Abraham Lincoln Knew How to Milk a Metaphor

kid afraid of snakeI could go on quoting Abraham Lincoln all day long, for he was one of the finest writers of his or any time. Here’s one very special quote, where Lincoln uses the metaphor of a snake to make distinctions between slavery itself being bad, versus policies to limit slavery to the south, versus policies to prevent slavery from expanding into new US territories.

If I saw a venomous snake crawling in the road, any man would say I may seize the nearest stick and kill it. But if I found that snake in bed with my children that would be another question. I might hurt the children more than the snake, and it might bite them.

In other words, slavery is bad, but ending slavery in the South might harm unintended victims.

Much more, if I found it in bed with my neighbor’s children, and I had found myself by a solemn oath not to meddle with his children under any circumstances, it would become me to let that particular mode of getting rid of the gentleman alone.

In other words, once they signed on to the Constitution, Northerners became duty-bound to leave slavery alone in the south.

But if there was a bed newly made up, to which the children were to be taken, and it was proposed to take a batch of young snakes and put them there with them, I take it no man would say there was any question how I ought to decide.

And that is the reasoning by which Lincoln concluded that slavery should not be expanded into new territories, a position the south could not tolerate, because Southerners saw such a policy as the beginning of the end of slavery in their lands. What a brilliant way to frame the argument.
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Abraham Lincoln's Original Interpretation of Original Intent

Lincoln at GettysburgFor at least the last few decades, conservative legal scholarship in United States has paid a great deal of attention to the idea of original intent. According to this view, the best way to interpret the Constitution of the United States is to imagine what the writers of that document meant at the time they wrote it, and to make sure that modern interpretations do not stray any further than necessary from this meaning.
But Abraham Lincoln was way ahead of current legal scholars in thinking this way about the Constitution. And they might be surprised to find that what he decided the framers of the Constitution signified when they avoided using the words slave or slavery in the document:

The thing is hid away, in the Constitution, just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest they bleed to death; with the promise, nevertheless, that the cutting may begin at the end of a given time.

After reviewing subsequent laws, early in the nation’s history, Lincoln concludes:

We see the plain unmistakable spirit of that age, toward slavery, was hostility in the PRINCIPLE, and toleration ONLY BY NECESSITY.

I am not a fan of limiting ourselves to constitutional interpretations that rely on original intent. In large part,  I do not think the writers of the Constitution expected our country to be stagnant. But just as importantly, I do not think we can often determine intent confidently. Lincoln’s creative interpretation stands as an example of just how flexible the idea of original intent can be.
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Be Careful What Standards You Use to Judge Historical Figures: The Case of Abraham Lincoln

abraham_lincoln2It’s always tricky to judge anyone’s moral character, much less that of historical figures who lived during times very different from our own. Most of the great people who founded the United States, for example, had slaves. Some even sired children with those slaves – like Thomas Jefferson. Hard to know how to judge that.
But most people feel pretty comfortable judging Abraham Lincoln, as being a great man with views on race well beyond those of his times. And that, indeed, is the truth. But take a closer look at what enlightened thinking looks like in those times. Here are words from a speech Lincoln gave where he tried to draw on the distinction between freeing slaves versus giving Negroes complete equality:

I have never seen to my knowledge a man, woman or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between Negroes and white men. I recollect of but one distinguished instance that I ever heard of, so frequently as to be entirely satisfied of its correctness – and that is the case of Judge Douglas’s old friend Col. Richard M Johnson.

This drew laughter from the audience, as Lincoln anticipated, because Johnson was known to have had children with a woman of “mixed race.” Lincoln then continued milking the crowd for laughter:

I will also add… That I have never had the least apprehension that I or my friends would marry Negroes if there was no law to keep them from it, [more laughter from crowd] but as Judge Douglas and his friends seem to be in great apprehension that they might, if there were no law to keep them from it, [even more laughter] I give him the most solemn pledge that I will to the very last stand by the law of this State, which forbids the marrying of white people with Negroes.

Remember that what Lincoln was espousing back then, as awful as it sounds to us now, was a dangerously progressive view at that time.
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Abraham Lincoln on Perspective Taking

I write frequently about the importance of perspective taking in clinician/patient interaction. Seeing the world through other people’s eyes is also a crucial moral and political skill. No surprise then that Abe Lincoln showed great perspective taking abilities. Consider these words, from an 1854 speech on slavery:

I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation.

Would love it if feuding politicians could embrace this wisdom more often today.
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