Library of Congress image of 1860 campaign illustration of Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln (with the words Union, Liberty, and Constitution specifically noted).
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
"A word fitly spoken by you now would be like 'apples of gold in pictures of silver.'" Alexander H. Stephens, a former Georgia congressman, wrote these words to Abraham Lincoln on December 30, 1860. He quoted from Proverbs 25:11 to persuade Lincoln that a public statement from the president-elect would help greatly in the mounting crisis of the divided country. A student of the Bible in his own right, Lincoln reflected on Stephens's biblical reference and, in a note to himself, used the "apples of gold" reference to clarify the connection between America's constitutional union and the principle of "Liberty to all."
When Lincoln was elected the first Republican president of the United States on November 6, 1860, he received no votes from nine southern states; what Lincoln called in 1858 the "crisis" of the American "house divided" had come to a head. On December 22, 1860, the president-elect wrote Stephens, a former Whig ally in Congress, to assuage his fears about the incoming administration: "Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears." Stephens, who in February 1861 would be elected Vice President of the Confederate States of America, replied with his December 30 letter, which led Lincoln to jot down what is known as his "Fragment on the Constitution and Union."
This lesson will examine Lincoln's brief but insightful reflection on the importance of the ideal of individual liberty to the constitutional structure and operation of the American union.
How did Lincoln understand the principles of the Declaration of Independence as the goal of the American union, secured by the U.S. Constitution?
After completing this lesson, students should be able to
The main goal of this lesson is to teach students that Lincoln revered the Constitution and American union because of what they stood for—what he calls in his Fragment "the principle of 'Liberty to all.'" To be sure, the Constitution contained a few provisions that slowed the immediate achievement of this goal for every American: namely, clauses that allowed slavery to extend its life in several of the states (i.e., the Three-Fifths Compromise, Fugitive Slave clause, and prohibition against Congress banning the importation of slaves prior to 1808). Nevertheless, Lincoln believed the American founders created a federal government that would promote the equal protection of rights over the long term. Their intent was, in Lincoln's words, to put slavery "on the course of ultimate extinction." Thus, he understood the Constitution and Union as the means, and individual liberty as the end, of the American regime.
Lincoln also believed that as the American union found its clearest expression in the Constitution, the principle of liberty was best expressed in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." In the 1850s, as the nation grew increasingly divided over the future of slavery, Lincoln repeatedly cited the Declaration of Independence to remind Americans of the goal to which their federal union and governmental structures should be devoted. To lose sight of the goal of "Liberty to all" was to subvert American self-government. It would turn republican government into a form of majority rule that allowed mere numerical might to determine which individuals would receive the protection of their rights. If this were to happen, Lincoln once remarked, he would "prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic]."
When Alexander Stephens wrote his December 30, 1860 letter, in which he cited the biblical text of Proverbs 25:11, Lincoln found an apt metaphor to describe the relationship between the Constitution and Union on the one hand, and individual liberty on the other. Proverbs 25:11 reads: "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver" (King James Version). Lincoln's allusion to this Bible verse is found only in a fragment he apparently jotted down for his own use, for no known letter or speech of his contains this biblical reference. But he occasionally sketched out an idea in the briefest of terms to isolate the main line of argument he would use in a speech. The metaphor of "apples of gold" in "pictures [or settings] of silver" helped Lincoln clarify for himself the connection between the means and ends of American self-government. Even though he was a devoted Union man, he understood the Union (and thus the Constitution) as a means to a higher end: namely, the protection of individual rights. To forget that the constitutional union existed for this end was like forgetting that settings of silver are made to show off a more valuable object, like apples of gold.
Lincoln's illustration suggests how means could be mistaken for ends in themselves. "Pictures" or settings made of silver could be mistaken as the main object of beauty, thereby obscuring or blurring the real object to be noticed—the apples of gold. Similarly, without human liberty as the aim of the Constitution and Union, the republican forms of government could become instruments of oppression, as when one group of people (e.g., whites) uses their numerical might to deprive another class of people (e.g., blacks) of their natural rights. Majority rule or government by the consent of the governed becomes a crude form of majoritarianism.
Lincoln argued that during the founding era, ownership of black slaves was viewed by white citizens as a necessary evil; however, by the 1850s, slavery was increasingly defended in the South as good for both the master and the slave, and a state institution that could not be interfered with by the federal government. This view of the Constitution meant that "the Blessings of Liberty" promised in its preamble would apply only to white Americans. Lincoln believed the Constitution was being reinterpreted to establish a race-based, federal system of government that would eventually extend slavery into every territory and state of the American union. This "blurred" the meaning of the Constitution, as it became a tool of despotism rather than liberation.
But in addition to the southern defense of slavery as a "positive good," Lincoln was disturbed by signs of northern indifference towards black slavery. As evidence he pointed to the increasing popularity of the concept of popular sovereignty, which was promoted by his Illinois nemesis, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, in the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. Popular sovereignty (or "congressional nonintervention," as it was sometimes called) was Douglas's attempt to settle the slavery controversy by removing it from the domain of Congress and reserving the regulation of slavery to the local populations directly affected by it.
Lincoln disagreed with popular sovereignty because he thought Congress had constitutional authority over the issue of slavery in the federal territories. In addition, he thought that Douglas's professed indifference regarding the future of slavery in the federal territories-a position Lincoln referred to as the "don't care" policy because it taught Americans not to care about slavery as long as it was black slavery—would actually result in the spread of slavery and its eventual legality in every state of the Union. Applying popular sovereignty to the slavery question taught Americans that as long as folks voted on the issue, majority rule could determine whether slavery was right or wrong.
By 1860, Lincoln would exhort the nation to "have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it." He believed that matters of right and wrong were not the mere product of majority vote, but derived from moral standards that transcended nations and reached across time. Lincoln believed the American founders declared their independence by appealing to these standards of right, and that the nation now faced a crisis that could best be resolved by a return to the Founders' approach to the issue.
Note: Because the "Fragment on the Constitution and Union" was not used by Lincoln in any speech or letter that survives today, scholars are unsure when it was written. The editors of the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln date it around January 1861, after Lincoln received the December 30, 1860 letter from Stephens but before his inauguration on March 4, 1861.
The goal of the activities in this section is for students to see how Lincoln's understanding of the meaning of the American union was based upon a prior understanding of the principle of "liberty to all" found in the Declaration of Independence. In addition to reading and answering questions on Lincoln's "Fragment on the Constitution and the Union," students will also analyze the Declaration of Independence and the verse in Proverbs. A synthesis of the ideas in these three documents should enable students to answer the Guiding Question above. To demonstrate their grasp of the connections made in Lincoln's thought, they will be asked to answer, in their own words and in paragraph form, the following question: In Lincoln's thought, what is the connection between "liberty to all" in the Declaration of Independence and the American government? Then they will submit their paragraphs to peer evaluation in order to help them refine their writing of the final draft.
This lesson is built around the following sequence of tasks:
The day before this lesson begins, make copies of Lincoln's "Fragment on the Constitution and Union" and the questions that accompany it, found on pages 1-3 of the Text Document, and distribute to students. Instruct them to read through the Fragment and answer the first three questions on the worksheet for homework. They should bring all documents to class the next day. The questions are included here for teacher review.
On Day One, after checking the students' homework, write on the board the following question: According to Lincoln, what is the connection between "liberty to all" in the Declaration of Independence and the American government? Talk through the question and make sure the students understand it. Inform them that they will be pursuing the answer to this question as they analyze the three primary sources of this lesson.
Divide the class into groups of three or four and have them work together as they answer the questions for the three primary sources. Hand out copies of the texts and the worksheets to each group. In order to motivate them to use their group time productively, tell them that any unfinished questions will be assigned for homework.
Have students continue their work with Lincoln's "Fragment on the Constitution and Union" (c. January, 1861) and answer the remaining questions on their worksheets, included below. Students can also work with the text online by going to the EDSITEment-reviewed site Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln:
When students finish the questions on the Fragment, have them go on to the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776), and read the first two paragraphs, with particular focus on the first two sentences of the second paragraph, and answer the questions that follow below, which are available in worksheet form on page 5 of the Text Document. A link to the text of the Declaration of Independence can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site "Charters of Freedom" of the National Archives. The relevant excerpt of the Declaration of Independence is also included in the Text Document on page 4, and can be printed out for student use.
Finally, have students read Proverbs 25:11 ("A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver"), written on the board soon after students begin their work in groups. Another word for "picture" is "setting," so draw a line through the word "pictures" and insert "settings" to have the verse on the board read, "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures settings of silver." This will help students see the original verse as it literally reads in the King James Version of the Bible, as well as how the word "pictures" in this context was understood in Lincoln's time.
Ask the students to give you different examples of what a setting would look like (e.g., a frame for a painting, a table setting to adorn candles or a special meal, or—to bring it back to the example Lincoln gives—a fine silver dish for golden apples). Then have them answer the following questions on page 6 of the worksheet:
On Day Two of this lesson, it is time for students to give a written demonstration of their understanding of the connections in Lincoln's thought, or in other words, show that they understand the main point of the lesson. Instruct them to write a paragraph or two explaining how Lincoln connected the principle of "liberty to all" in the Declaration of Independence to the deeper meaning and ultimate goal of the American union.
Then divide students into new groups of three or four. Tell them that they will be engaged in peer feedback groups, where the task will be to evaluate each other's paragraphs: specifically, note what is well-expressed, identify problem areas, and make comments. Stress to the students that their feedback should be helpful, constructive, and specific. Each person in the group is to use a pen or pencil of a different color and make all markings in that color, including writing his or her name at the top of each paper. This will enable each author to go back to the student making comments for further clarification. Encourage them to use the feedback to produce a better final draft, which they will be asked to do for a grade in the Assessment Section.
No "Mere Change of Masters": Reflecting upon Lincoln's View of American Independence and Union
Instruct students to answer the following questions in one or two paragraphs, which are available in worksheet form on page 7 of the Text Document:
* Optional questions, available in worksheet form on page 8 of the Text Document:
Two Opponents of Lincoln: Politicians Who "Blurred" the Apple of Liberty
1. John C. Calhoun, "Slavery a Positive Good" (February 6, 1837)
Have students read John C. Calhoun, "Slavery a Positive Good" (February 6, 1837), from the EDSITEment-reviewed Teaching American History and answer the questions that follow, which are available in worksheet form on page 12 of the Text Document. The speech is also included in the Text Document on pages 9-11, and can be printed out for student use.
2. Stephen A. Douglas, "Homecoming Speech at Chicago" (July 9, 1858)
Have students read Stephen A. Douglas, "Homecoming Speech at Chicago" (July 9, 1858) and answer the questions that follow, which are available in worksheet form on page 16 of the Text Document. A link to the full text of "Homecoming Speech at Chicago" can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site "Teaching American History". A shorter excerpt from the speech is also included in the Text Document on pages 13-15, and can be printed out for student use.
1-2 class periods