Monday, June 20, 2016

What Does “Of the People, By the People, For the People” Mean?

It is sobering to visit Cemetery Hill in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—as I did for the first time last week.
Cemetery Hill is the name of the place where a private cemetery was started in 1854. Nine years later, from July 1-3, 1863, it became the site of one of the most important battles of the Civil War.
That was also the place where in November of that year President Lincoln delivered what we know as the Gettysburg Address, a speech that took about two minutes. In the picture below you see June looking at the bust of Lincoln. His entire talk is engraved on the bronze plaque behind her. 

In some of the most widely quoted words from Gettysburg Address, Lincoln expressed his strong desire that “the nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Those words are generally taken as a clear call for democracy—and surely that is correct. But there is almost no one in this country, regardless of political party, who does not advocate or support democracy. 
For some reason, though, more than one speaker at the meeting of the Faith and Freedom Coalition meeting (that I wrote about here) thought it important to cite Lincoln’s words—and to emphasize that he was a Republican.
Some say that Lincoln was making a clarion call for equality among all people of the nation. Those words were spoken after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on Jan. 1, 1863. Still, that proclamation only freed slaves in the Confederate States.
Moreover, it would be another 57 years before women of any color could participate equally in the democratic process by voting.
Others may point out that a government “for the people” is one that actively promotes the “general Welfare,” as stated in the preamble of the Constitution.
That, though, seems to be at odds with a major emphasis of the Republican Party since the days of President Reagan, who emphasized that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
It is somewhat puzzling that in his inaugural address of 1981, Reagan went on to say, “From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people.”
Republicans now repeatedly talk about smaller government, states’ rights, and decisions made locally rather than in Washington.
Lincoln’s words, though, were spoken in the midst of the Civil War, fought first of all to keep the Union together. He was surely talking about a federal government “for, by, and of the people.”
If it had been left up to the individual states, or to local governments, how long would it have taken for the slaves of the South to be freed? Another 50 years? Another 100 years? Perhaps.
As it was, it took almost a hundred years for the Civil Rights Act to be passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act to be passed in 1965—and those two extremely important pieces of legislation were enacted by a Democratic Congress and signed by a Democratic President.
Basic positions of the Democratic and Republican parties in the 1960s were almost completely reversed from those of the 1860s—and people who fail to note that change misconstrue American history.

So, I want a federal government of, by, and for the people—just like Lincoln did. 

12 comments:

  1. In November 2013, at the time of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, I posted an article about that speech, and you can find it here: http://theviewfromthisseat.blogspot.com/2013/11/words-that-remade-america.html .

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    1. Thanks, Anton! And thanks also for posting the link on your Facebook timeline.

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  3. Excellent, Leroy. It is concerning that 50+ years after the Voting Rights Act, many states can create new restrictions (due to the Supreme Court's decision to block the enforcement provision of the act). The more difficult we make it for people to vote in our country the less "of, by, and for the people" we will be.

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    1. Thanks to you, too, David.

      Yes, it is ironic that the "Party of Lincoln" seems to want to make it harder for people, especially older people and poorer people and minority people, to vote.

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  4. Once again I am indebted to Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago for sharing significant comments:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your stimulating comments.

    "It seems that we now have in America, governments (federal, state, and local) by those who make substantial campaign contributions to candidates for political office.

    "Contributions to political candidates should be limited only to those eligible to vote (in the district in which the candidate is running--no outside money) and the amount contributed by any individual should be also be limited.

    "Corporations, PACs, and other organizations do not vote and they should not be allowed to make contributions to political candidates. Until then, we are more of a plutocracy than a democracy.

    "Lincoln's grand vision of government genuinely 'of, by, and for the people' remains elusive.

    "Reagan was wrong; government is not the problem. Wealthy special interests are the problem."

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    1. I much appreciate your significant comments, Eric. I can't imagine Lincoln ever dreamed that one day corporations would be considered persons, able to sway elections by political contributions.

      How long will it take for the nation to ratify an amendment that overturns the "Citizens United" decision?

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    2. Yesterday Eric responded to my response to him:

      "I doubt that the 'Citizens United' decision will ever be overthrown by a constitutional amendment. Amending the constitution is extremely difficult and the corporations have enough power and money to block any amendment. A more realistic possibility is for a future Supreme Court to reverse it.

      "Corporations are not mentioned in the constitution and there is nothing in the constitution protecting corporate 'rights' except possibly for the contracts and taking clauses.

      "Any 'rights' for corporations are actually privileges and those privileges should be defined by Congressional or legislative statutes, not court decisions."

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    3. Eric, I realize that any constitutional amendment to overturn "Citizens United" will take a long time and be very difficult.

      But, I don't expect that the Supreme Court will reverse their decision anytime soon -- especially if a Republican President is elected in November and appoints the next two or three justices.

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  5. Thanks, Leroy. I agree with the comment above. ("Terrific! One of your best.)
    I enjoy many of your posts but I paticularly liked the spirit of this one.
    Gettysburg is a place for solemn reflection on the tragedy of bigotry and war. ...a place we all should return to from time to time.

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  6. Thanks, Bob, for your comments also.

    As divided/polarized as the country is now, it certainly is not as divided/polarized as it was in the 1860s. I wonder what can be done to help lessen that division/polarization now.

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  7. Here are comments from a local Thinking Friend, who is even older than I:

    "Well done, Leroy! I'm with you! I wish that every adult would or could take a history lesson before echoing some of these misleading mottoes, slogans and political broadcastings."

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