In 1996, while campaigning in California, President Clinton commented that the celebrated phrase, "that government of the people, by the people, and for the people," was enshrined in the United States Constitution. When this rather embarrassing inaccuracy was brought to his attention, Clinton "corrected" himself, saying that it was located, rather, in the Declaration of Independence.
The truth of the matter, as every student of American history should know, is that these oft-repeated words were first spoken in 1863 at Gettysburg by Abraham Lincoln. Clinton's double faux pas did not stand in the way of his re-election. In an atmosphere where image and style count far more than truth and substance, his twin slips where a media non-event (as opposed to Dan Quayle's alleged misspelling of "potato"). Throughout his second term as president of the world's most powerful nation, it became undeniable even to his staunchest supporters, that Clinton had little regard for the truth. If democracy is "that government of the people, by the people, and for the people," would there be any need for truth? If democracy is simply the will of the people, then isn't truth simply irrelevant? In fact, truth, at times, is an obstacle. It is impractical, inexpedient, and inconvenient. Clinton's version of democracy begins with freedom, though with such an amorphous beginning, it really has no place to go.
There is a prevailing sense in America that the best guarantor of freedom is a form of democracy that is unencumbered by truth. Freedom, according to many Americans, is most perfectly itself when it is disentangled from the last remnant of truth. Clinton's reference to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address may have been a more serious oversight, even an offense to the mind and heart of America's sixteenth president, inasmuch as it identified democracy with the will of the people, rather than basing it on certain truths that would be perilous to ignore.
On another occasion, a year or two prior to his inhabiting the White House, Lincoln said, "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatsoever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is not democracy."
Lincoln's astute comment embraces a fundamental truth, namely, the equality Under God of all human beings. Slavery, whether from the point of view of the slave or the master, is a denial of the fundamental truth of that proposition. The Civil War was fought in defense of a truth. At Gettysburg, Lincoln expressed the fervent hope that the soldiers who died there did not die in vain and that we, the living, must dedicate ourselves "to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."
This "work" is the building and preserving of democracy, but one anchored in the truth of the brotherhood of man. Truth, therefore, is antecedent; freedom is consequent. Truth is primary; freedom is the fulfilling atmosphere in which the truth of man flourishes.
This "work" is the building and preserving of democracy, but one anchored in the truth of the brotherhood of man. Truth, therefore, is antecedent; freedom is consequent. Truth is primary; freedom is the fulfilling atmosphere in which the truth of man flourishes. In the absence of truth, there can be no flourishing of the human being. When truth is disregarded, freedom becomes as Jacques Maritain has said, "but that amorphous impulse surging out of the night which is but a false image of liberty." Aquinas has pointed out in his work On Truth (De Veritate), that "the entire root of liberty is constituted in reason," and that it is reason that discerns the truth of things ("Totius libertatis radix est in ratione constituta").
Lincoln's understanding that freedom is meaningful only when it is rooted in the truth of man is encapsulated in the Gospel words, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32).
The unalterable fact that truth is not only primary, but indispensable, does not mean that it is always agreeable. "God offers to every mind," Ralph Waldo Emerson has reminded us, "its choice between truth and repose." Mounting the bathroom scale can be a breathless ascent, because the anxious weightwatcher knows that this simple piece of machinery tells the truth. But the disconcerting truth that one is overweight may be exactly what is needed if exercising and dieting are to follow. The freedom that health offers may be preceded by the unpleasant truth that one is carrying around excessive poundage.
It is precisely because truth is often disagreeable, unpleasant, and unpalatable, that love for truth is a virtue. The truth, and no substitute, shall make us free. But if we have not cultivated the virtue that gives us the strength to love truth, we cannot begin our advance toward freedom.
In a climate of racism, it may be painful (if not politically inexpedient) to recognize the truth of the equal humanity of all races. Yet, it is undeniable that there can be no human progress without recognizing, honoring, and implementing fundamental truths about man. In a climate of "choice," it may be painful to recognize the truth of the humanity of the unborn. Clinton wanted abortions to be "safe, legal, and rare." To Lincoln's everlasting credit, he did not want slavery to be "safe, legal, and rare.
The politically charged atmosphere of today's world continues to discourage people from recognizing certain truths. The truth of the unborn human being is today's challenge to the true democrat. Lincoln castigated the democrats of his time for tolerating, even advocating slavery. He was not willing to comply with a "Pro-choice" view of slavery because it violated a fundamental truth that imperiled both human beings as well as a nation. Lincoln was committed to the "self-evident truth" that "all men are created equal" which Jefferson had inscribed in the Declaration of Independence. He had no patience with attempts to compromise that truth and understood clearly where such compromises would lead. "As a nation we began by declaring that all men are created equal," he said. "We now practically read it, 'All men are created equal except the Negroes.' Soon it will read, 'All men are created equal except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty, to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."
Love for truth is not a common virtue. It is believed by many to be almost completely absent from the world of politics. Yet, even if this were the case, it does not diminish the primary significance of this virtue.
He emphasized that the proposition, 'a house divided against itself cannot stand,' "is a truth of all human experience." Christ, in admonishing the Pharisees, had said, "Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand." Lincoln averred that this statement has been true for "six thousand years," which may be taken to mean, as long as there have been human beings able to discern this incontrovertible truth. Before delivering his speech in which he used the image of a house divided against itself, he solicited the opinions of several of his colleagues. One listened carefully and characterized it as a "damned fool utterance"; another contended that it was "ahead of its time; and still another insisted that it would drive away a good many voters from the Democrats ranks. Despite the adverse comments of all those who listened to his words, Lincoln remained undeterred. "The time has come when these sentiments should be uttered," he said to them. "And if it is decreed that I should go down because of this speech, then let me go down linked to the truth &mdash let me die in the advocacy of what is just and right."
Lincoln was open to criticism without losing sight of his firmness of purpose. To one dissenter who followed the president into his executive office, Lincoln proudly stated, "If I had to draw a pen across my record, and erase my whole life from sight, and I had one poor gift or choice left as to what I should save from wreck, I should choose that speech and leave it to the world unerased.
Lincoln's greatness as a political leader lay in the fact that not only did he recognize that freedom cannot flower except in the soil of truth, but that he had enough virtue &mdash his love for truth &mdash to stand by his convictions in the full face of political opposition.
Love for truth is not a common virtue. It is believed by many to be almost completely absent from the world of politics. Yet, even if this were the case, it does not diminish the primary significance of this virtue. Truth is what unites us, what brings us in touch with our reality, what gives meaning and direction to our lives, and what makes us free in the most important sense of the word. If politics is an object of cynicism, it is because it is perceived as not resting on a basis of truth. If politicians are vilified, it is because their commitment to truth is forever being compromised.
The primary significance of a love for truth has been a favorite theme of Pope John Paul II: "Let us seek the truth about Christ and about his Church!" He writes in his Agenda for the Third Millennium: "Let us love the Truth, live the Truth, proclaim the Truth! O Christ, show us the Truth. Be the only Truth for us."
Donald DeMarco. "Abraham Lincoln." National Catholic Register.
This article is reprinted with permission from Donald DeMarco.
Copyright © 2009 Donald DeMarco