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From Lincoln to King

From Lincoln to King

The two men were aligned in a view that contrasts sharply with the 1619 Project: The U.S. Constitution was dedicated to liberty.

Wilson Shirley
His Greatest Speeches: How Lincoln Moved the Nation
by Diana Schaub (St. Martin’s Press, 224 pp., $27.99)

Would Abraham Lincoln ever have disagreed with Martin Luther King, Jr.? And what did the year 1619 mean to the man who issued the Emancipation Proclamation?

The arc from Lincoln to King, from abolition to civil rights, is clear. It’s a source of unity in a fractured American polity. Where 1619 fits into the story is tougher. Even mentioning the year has become polarizing.

Much of the reason for that is Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project—first published in 2019 in the New York Times Magazine. It won her the Pulitzer Prize and has been incorporated into curricula across the country, even though the narrative, factual, and journalistic errors and malpractice throughout the Project are well documented. Through all the controversy, however, Honest Abe can help explain the meaning of 1619.

American Enterprise Institute fellow Diana Schaub makes this case in her brilliant new book, His Greatest Speeches: How Lincoln Moved the Nation. Lincoln recognized the significance of the date around which Hannah-Jones framed her Project, because he also knew that it was then that enslaved African men and women were first brought to colonial Virginia.

Schaub presents Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address to make her case. Lincoln delivered the speech on March 4, 1865. The Confederacy’s defeat looked nearly certain at that point, but twenty-five thousand casualties were still to come. The President didn’t appear triumphant on Inauguration Day, nor did he lay out an agenda for his second term. Instead, he said of the conflict that had already taken hundreds of thousands of American lives:

Yet, if God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’

To what date—250 years prior—was Lincoln referring? Schaub cites William Grimshaw, a 19th-century historian whom Lincoln read as a young man. Grimshaw documented “captives ‘from the coast of Guinea’ arriving on a ‘Dutch ship’ and being sold to Virginia planters” in the early 17th century. With a little bit of math, the Grimshaw citation makes clear that Lincoln was talking about 1619 and the same vessel described in the opening lines of the eponymous Project. Lincoln viewed that ship’s arrival as part of American history, and as a wrong for which subsequent generations of Americans would have to pay with blood and treasure to make right.

Lincoln’s audience would have understood the reference the President was making. Although the year 1619 has taken on new connotations in today’s politics, Schaub states that “it is worth pointing out that awareness of the significance of 1619 is nothing new.” Rather, “what is new about the recent 1619 Project is the attack on 1776, 1787, and even 1865.” That’s where Lincoln most fundamentally—and crucially—would have disagreed with Hannah-Jones. The year 1619 is neither the end of the story, nor what makes America exceptional. “1776,” Schaub argues, “was not a continuation of the spirit of 1619 but its antithesis.” To misunderstand that fact is to mistake the point of America.

It’s a mistake that King, delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, did not make. Casting his civil rights movement as the inheritor of the Founding and Lincoln’s project, he declared,

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men—yes, Black men as well as white men—would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Dr. King was echoing Frederick Douglass, who had once held the Founding Fathers in as low esteem as do many today who tear down their statues. Early in his career, Douglass had sided with figures like the publisher William Lloyd Garrison. Schaub has pointed out elsewhere that Garrison viewed the Constitution as “‘a covenant with Death and an agreement with Hell’ under which no opponent of slavery could, in good conscience, either vote or hold public office” due to the moral and political compromises its authors made that allowed slavery to continue. It’s a more poetic, if equally damning, condemnation of the type Hannah-Jones has given.

But Douglass changed his mind about the Founding after careful study, displaying both a humility and an ability that modern-day Garrisonians lack. He rethought mistaken assumptions that still persist 150 years later. After further reflection, Douglass went on to say of the Constitution: “In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.” [emphasis added] This was not sarcasm or irony—Douglass meant it, even before the additions of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.


As Schaub demonstrates, Douglass’ conviction was grounded in fact. After examining Article I, Sections Two and Nine, and Article IV, Section Two—the clauses “generally understood to have reference to” slavery—she states that “the language of [the Constitution] is free of invidious discrimination and explicit racism.” Race is not mentioned in the Constitution, and the words “slave” and “slavery” never appear.

This case for the Constitution would take longer than one book review to make. But statements of this type were convincing enough for Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, to argue that the secessionist states could not be governed by the old Constitution—that “covenant with Death.” He wanted to create a new government that, unlike the old, would be explicitly based on discrimination and racism. That was the point of the Confederacy; not of America.

“The prevailing ideas entertained by [Thomas Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution,” Stephens declared in his Cornerstone Speech of March 21, 1861, “were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.… Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong.” The cornerstone of the Confederate States of America was race-based slavery. But the cornerstone of the United States, and of its laws, is the rights inherent in all persons, and the proper role of government to secure those rights.

Still, Lincoln would have disagreed with King on a particular question concerning constitutions and laws, and the duties of a citizen in a nation of laws. In his Lyceum Address, titled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” and delivered near the start of his political career at age twenty-eight, the young member of the Illinois House of Representatives gave what Schaub describes as “the most profound analysis of the dangers of mob rule.” Much of that analysis is in opposition to the later vision of King.

Dr. King “argued that one can show respect for law (and speed the repeal of bad law) by means of a specific mode of law breaking.” In other words, he made a case for civil disobedience. This wasn’t an excuse for violence. As the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” cautions, “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” But, as Schaub demonstrates, King’s admonition is still a point of disagreement with Lincoln. Lincoln believed that “all disobedience is uncivil and destructive of government.”

When confronted with a bad law—and there were plenty in 1838, when Lincoln delivered the Lyceum Address—citizens should not, in his view, disobey it. “Bad laws, if they exist,” Lincoln argued, “should be repealed as soon as possible … still while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed.” Deliberation, not disobedience, was his answer.

Schaub acknowledges that modern readers are more likely to side with Dr. King than with Lincoln on the question of civil disobedience against unjust laws. But rather than shy away from the differences between the two American heroes, she says they should be embraced. “There is probably no better exercise for every American,” she states, “than to read Lincoln’s Lyceum and King’s ‘Letter’ side by side, making a good faith effort to suspend one’s biases … so as to test the logic of the two positions.”

Returning to old texts like those from Lincoln and King is a worthwhile, and particularly American, thing to do. The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks once described what a strange experience it was for him, as a citizen of the United Kingdom, to walk along the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Upon seeing the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural carved on either side of the Lincoln Memorial, Rabbi Sacks observed,

American memorials are not just to be seen but also to be read. It’s the exact opposite in London.… The memorial to David Lloyd George has just three words: ‘David Lloyd George.’ Benjamin Disraeli gets two: ‘Benjamin’ and ‘Disraeli.’ As for Churchill, he gets just one: ‘Churchill.’

Even if the 272 words of the relatively brief Gettysburg Address—or Lincoln’s longer speeches—may take more time and reflection to understand than do the structures in Parliament Square, they’re worth the effort. America’s story—the good and the bad, but always the truth—is meant to be studied, if its promise is to endure.

Schaub helps us remember—whether we’re walking up the steps of a memorial or through our daily lives as citizens—how lucky we are to live in a country that produced Lincoln, and how fitting and proper it is that we should still be moved by his words.

Wilson Shirley served in the Office of Policy Planning as a speechwriter to the secretary of state from 2020 to 2021 and is a former U.S. Senate staffer. Twitter: @wshirleyiv

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