Lincoln's Question, Asked And Answered, Again

A protest march in front of the White House this past weekend displayed the true colors of the Tea Party:

Displaying the Confederate flag in front of a home occupied by a black family was meant to send a particular, and particularly repellent, message.

But as Ta-Nehisi Coates explained, this is more than white supremacist terrorism:

But the Confederate flag does not merely carry the stain of slavery, of "useful killing," but the stain of attempting to end the Union itself. You cannot possibly wave that flag and honestly claim any sincere understanding of your country. It is not possible.

A "sincere understanding" of our country requires some knowledge about what changed in the Civil War. 

Slaveholding Whigs and the meanings of "Equal" and "People" 

The phrases "All men are created equal" and "We the People" had been written by slaveholding Whigs and expressed their shared belief that white propertied men were equal and sovereign. Government would be accountable to "the people".

But, a government accountable to "the people" need not be run by "the people". The electoral college and an unelected upper chamber of Congress, named after a body of Roman aristocrats and selected by state legislators, were the two most obvious features designed to create a government not "of the people" but of their betters.

A Civil War over the issue of slavery would obviously change the meanings of equality and sovereignty of the people, but how?

Lincoln Invented America

Lincoln more or less invented the modern idea of American democracy in the Gettysburg Address. The novelty of his formulation--that American government is by, for, and of the people--is perhaps why we, contrary to his prediction, do remember what was said on that battlefield. But also remember this: Lincoln's reformulation of America came with a question:

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

Can American Democracy Long Endure?

"No."

That's the clear answer declared by the Confederate Flag.

"No," it says, "American democracy cannot long endure, this war will prove it."

America won the war; our democracy endured. But after the Civil War, government was no longer reserved for our betters, protecting our interests even if we lacked the power to choose them. It was replaced by: 

government of the people, by the people, for the people.

The South Rises Again, Same Result

Lincoln's formulation has never sat well with some people. The debt ceiling showdown was their anti-American rebellion (See, Ryan Lizza's New Yorker piece: Where the GOP's Suicide Caucus Lives.) But the good guys won, again.

Jonathan Chait explains how the debt ceiling fight "threatened basic governing norms", and rightly emphasizes the importance of an American victory:

Probably the single biggest Republican mistake was in failing to understand the way its behavior would create unity in the opposing party. Not until the very end, when the crisis was well under way, did any conservatives even acknowledge the Democratic view that the GOP had threatened basic governing norms. Ted Cruz and his minions may have undertaken a hopeless crusade, but they dragged along the Paul Ryan Republicans who all along seemed to think their extortion scheme was a simple business deal. Its collapse is one of the brightest days Washington has seen in a grim era.

What Next?

Those of us who love our country must not let the GOP off the hook. Our unfinished work is highlighted in Chait's last point above: the radicals proposing to destroy the Union include Paul Ryan, standard bearer for the entire GOP. Because media outlets get paid by the page view, they will focus on link bait Ted Cruz. Our great task is to make the truth inescapable: support for Paul Ryan and his radical budget proposal is support for rebel treason.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work... the great task remaining before us... that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, 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.