Professor James Ceasar of the University of Virginia provided the “framing essay” for this morning’s gathering, but as I am uncertain whether he intended it to have wide publication, I will only summarize it here: The left in this country has adopted “non-foundationalism,” a belief that “a new kind of societ, free of all foundations, can be constructed,” and that this “is the only society deserving of the name of being truly democratic.”
Ceasar’s essay concludes:
The non-foundational position represents a utopian experiment that has yet no basis in real political science. Nothing in experience suggests it could ever wor, at least for a nation that is tasked with performing an important role on the stage of world history. Without a foundational principle, even more without the moral energy that derives from a concern for foundational principle, a community cannot exist in a deep or meaninglful sense. And without this energy, a community would be unable to extract from its mmbers the added measure of devotion and resolve that are needed for its survival and for undertaking any important projects. What is involved, ultimately, inthe shift to non-foundationalism is an evacuation of what makes a nation, When the illusion of a genuine nation existing without foundations is finally acknowledged –if it is acknowledged– political life will return to the real political question: which is not whether to have a foundation, but rather which one(s) to embrace and in which mixture. This conclusion only gets us back to where sensible political life begins, which is finding foundational remedies to the problem most incident to foundational thinking. On that ground, and that ground alone, let the polarization continue.
This fine essay put me to thinking about the foundational documents of the country, The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and Lincoln’s Second Inauguaral, but most especially the last, because it includes one of the most startling expressions of national resolve ever recorded:
AT this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war'”seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
I also note that Lincoln’s great proclamation of resolve is so thoroughly anchored in Scripture as to decide the question of where he thought the foundation of the nation lay.
Given that the president, and through him the nation, has just received from a would-be nuclear power an explicit challenge to its very existence–a challenge not cbined by any apparent concern for a superpower’s ability to exact fierce revenge– the Ceasar essay and where it leads is very timely, as remains Lincoln’s remarks four years into a war that, in the loss of American lives, dwarfed every war prior or since.