence is the document upon which the United States was formed and shall be governed- preserving liberty, the sentiment deemed fundamental by our Founding Fathers. Kateb argues, “as long as the Constitution and the Union permitted slavery, they could not be golden.” [7]

Historian Allen Guelzo claims that “even among Lincoln’s admirers, there is a running current of discomfort at Lincoln’s apparent willingness to set the Constitution below the Declaration.” He refers to conservative historians Willmoore Kendall and Gottfried Dietz, among others, who argue that Lincoln manipulated and demolished the Constitution to “pursue dictatorial glory as president,” and “put himself in Washington’s place as the father of his country.” [8] This may have been the impression of pro-secessionists as well. However, Kerry T. Burch, author of Democratic Transformations: Eight Conflicts in the Negotiation of the American Identity, seems to more accurately identify Lincoln’s purpose; she claims that he was not so intent to degrade the Constitution in relation to the Declaration, but rather to emphasize his belief that “without the prior guidance of the Declaration’s values and principles, the Constitution would continue to function as no more than an amoral legal framework.” [9] Rakove, in his review of Alexander Tsesis’s tribute to the Declaration of Independence, For Liberty and Equality, highlights Lincoln’s reverence for Thomas Jefferson, an author of the Declaration, quoting Lincoln from April 1859: “All honor to Jefferson, for having the ‘capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.’” [4] Lincoln undoubtedly delivered this line with emphasis on “all men.”

In his final sentences of the note, Lincoln acknowledged secession. Here he addressed the United States as a coalition, and its people as a unified body. Lincoln called upon the people not only to obey the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Union, but to understand their power and value in both the history and the future of the United States. Those who favored secession and nullification saw the Union as a compact among sovereign states, from which they could opt out if in disagreement with its doctrines. The opposing side, being those who believed in “perpetual union,” saw it as a compact among people that required agreement of all parties to defy. Lincoln sided with the latter, declaring that “no State, upon its own mere notion, can lawfully get out of the Union…The central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy.” [2] Lincoln’s note stressed that secession would completely discount the efforts and intentions of the Founding Fathers. A universal understanding of liberty, in its true sense, would have squandered any notion for such blasphemy.

So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised, or broken.

That we may so act, we must study, and understand the points of danger.

Abraham Lincoln was an eloquent and thoughtful writer and orator. His “Fragment on the Constitution and on the Union” provided major insight into his reaction to southern state secession following his first election to presidency. These thoughts of his were never publicized so cohesively as in this note, however his eventual triumph in achieving nationwide moral and political change was largely a result of his compelling public discourse. What made him so successful, as both a lawyer and a politician, was his ability to maintain radical objectives in private, but deliver them moderately in the public eye.

In a speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, on February 22, 1861, soon after the alleged writing of this note, Lincoln made clear his passion to preserve the integrity of the United States of America. He was confident that this could be accomplished, but not without cohesive effort and mutual understanding among the American people. This would require a common sense of liberty and universal realization of the interdependence between politics and morals. Lincoln was not credulous as to expect a Union victory in the Civil War to dissolve racist sentiments throughout the country. He recognized that pragmatism in politics was the way to accomplish de jure equality, in order to create the path that would one day lead to de facto liberty in the United States. Lincoln’s reelection to presidency in 1864 confirmed that it was common understanding that he was the one capable of leading the nation to this fate.

I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future timeNow, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world if I can help to save it. If it can’t be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But, if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle–I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it. [10]

It was also at Independence Hall that, four years later, Abraham Lincoln’s body lay in state after his assassination, as his funeral train made its way from Washington, D.C. to lay him to rest in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. [10]

Works Cited

[1] University of Georgia Libraries. “Abraham Lincoln Letter to Alexander Stephens.” Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library (2013). confed/letter.html

[2] Masur, Louis P. The Civil War: A Concise History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

[3] Johnston, Richard Malcolm and William Hand Browne. Life of Alexander H. Stephens. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co, 1883. (Google eBook)

[4] Rakove, Jack. “Fitly Spoken: A Review of Alexander Tsesis’s  For Liberty and Equality.” The New Republic, 2012.

[5] Morel, Lucas E. Lincoln, Liberty, and the American Constitutional Union: Chapter 6- Lincoln, Liberty, and the American Constitutional Union, (pg 130). Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2014.

[6] Cleveland, Henry. Alexander H. Stephens in Public and Private. With Letters and Speeches Before, During and Since the War. Philadelphia: National Publishing Company, 1886. (Google eBook)

[7] Kateb, George. Lincoln’s Political Thought, (pg 59). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015. (Google eBook)

[8] Guelzo, Allen C. Abraham Lincoln as a Man of Ideas, Chapter 6- Apples of Gold in a Picture of Silver (pg 105-115). Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009. (Dickinson Library Online)

[9] Burch, Kerry T. Democratic Transformations: Eight Conflicts in the Negotiation of the American Identity. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012. (Google eBook)

[10] Abraham Lincoln Online. “Speech at Independence Hall.” Speeches & Writings (2015).

Lincoln photo courtesy of Jeremy Penn, Stephens photo courtesy of Wikipedia

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