Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), c1865.

On February 12, America will celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s 202nd birthday, but will conservatives celebrate his legacy? Lincoln is a pivotal figure in American history, yet some conservatives are wary of him. Lincoln, the Left proclaims and the Right fears, is the father of big government.

Conservatives shouldn’t be fooled. If big government means a permanently large and growing federal budget and a vast civil service (see William Voegeli’s Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State), then Lincoln may deny paternity for both. As Allen Guelzo explains, while the federal budget indeed ballooned to meet the cost of the Civil War (from $63.2 million in 1860 to $1.29 billion in 1865), it shrank once the war ended (back to $293 million by 1870). “If Lincoln had plans to create ‘big government,’” Guelzo concludes, “none of his successors seems to have known what they were.”  Similarly, while the federal government employed more people during the war, the number shrank once the war ended.

In reality, big government is a Progressive invention, designed by Progressive thinkers such as Herbert Croly and John Dewey and perpetrated by Progressive presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. These men embraced big government, because they held certain principles opposed to the limited government framework set forth in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

By contrast, Lincoln held a different set of premises. He defended the Constitution and “never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” To understand Lincoln, therefore, we must turn to the documents he held so dear.

When Lincoln contemplated the Declaration of Independence, Ralph Lerner explains in his essay Lincoln’s Declaration—and Ours, “he saw not one document but two.”  First was the “merely revolutionary document” that enumerated the crown’s violations in order to justify to the world the colonies’ separation from Great Britain. The second was the more permanent aspect of the Declaration—“an abstract truth to the effect that all men are created equal.” Human equality would serve as the great foundational principle of America. It was this abstract truth that would carry the Declaration throughout time and guide Lincoln and later statesmen through the precarious situations of the day.

The Constitution complements the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln described the Declaration as an apple of gold while the “Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around [the apple]. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple — not the apple for the picture. So let us act, that neither picture, or apple, shall ever be blurred, or bruised, or broken.” That is, the core of America is the equality principle articulated in the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution exists to preserve and facilitate the equality principle by protecting it in the rule of law.

Thus, Lincoln recognized that the Constitution set forth a framework of limited government. He could not do any and everything he desired—even abolishing the evil of slavery. Many abolitionists objected that Lincoln had not eliminated slavery: abolitionists, Lincoln noted, “seemed to think that the moment I was president, I had the power to abolish slavery, forgetting that before I could have any power whatsoever I had to take the oath to support the Constitution of the United States and execute the laws as I found them.”

It fell upon Lincoln to guide the nation through a bloody civil war to eradicate the evil of slavery and to mold the North and the South into “a more perfect Union.” Should he have allowed the union fall apart and condemn the continent to the petty wars of confederacies (about which Publius warned the early Americans)? Should Lincoln have maintained the Union but surrendered the constitutional republic?  The true legacy of Lincoln, then, is not simply the ending of slavery.  It is ending slavery while preserving the Constitution and the Union.  Lincoln vindicated the apple of gold without smashing the frame of silver in the process.

It is easy to look back on the Civil War era and underestimate the gravity of Lincoln’s choices. We must take the effort to understand the principles that informed Lincoln’s decisions and resist the temptation to allow arrogant hindsight to condemn the prudent application of those principles.