Those Who Pervert the Constitution

Many words have been spilled about today’s SCOTUS ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act. Along with the plethora of opinions (of which everyone has one, though I’ll be keeping mine to myself for the time being) have come the predictable quote memes on the Facebook news feeds, thanks to our collective love of appealing to authority.

One meme in particular stuck out to me today, posted to the Facebook page of Congressman Jim Bridenstine (R-OK):

Lincoln Quote

I happen to applaud and agree with this quote. And it has the added virtue of being correctly attributed to our 16th president, unlike so many other Abraham Lincoln “quotes”.

These lines come from a speech Lincoln gave on September 16 & 17 in Kansas & Ohio, during his first presidential campaign. The country was in a state of increasing turmoil over the issue of slavery, with people deeply divided by strongly held convictions. In many ways, this parallels the current divide in our country over the ability for homosexuals to marry. It is somewhat ironic, then, that I have seen Lincoln quoted today by both proponents and critics of gay marriage.

So who has the better case for invoking Lincoln’s support? Let’s take a closer look at the context, shall we?

The Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling is far from its first controversial judgment. In 1857, the Court handed down the infamous Dred Scott Decision. Seven of the nine justices ruled that no slave or descendant of a slave could ever be considered a U.S. citizen. They also declared that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, meaning that Congress had no authority to tell states that slavery must be illegal (because this would be violating the 5th Amendment’s prohibition of citizens being deprived of their “property” without due process of the law).

Proponents of slavery saw this as a big win, and an opportunity to see a controversial practice legalized in more states. Abolitionists cried foul, stating that the institution of slavery was wicked, and that the nation had a moral obligation to prevent its spread. This became the most heated topic of debate between the two leading candidates in the upcoming presidential election: Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

Douglas, citing the principle of popular sovereignty, argued that individuals should have the right to determine for themselves whether or not they would own slaves, and that no one else had the right to object. The government’s responsibility was to protect the sovereignty of the states to determine for themselves whether slavery should be allowed:

Now, I hold that Illinois had a right to abolish and prohibit slavery as she did, and I hold that Kentucky has the same right to continue and protect slavery that Illinois had to abolish it. I hold that New York had as much right to abolish slavery as Virginia has to continue it, and that each and every State of this Union is a sovereign power, with the right to do as it pleases upon this question of slavery, and upon all its domestic institutions. … And why can we not adhere to the great principle of self-government, upon which our institutions were originally based. I believe that this new doctrine preached by Mr. Lincoln and his party will dissolve the Union if it succeeds. They are trying to array all the Northern States in one body against the South, to excite a sectional war between the free States and the slave States, in order that the one or the other may be driven to the wall.

Lincoln countered that slavery was wrong, and that national policy should discourage it. He claimed that what would actually send the nation to war was trying to exist as “half Slave, half Free” (from his famous “A House Divided” speech). But, like Douglas, he affirmed the Constitutional authority granted to the states to determine their own laws. This brings us to our pertinent quote, in it’s proper context (for even more context, read the entire speech here):

We expect upon these principles to ultimately beat them. In order to do so, I think we want and must have a national policy in regard to the institution of slavery that acknowledges and deals with that institution as being wrong. Whoever desires the prevention of the spread of slavery and the nationalization of that institution yields all when he yields to any policy that either recognizes slavery as being right or as being an indifferent thing. Nothing will make you successful but setting up a policy which shall treat the thing as being wrong: When I say this, I do not mean to say that this General Government is charged with the duty of redressing or preventing all the wrongs in the world, but I do think that it is charged with preventing and redressing all wrongs which are wrongs to itself. This Government is expressly charged with the duty of providing for the general welfare. We believe that the spreading out and perpetuity of the institution of slavery impairs the general welfare. We believe–nay, we know–that that is the only thing that has ever threatened the perpetuity of the Union itself. The only thing which has ever menaced the destruction of the government under which we live is this very thing. To repress this thing, we think, is, Providing for the general welfare. Our friends in Kentucky differ from us. We need not make our argument for them, but we who think it is wrong in all its relations, or in some of them at least, must decide as to our own actions and our own course, upon our own judgment.

I say that we must not interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists, because the Constitution forbids it, and the general welfare does not require us to do so. We must not withhold an efficient Fugitive Slave law, because the Constitution requires us, as I understand it, not to withhold such a law. But we must prevent the outspreading of the institution, because neither the Constitution nor general welfare requires us to extend it. We must prevent the revival of the African slave trade, and the enacting by Congress of a Territorial slave code. We must prevent each of these things being done by either Congresses or courts. The people of these United States are the rightful masters of both Congresses and courts, not to overthrow the Constitution, but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.

With all of the obvious parallels, why might both sides of the gay marriage debate see Lincoln as being in their corner? Well, that depends on how you see slavery in relation to gay marriage.

Are homosexuals the equivalent of slaves, being deprived of their rights by a waning majority who see them as second-rate citizens, waiting for their liberation by a President who finally affirms their equal standing under the law? Or is gay marriage an immoral institution that threatens the general welfare of America, leaving the government with the duty to prevent its spread?

Chances are, no matter where you stand on the issue, you can probably make a pretty compelling case for Lincoln’s support. This is why I’m so hesitant to rely on quotes from historical figures as a primary means of building a case for contemporary ethical and Constitutional problems. I just don’t think Abraham Lincoln is all that helpful on the issue of gay marriage.

Incidentally, I find it interesting that the one area in which Lincoln and Douglas at least appeared to agree was on the affirmation of the Constitution’s delegation to the States or the people the authority to decide on matters not delegated to the federal government. Which is why perhaps the greatest irony of all is that, fewer than four years after the Lincoln-Douglas debates ended, President Lincoln issued an Executive Order which emancipated slaves in the “rebellious states”, a clear violation of both his campaign promises and the 10th Amendment.

Considering how slavery is now universally (and rightly) abhorred by Americans, and how Lincoln has been perpetually venerated as a hero for “doing the right thing”, it should probably come as no surprise that all parties in the gay marriage debate seem to be content with nothing less than a national solution. And why not? Lincoln’s our guy, right?

“I Cannot Tell A Lie”

We’ve all heard the story demonstrating George Washington’s impeccable honesty when, as a boy, he confessed to his father that he had chopped down a cherry tree. You’ve probably also heard that this story is a complete fabrication, though it has become firmly cemented into American mythology through sheer repetition.

Similarly, there are a plethora of pseudo-quotes attributed to our first President which have nothing supporting them but hundreds of “quote” websites which eagerly repeat the same lines without any form of citation. My “bogus quote detector” began tingling (it works sort of like Spidey-sense) when I saw the following meme show up multiple times on my Facebook feed yesterday:

A free people ought not only to be armed and disciplined but they should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their own government

Upon investigation (which took all of about 3 minutes), my suspicion was confirmed: Washington never said this.

As I’ve tried to show this week, there is ample support in the historical record to demonstrate that many of our Founding Fathers did insist on the right of private citizens to bear arms, and that they were concerned with the ability to keep the government in check as a defense against tyranny. So there is absolutely no reason to resort to fake quotes to “prove” the point!

For the record, here is the actual quote (taken from Washington’s First Annual Message to Congress in 1790) which was mutilated into the form seen above (source):

A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end, a uniform and well digested plan is requisite: and their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories, as tend to render them independent on others for essential, particularly for military supplies.

If you get a chance, you really ought to read the entire address. I love reading Washington’s speeches; he truly had a way with words! If you read closely, you’ll notice some foreshadowing of the raising of an army to fight the “hostile tribes of Indians”, which I mentioned in my post from a week ago…

It is also important to note that this Address was intended to promote “the general and increasing good will toward the Government of the Union.” Washington’s task as our first President was to unite the formerly independent (and sometimes fiercely so) States under a Federal government, and to instill confidence in that government. Therefore the tone of the bogus quote is completely contrary to the purpose of the original, though the sentiment may be less far off.

This concludes another installment of “Meme-Busters”. Thanks for reading and remember: When using social media, please “share” responsibly. Friends don’t let friends abuse history!

To be prepared for war, is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”
~ One of the better (genuine) quotes from Washington’s “First Address”

Pet Peeves and Plato’s Politics

Earlier this year, I finally got around to finishing Plato’s philosophical treatise, The Republic. Though written almost 2500 years ago, in many ways it speaks into contemporary issues as if it were written yesterday.

Unfortunately, in the meme-driven world of social media, it has become commonplace to paraphrase and/or wrongly attribute quotations online. This is one of my biggest pet peeves! While I acknowledge that paraphrasing can be a useful way to introduce difficult concepts, I think it matters very much who said what, and in what manner and context it was said. One of the biggest recipients of what I call “the meme treatment” is Plato.

Yesterday, in trying to determine the genuineness of a quote that appeared in a meme on Facebook, I came across an article called “Five Surprisingly Hip Political Ideas from Plato”. It’s short if you want to read the whole thing, but I thought I’d re-post just the quotes in case you’re in a hurry:

  1. “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”
  2. “The curse of me and my nation is that we always think things can be bettered by immediate action of some sort, any sort rather than no sort.”
  3. “There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, until philosophers become kings in this world, or until those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.”
  4. “Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.”
  5. “When the tyrant has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing more to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other in order that the people may require a leader.”

Each of these quotes appears (and is attributed to Plato) on just about every “famous quotations” site on the Web. Unfortunately, only one of them is a genuine Plato quote. And as you’ll see, I’m not sure the author did her homework in rounding up these “ideas”, hip as they may be.

Here is what I have determined to be the “real” version of the above quotes, and I’ve added citations in case you’d like to look them up in context:

  1. “But the chief penalty [of good men who refuse to lead] is to be governed by someone worse if a man will not himself hold office and rule.” [Republic, Book I, line 347c]
  2. “The curse of me and my nation…” The quote is accurate; the source is not. [Though the Internet widely attributes this quote to Plato, I was skeptical. It took me a while to track it down, but thankfully, according to The Columbia Book of Quotations this phrase is rightly attributed to Ezra Pound, in a 1920 letter to James Joyce.]
  3. “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils — no, nor the human race, as I believe — and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.” [Republic, Book V, line 473c]
  4. “Laws are made to instruct the good, and in the hope that there may be no need of them; also to control the bad, whose hardness of heart will not be hindered from crime.” [Laws, Book IX]
  5. This is the one accurate quote from the above list. [Republic, Book VIII, line 566e]

In the final analysis, I think the paraphrases of the first and third quotes do justice to the original, though I’d still prefer to see some acknowledgement that they are paraphrases.

The second quote doesn’t even remotely resemble anything Plato ever wrote, as far as I can tell. Ironically, Ezra Pound was a poet (and thus would have been excluded from Plato’s ideal Republic) who, shortly after writing the letter the quote is from, became disillusioned with America and ultimately became a Fascist living in Mussolini’s Italy. Something tells me neither he nor Plato would approve of the attribution of his work to a philosopher that could hardly have a more different political ideology!

The fourth quote in the top list is the one I’ve seen most commonly as an Internet meme, and the one I was looking up yesterday. While it’s true that Plato did say something vaguely similar in Laws, I think the paraphrase misrepresents what Plato was really saying. The “good” do need the law, both for instruction in what is right, and for the restraining of the “bad” (this is actually quite similar to the first two of the three uses of the Law proposed by John Calvin and other Reformed scholars as a way to understand God’s moral law). As the quote normally appears, it more closely resembles something written by an Anarchist, Ammon Hennacy: “Oh, Judge, your damn laws! The good people don’t need them, and the bad people don’t obey them, so what good are they?” It may seem a subtle distinction, but Plato also believed there was but a subtle distinction between democracy and anarchy, which ultimately degenerate into tyranny… a far cry from the Republic he envisioned!

If you take nothing else away from this post (a distinct possibility!) I hope I’ve been able to impart to you some of my extreme skepticism toward quotes that appear on the Internet without citation. And be forewarned, Facebook friends… I’ve got a couple weeks off from both work and school, and plenty of time to indulge my meme-busting urge to research the authenticity of things that show up on my news feed!

Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.