Happy Birthday, Abe!

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on February 12th, 2009

Today is the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, an event worthy of at least a moment’s reflection.  Unfortunately, many of the media reports today focus on Lincoln’s death, not his many and significant life accomplishments.  I am most interested in Lincoln’s theory of the Constitution, and the role that played in the abolition of slavery and the Civil War victory.  Lincoln said that the Constitution was a frame of silver around an apple of gold, with the apple of gold symbolizing the principle of liberty embodied in the Declaration of Independence.  Lincoln’s chief contribution to our history was the abolition of slavery through his Emancipation Proclamation and advocacy for the Thirteenth Amendment, which constitutionalized abolition and the “apple of gold ” – the principles of liberty.

At times, the apple of gold and the frame of silver were in tension with each other.  At the beginning of the Civil War, Lincoln’s Republican Party was divided over whether preserving the union (the lincoln1901.jpgframe of silver) was more important than the principle of liberty and the abolition of slavery.  Indeed, at that time Lincoln supported an amendment to the constitution that would have guaranteed the right of states to retain the institution of slavery.  He saw that amendment as a compromise that was necessary to preserve the Union.  Though that Amendment was approved by Congress against the vociferous opposition of Radicals in Lincoln’s party, it was not enough to prevent the south from withdrawing from the Union and attacking Fort Sumpter while that Thirteenth Amendment was under consideration in state legislatures.  As the war progressed, Lincoln became convinced that abolishing slavery was necessary to preserve the Union.  The two guiding principles of Lincoln’s constitutional vision coalesced and he became the Great Emancipator.


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