Mulhall column: Giving rise to an improbable candidate
In the run-up to the Republican convention of 1860, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech at the Cooper Institute in New York City. At stake was slavery and its possible expansion to America’s western territories. Lincoln’s speech shows his understanding that an effective defense of U.S. constitutional tradition involves “natural rights” — rights based on immutable characteristics of human nature that cannot be granted or repealed by government.
In 1860, Lincoln had little political capital and was at most a presidential longshot. Some historians contend the Cooper Union speech changed that.
In that speech, Lincoln articulated an answer to a complex question: Constitutionally speaking, what should we preserve, and what should we change? To do this, Lincoln reframed the term “conservative” at a time when the meaning of “inalienable rights” had grown prosaic.
Lincoln’s opponents regarded him and abolitionists generally as revolutionaries. If Lincoln thought himself a conservative, he did not present himself as one at the Cooper Institute:
“You [advocates of slavery] say you are conservative — eminently conservative — while we [abolitionists] are revolutionary, destructive or something of the sort. What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried? We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy on the point in controversy which was adopted by our fathers who framed the government under which we live; while you with one accord reject, and scout, and spit upon that old policy, and insist upon substituting something new.”
Lincoln pointed out that no one who favored an extension of slavery could cite precedent in the founding documents or an advocate among the framers. He could see what perhaps his opponents could not: Slavery and natural rights were cross-purposes. In their embrace of slavery, as discordant as it was, Lincoln’s opposition aligned solidly against constitutional tradition.
“True, you disagree among yourselves as to what that substitute [slavery policy] shall be,” Lincoln said. “You are divided on new propositions and plans, but you are unanimous in rejecting and denouncing the old policy of the fathers. … Consider, then, whether your claim of conservatism for yourselves, and your charge or destructiveness against us, are based on the most clear and stable foundations.”
Lincoln not only turned the table, he turned the debate into an era of emancipation that survives to this day.
So the tension between innovation and tradition is not new. It existed in Lincoln’s day as surely as it exists now, as does a prevalent disregard for natural rights. Today’s disregard, however, arises not out of an incompatibility with slavery, but out of contempt for the idea that human nature is endowed by a “Creator.”
Disregard for natural rights kicks a door open to new ideas every few generations, and what creeps in isn’t always good. You see this in our time in books by people like Hillary Clinton and Justice Stephen Breyer.
Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes a Village” defines child rearing as a collective effort. While Clinton acknowledges family, her book underscores the duty of employers, politicians, nonprofit organizations, businesses and governments — domestic and international — in raising children. Her magnification of the non-familial marginalizes the individual’s part while validating a need for leviathan government, regulation and bureaucracy.
Similarly, Stephen Breyer’s “Active Liberty” deprecates natural rights. Breyer’s book is a refutation of the late Antonin Scalia’s writings on “originalism” — the idea that constitutional and statutory provisions should be narrowly interpreted through the Constitution. To Breyer, the Constitution is an experiment, and natural rights were Thomas Jefferson’s best hypothesis. Breyer would have us defer not just to new hypotheses on governance, but to alternate definitions and origins of rights, and new ideas about how and by whom they are conferred.
This view permeates. Google “natural rights.” You’ll get a definition that reads, in part, that natural rights are “Rights that people supposedly have under natural law” (source: dictionary.com). No bet hedge there.
In fairness, both liberals and conservatives embrace the new, at least in the sense that Congress continually writes laws, presidents sign bills and issue orders, and courts rule. In these processes, people grapple with the “what should we preserve, and what should we change” question. Recent answers, however, have resulted in government that undermines natural rights without consent of the governed.
How? Some of the nuttier examples include mandating participation in a government expansion that raises the cost of health care and limits individual choice, restraining the religious devotion of Catholic nuns through requirements to buy health coverage for abortions and abortifacients, requiring employers like Hobby Lobby to cover contraception, giving military-grade firearms to Mexican drug cartels while pursuing laws to deny firearm protection and personal sovereignty to Americans, and withholding federal funding from states that require students to use bathrooms and showers that correspond to their biological sex.
If nothing else, these examples account for the popularity of Donald Trump. Whether he’ll succeed against an establishment apparatchik with a formidable political machine depends on how much of the electorate dismisses natural rights.
Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime valley resident. His column appears on the second Friday of each month.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.