Fragment on the Constitution and the Union by Abraham Lincoln
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.
March 4, 2013 – Essay #11
Read Fragment on the Constitution and the Union by Abraham Lincoln here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=3396
Hadley Heath is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum.
Absolutely, the Constitution is only good as long as people are willing to fight for it! We must ask ourselves, are we willing to fight for the Constitution and the Union? It’s so easy to just give up and let others do the fighting, but people who really learn the Declaration, the Constitution, The Federalist and other such documents will not give up. We must educate ALL; maybe then our Nation can find its way back to our Founding principles.
“. . . that principle, at that time, was the word, ‘fitly spoken’ . . . .” The Founders were ready, it was the right time to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in dedication to a most glorious cause. They had studied the recorded history of human society and government. They had read their Locke, Cicero, Aristotle, Sidney, Polybius, and “the celebrated” Montesquieu among many others. They had been heir to England’s great progress in liberty during the more than 500 years since the Magna Carta of 1215. And they had for quite some time been governing themselves to a great degree. They were ready to be a free, self-governing people; a “mere change of masters” wouldn’t do. Liberty was their motivating principle, not wealth, not territory, and certainly not some leveling principle like equality. Slavery kept them from honoring the principle in full, and it would take four score and seven years, The Great Emancipator, and a civil war to make all of America honor this great principle that “entwin[es] itself more closely about the human heart”—more closely than our revered Constitution and more closely than the idea of Union.
“Liberty to all,” as Lincoln styles this great Principle, is an apple of gold protected by a frame of silver signifying the Constitution and Union. [I’m not sure I have the image right—Lincoln speaks of a “picture of silver.”] The Constitution and Union were made to protect the Principle. The Principle is not in them. The Principle precedes them logically, temporally and naturally. The fabric, structure, or framework (whatever you want to call it) of the Constitution and the Union it created upon being duly ratified was designed not only to protect the Principle from foreign threats, but also to protect the Principle from ourselves.
I really like Lincoln’s emphasizing that “[t]he picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture.” This way of thinking explains for Lincoln why the Principle will not yield to the Constitution, but the Constitution will yield to the Principle. [See Lincoln’s handling of habeas corpus and the general idea that the Constitution is not a suicide pact.] In my humble opinion, I think our focus should always be on the Principle, “Liberty to all.” Our focus should be on the apple and not the frame. Our brilliant essayist today mentions some suspect modern thinking by some not-too-well-read individuals, no doubt, wanting to make the frame a “living frame.” This of course will change everything for the worse—for the original frame was uniquely designed to protect the apple; a new “living frame” must be designed to protect something else, let’s call it a lemon. This lemon represents a new principle, an inferior principle, definitely not “fitly spoken.” It might be equality, distributive justice, social justice, environmental justice, or control; but whatever it is, it’s bound to leave us worse off.
More musings . . .
Lincoln’s metaphor of a golden apple makes one of my favorite quotations more meaningful. Arthur Lee of the famous Lee family of Virginia wrote: “Liberty is the very idol of my soul, the parent of Virtue, the nurse of heroes, the dispenser of general happiness, because slavery is the monstrous mother of every abominable vice and every atrocious ill.” Virtue, the offspring of Liberty? I think he’s right; human virtue can only be said to exist when the individual has a free will and is able to exercise it. As Lincoln suggests, in agreement with Lee, it is the principle of “Liberty to all” that “clears the path for all” to so many good things. Or, to start at the end with Aristotle—Happiness depends on virtue, and virtue depends on liberty. Want happiness? Start with liberty!
Did we ever have more liberty than we had in 1946?
If yes, one cannot help but wonder how our virtue declined almost immediately thereafter, which suggests either that Lincoln was wrong or that our liberty wasn’t really liberty at all.
Which came first for the Founders? Surely it was virtue, not liberty – at least not liberty in the material sense.
I can hear progressives say, Lincoln’s words justify a living Constitution, a frame that must progressively change in order embrace and frame that golden apple.
Every time I read “living” I think it should refer to the literal, historically interpreted Consitution in the same way the Word of God is living and sharper than any two edged sword dividing asunder the thoughts and intentions of the heart. The Bible is living not because it’s truth is ever changing, but because its truth is never changing and is therefore a stable, constant plumb line that can be relied upon as he basis of life and living as written.
To me the progressives believe in a dead, ineffective Constitution, hence the need to redefine a new constitution in our image.
I hate that “living” = progressive. Its backwards.
I do concur with Publius Senex Dassault that progressives believe in a dead, ineffective Constitution, hence the need to redefine a new constitution… but not so much in “our” image as in “their” image.
Surely these modern day self-appointed intellectual elitists that call themselves “Progressives” are not truly progressive, but rather aggressively regressive in pursuit of time worn social[ist] philospohies that have not produced progress, but rather, have produced discontentment and incited malcontents such as those in ANTIFA!