wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

John Patrick Diggins

The Lost Soul of American Politics

In all matters but this of Slavery the framers of the Constitution used the very clearest, shortest, and most direct language. But the Constitution alludes to slavery three times without mentioning it once! The language used becomes ambiguous, roundabout, and mystical. They speak of the 'immigration of persons,' and mean the importation of slaves, but do not say so. In establishing a basis of representation they say 'all other persons,' when they mean to say slaves—why did they not use the shortest phrase? In providing for the return of fugitives they say 'persons held to service or labor.' If they had said slaves it would have been plainer, and less liable to misconstruction. Why didn't they do it?
Lincoln is not suggesting that the framers' intent in leaving slavery unspecified was deliberate verbal obscurantism or that it was a result of their limited range of political discourse and linguistic possibilities. For the failure to utter and write the term 'slavery' was not a speech or verbal act; it was, in Lincoln's mind, a political act that amounted to moral failure. Here again, as with the 'ideology' of the Revolution, the linguistic medium may conceal rather than reveal meaning. For the framers consigned slavery to silence because its meaning was so clear it haunted the conscience. The mind knows whereof it does not speak.

Language was as much a 'cloudy medium' to Lincoln as it was to Madison. Lincoln resisted the idea that what a word means depends on its use, and he too possessed a premodern awareness of the difficulties of meaning that result from distortions of language that render shifting words incapable of communicating essential ideas. 'The world,' wrote Lincoln in 1864,
has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are such in the want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases, with himself, and with 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. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name, liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names—liberty and tyranny.

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act, as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty.
Aware that the idea of liberty cannot be conveyed simply by the conventional vocabulary of liberty, Lincoln nonetheless did not sink into linguistic despair. Nor did he insist that we can only know the meaning of an idea if we know under what conditions it is true or false or under what linguistic usages it can be explained. Such an exercise would make the meaning of an idea simply a matter of circumstances. Lincoln believed, on the contrary, that certain ideas were absolute because they involved fundamental principles. To appreciate Lincoln's stance, let us examine briefly his ideas on the nature of free government, on the concept of the morally right, and on the principle of human equality.

The South's decision to secede in January 1861 confronted Lincoln with the perennial problem of the authority of a government and the freedom of the people who compose it. In two major addresses delivered in response to the crisis, the 'First Inaugural' and the 'First Message to Congress,' Lincoln directed his thoughts to the South's argument that the respective states reserved the sovereign right to nullify laws of the Federal government and, as a last resort, to secede from it. A government that provided the means of its own destruction, Lincoln reasoned, would violate the meaning of 'all governments' as having the duty of self-preservation. Even if the Federal Union be 'not a government proper, but an association of states in the nature of a contract merely,' the definition of contract presupposes that one member cannot violate it without the consent of all members. Convinced that the Union was older than the Constitution, which had indeed been established 'to form a more perfect union,' Lincoln held that the intent of the Constitution as an instrument of government was to make the Union perpetual as a means of perfecting it. 'I hold, that in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments.' In his address to Congress Lincoln claimed that the threat of disunion presented a problem of universal significance, indeed, a problem that had assumed in his mind the sublimity of political mysticism:
And this issue embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy—a government of the people, by the same people—can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes. It presents the question, whether discontented individuals, too few in number to control administration, according to organic law, in any case, can always, upon the pretense made in this case, or on any other pretenses, or arbitrarily, without any pretense, break up their Government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth. It forces us to ask: 'Is there, in all republics, this inherent, and fatal weakness?' 'Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?'