March 4 2013
The following essay was featured as part of the "90 in 90 Study" from Constituting America, a project to educate and inform American adults and students about the importance of the U.S. Constitution. The essay is based on Abraham Lincoln's "Fragment on the Constitution and the Union."
Click on the player below to hear the podcast on Lincoln's "Fragment" and the essay.
Modern people argue about the importance of the Constitution asking: Should we strictly adhere to its words, or should we view it as a living document? The Founders penned it more than 200 years ago. Is it still relevant today?
In his short piece, “Fragment on the Constitution and the Union,” Abraham Lincoln asserts that it is not the founding document that bears the greatest importance, but the principle that undergirds it. Namely, the principle upon which America was founded: liberty for all. So long as we are true to this principle, we are honoring the essence of the American idea.
Lincoln explains that the United States of America could have been formed as a new nation without the principle of liberty for all. Given the circumstances – mass immigration to the New World, frustration with a foreign government, and boiling rebellion over oppressive taxation – America was bound to separate from its European roots. But independence was more than that. The new nation intentionally – not as “an accident” – laid its political foundation on an idea, on the expressed principle that Lincoln calls “a word fitly spoken.”
This is a Biblical reference to Proverbs 25:11: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” The best translation of the word “fitly” applies to circumstances of time. In other words, “A word spoken at the right time…”
In terms of time, the Declaration preceded the Constitution. (And a long history of political philosophy preceded the Declaration, including ideas such as social contract theory and natural law.)
The expression of liberty for all is clear in the Declaration of Independence: “All men are…endowed by their Creator… with…Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” In his “Fragment,” Lincoln compares this to a clear path. Each person deserves a clear path to enterprise, industry, and as the Founders wrote, happiness. Whether or not he reaches his destination is not the government’s concern, but no ruler should lay down obstacles in the paths of the people.
Fidelity to this concept of liberty, according to Lincoln, is the cause of America’s prosperity. With it, we constantly carry on toward something better – individually and corporately. Without it, we are no different from other governments like the one we shook off in the American Revolution, and the people have done no more than “changed masters.”
The Constitution and the Union formed upon it are simply a setting for the golden apple – the Declaration’s principle of liberty for all. Just as a beautiful gem depends on its setting to become a useful piece of jewelry, so the principle of liberty depends on the Constitution and the Union to persist. The principle might have been lost in history if it had not been set down, by pen and paper, into the Constitution, and lived out in the creation and sustenance of the Union.
So too a setting depends on its apple. Imagine a beautiful ring that has lost its pearl, or an ornate frame with no canvas to showcase. The words in the Constitution can easily become hollow if the ideas they represent are abandoned or warped. And the Union has no hope of standing on hollow words.
In his brief thoughts, Lincoln’s “Fragment on the Constitution and the Union” represents both thankfulness for America’s great founding principle and a warning against its abandonment. The Constitution is relevant today only insofar as its interpretation remains true to the principle it frames: For our country, liberty for all. For each person, a clear path. No more, no less.