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Urban Rhythms

A House Divided

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 7/4/2001

What do we the people of the United States really stand for? Each year we celebrate the Fourth of July as if we know, as if we've reached a consensus around an overarching set of American values that are understood and embraced by everyone.

But as I listen carefully to the rhetoric of the right, it is painfully obvious that we're not just arguing over process, a case of two well-meaning sides that advocate different means to reach the same end. The values of the voters who put people such as Jesse Helms and Trent Lott into office seem fundamentally different from my own.

I trace the split between the left and the right to the Civil War. George Fletcher, a professor at Columbia University School of Law, is even more specific. When President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address on Nov. 19, 1863, says Fletcher, he in effect reinvented the United States around a new set of principles.

In Our Secret Constitution: How Lincoln Redefined American Democracy, Fletcher argues that the values that shaped the Constitution of 1787 were supplanted in the American psyche by a new set of values. The Gettysburg Address serves as the unofficial preamble of a "secret constitution," says Fletcher. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution put Lincoln's ideas into action.

"The Civil War called forth a new constitutional order," Fletcher writes. "The principles of this new legal regime are so radically different from our original Constitution, drafted in 1787, that they deserve to be recognized as a second American constitution. The new constitution established, in fact, a second American Republic."

Fletcher says the defining value of our original Constitution is freedom. The defining value of the secret constitution is equality. We prefer to act as though those two precepts complement each other. In fact, they lead to radically different notions of government.

For example, the Constitution of 1787, along with the Bill of Rights, contains specific protections for individual freedom such as the right of assembly and speech, and it contains specific protections for the states against federal interference, especially the right of states to embrace slavery. Fletcher describes the Constitution of 1787 as a "secular document," in which "We the People" voluntarily choose the government that best guarantees our freedom. A primary function of government is to keep government from meddling in our lives.

By contrast, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address declares that there is a higher value than freedom: "the proposition that all men are created equal." The three Reconstruction amendments empower the federal government to protect the weak and promote equality.

For those of you who weren't in the audience that day and who missed the 6 o'clock news, here's what Lincoln said on Nov. 19, 1863: "Four score and seven years ago," he began, "our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Lincoln's two-minute speech ended with the prayer that "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

The poetic resonance of those words echoes in our psyches today. In fact, Fletcher argues that we have built a new consensus around the secret constitution.

"The 14 official amendments adopted between 1865 and 1993 reveal a little-noticed pattern, a systemic effort to remake the United States in the image originally cast at Gettysburg," Fletcher writes. "These amendments spread the franchise, strengthen the powers of government and as a political interpretation of what equality requires in practice, they express compassion for the weak."

I disagree. As the 2000 election revealed, our country is very divided. Roughly half of us believe that government ought to stay out of our lives. We push for "states' rights," a liberalized tax code, and turn to the marketplace as the arbiter of choice on issues such as environmental policy. Those of us who take this point of view tend to condemn welfare as a reward for sloth. We fret about the money spent on social entitlements and see affirmative-action programs as unwelcome interference. Our battle cry is "leave business alone." Fletcher would say that those of us who think this way embrace freedom as our highest ideal and trace our lineage to the Constitution of 1787.

But roughly half of us believe that government should act as a referee to ensure that the rich and powerful do not prey on the weak. We tend to support programs such as welfare, public education, and Social Security as much-needed safety nets. We trace our lineage to Fletcher's secret constitution.

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