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Michael S. Lewis: From Lincoln to Souter – the sanctity of law and the conservative spirit

  • Abraham Lincoln in 1847. AP

  • David Souter in 2012. AP



For the Monitor
Wednesday, November 30, 2016

In the run-up to this recent election, our own retired United States Supreme Court Justice David Souter received national attention for concerns about our republic he expressed during a 2012 interview.

The interview was given as part of a series titled “Constitutionally Speaking,” a program directed at provoking an active, civic, nonprofessional discussion of our constitutional and legal institutions and history.

During the interview, Justice Souter was asked about, and so identified, the greatest threat he perceived to our constitutional republic. He described his central fear as that of the failure of our people to understand our government at a basic level.

He worried that this pervasive ignorance, when placed side-by-side with the appearance of a powerful individual during perilous times, would cause us to cast aside our constitutional government and its principles, and in so doing the treasured freedoms our forebears sacrificed so much to win for themselves and future generations.

There has been no clearer articulation of the conservative spirit by a public figure in recent times. The conservative spirit treasures our traditions and our history, and seeks a future that preserves what has made America great for more than two centuries.

Justice Souter would have us understand those traditions and our history, if only at the most rudimentary level, as a fundamental means of protection against threats to our unique American freedom. It is very hard to imagine that he is wrong about this.

Justice Souter’s message drew, perhaps consciously though not explicitly, from a great forebear.

In January 1838, a 28-year-old Abraham Lincoln stood before an audience in Springfield, Ill., a young attorney, more than two decades from his election as the first Republican president of the United States.

His purpose was to address the violent murder by burning of an African American in St. Louis a few weeks before. In his words, “(a) mulatto man, by the name of McIntosh, was seized in the street, dragged to suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour from the time he had been a freeman, attending to his own business, and at peace with the world.”

The speech he gave in response to this horror is titled, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” and was an address given to Young Men’s Lyceum convening to promote the exchange of ideas relevant to public issues of the day. The “Young Men’s Lyceum” was not unlike “Constitutionally Speaking” in its mission.

Lincoln began in a fashion presaging his address at Gettysburg: “We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any which the history of former times tells us.”

In the face of lawless mob violence and as a measure of “gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general,” Lincoln asked: “At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shell we fortify against it?”

His answer echoed Souter’s: “All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years. . . . I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

For Lincoln as for Souter, the greatest threat is and always has been the detachment of our people from its great governing principles. Having lost this attachment, both feared that it would be no great feat for “men of sufficient talent and ambition” to “seize the opportunity, strike the blow, and overturn that fair fabric, which . . . has been the fondest hope, of the lovers of freedom, throughout the world.”

“. . . And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.”

We have just survived a vicious election. The tone and tenor of it was shockingly debased, signaling a great departure from our standards and traditions. The result has been that a minority of our fellow countrymen and women has elected a president with little expressed attachment to our government, our constitution or our laws. Some of his first public statements have been directed at the legitimacy of the very democratic process that elected him president. In recent days he has threatened to use government power to imprison citizens and even to strip our fellow Americans of their citizenship for exercising recognized constitutional rights.

In the face of such an extraordinary figure, our conservative spirit, our reverence for our laws and our Constitution, impel us to consider the challenge of Lincoln and Souter. It is our Republic, and if we are to keep it, if we are to prepare ourselves to fight to protect it, we must treasure it enough to understand it.

(Michael S. Lewis is an attorney in Concord and a former homicide prosecutor.)