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Upbuilding Political Culture:

Why a Self-Ruling People Pursues the Ends of Civil and Religious Liberty

By R. J. Gruber Jr.




Copyright R.J. Gruber Jr., 2018

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Political Animal Project logo designed by Mrs. Kelly Gruber

The guiding symbol for this project is derived from Abraham Lincoln’s “Lyceum Address.” This image is drawn out of Lincoln’s description of America’s founding generation as “trees of men” who devoted their fortunes, blood, and ultimately even their lives to our young Republic. Toward the end of this marvelous speech he tells us how these trees of people became the pillars of what he so aptly called the “temple of liberty.” This poetic rendering, of people becoming strong as trees and then upbuilding liberty’s edifice, duly frames the Political Animal Project by emphasizing how the pursuit of liberty transforms the lives of those who bear its burdens in accord with our Declaration's political faith.

Manufactured in the United States of America

First printing June 2018


Preparing the Grounds

Building the Foundation

Appraising the Materials

Blueprinting the Vision

Discerning the Ends

Living the Pursuit

Lincoln's Lyceum Address

The Declaration of Independence


About the Author

Preparing the Grounds

The Political Animal Project is a political education campaign designed to help renew the American Republic by spurring the development of “new modes and orders” of self-rule. As frustration mounts among decent-souled citizens, we seek to reclaim the transformative promise of the West that is woven into the foundation of the American political order. And, moored in our Declaration’s political faith, we devote ourselves to the task of upbuilding tomorrow’s constructive political culture that might once again forge new links into our regime’s common purpose.

This approach to renewing political life is decidedly out of fashion. Simply put, it’s unpleasant to measure individual well-being in relation to our atrophied public domain. The only justifiable reason for burdening our private lives with the problems of said public realm is if the well-being of the former depends somehow upon the condition of the latter. We contend that the two are causally connected and that, as a rule, we’re paying insufficient attention to the interrelatedness of these spheres.

While self-preservation may be the first and fundamental law of nature, politically the person doesn’t come first. Rather, the linkages in our cultural chain that facilitate the pursuit of well-lived lives must have priority over individual claims of autonomy.i Operationally, we assert that our humanity is an uncertain proposition that is always in danger of retrogressing into mere barbarism or progressing into a sort of moral-gigantism. As such, we view humanity as a mean on a continuum between the extremes of slavery to our appetites on one hand and the unfettered domination of our reason on the other. It will be our task to show that maintaining this dynamic mean requires that a free people pursue the ends of both civil and religious liberty.i In other words, we can actualize the ideals of our political faith and establish centripetal tension in the soul and city or sever the ties that bind and become shaped by domineering forces.

Yet, to miss the mark is human. Thankfully, the founders of our representative Republic preserved freedom’s way of return by grounding our Constitution upon the bedrock of our Declaration of Independence. Not only did our forefathers give us a constitutional blueprint, but they also passed down compass bearings to guide our return to first-principles. No matter how far we may have deviated from the noble mean, we might reorient our lives according to the fundamentals of our political faith; for we have sufficient sources from which to cultivate habits of constructive political speech and productively deliberate together once again.

The young Abraham Lincoln’s “Lyceum Address” will be our operational guide for renewing the spirit of self-rule. For now, we turn to a brief passage in which Lincoln describes the threat posed by an elected despot who, in turn, rejects the practice of “adding story to story” that has henceforth maintained the Republic. We will show how such an interlinking process, which in generations past served as a mode of sustaining the Republic’s character, could function as a mode of renewal in today’s atomized political context.

By mooring this subjectively additive process within a latticework-like vision of political culture—a vision that joins each new generation to the common venture articulated by our Declaration—the Lyceum Address proves to be immensely helpful in our debates about what it means to be Americans. Critically, Lincoln’s notion of adding story to story is an argument against the practices of today’s so-called “identity politics.” Least of all is the expression and joining together of our present identities sufficient to sustain, let alone renew, self-rule. Rather, we hear Lincoln persuading listeners to draw our present identifications into the light of America’s ideals of citizenship and engage in the transformative process of becoming political animals.iii Such constructive engagement between our root-stories and our subjective experience provides the basis for a potentially profound political culture in the coming decades and offers the possibility of renewing American political life into the 22nd century.

Before proceeding, a bit of backstory is needed. During much of my past decade of study, this Aristotelian standard seemed to serve as a common reference point for both the right and left on a sort of second-sailing toward our first-principles. Yet it has become ever more apparent that ideological entrenchments on both the left and right prevent many people from taking seriously the political aspect of our human nature. On the left of the spectrum, many would reject the political animal as an orienting standard of human action because it introduces a counterweight, rooted in an overarching nature, against the interpretive claims of any given present. Those for whom personality is an inviolable datum of our political calculus likely will reject the principle of man as a potentially political animal because this standard argues against the absolute value of any personal expression for the sake of an ever-greater fulfillment informed by the perplexing whole of our human condition. The political animal standard runs explicitly against the premises and entailed outcomes of “identity politics” because it says that all individual identities are incomplete in any given context and that their completion depends, as we will see later, upon a cultural orientation towards civil and religious liberty.

Many on the right, as well, will find a disconnect between certain tendencies of fiscal conservatism and the internal demands of the political animal standard. One of the chief sources of tension arises out of the conservative embrace of political liberalism’s market-based logic (i.e. that the value of a man is the price he can command in the market) and the concomitant, anti-political conclusion that government should be run as a business. Our point here is that self-rule is an inherently inefficient process of drawing each new generation into the character-forming practices of our representative Republic. And so long as we frame the issues of governance primarily in terms of efficiency, we will fail to instill the habits that perpetuate the political institutions of a free people.iv

Properly speaking, we are addressing the whole of our political spectrum to reach all who are wary of the extremes of both individualism and of capitalistic disdain for our neighbors’ well-being. Our message will be particularly amenable to those who recognize, or can yet sense, religion’s role in preparing people to bear the burdens of liberty. For it is characteristic among Western religions such as the Jewish tradition, Christianity, and Islam, to teach that man always must argue against certain aspects of himself to live a good life. Yet whether you arrive through a religious tradition or perhaps through moral philosophy, the basic condition remains the same: self-rule requires arguments against the unlimited pursuit of our desires, at the very least, because democratic social states tend to centralize power in hopes of freeing up more time for self-interested pursuits.v Hence, we turn to the moral heritage of the West to look for the ends that can simultaneously direct self-interestedness and fire the engines of productivity. In short, we endeavor to become political animals because living-well requires that we conserve the whole of our moral and material universe.

Building the Foundation

We hold that the renewal of any association of people is premised upon a return to the characteristic excellence that set it into motion. The Political Animal Project therefore endeavors to re-establish lines of communication between the actual conditions of our individual lives and the ideals of our political faith. Quite simply, until we establish correspondence between personal character and the pursuit of our Declaration’s truths, we will fail to develop the practical wisdom sufficient for navigating the path to liberty.

Yet, such correspondence is impossible so long as politics remains an abstraction in our lives. For citizens to claim a share in both ruling and being ruled, we must expand the essential functions of our political parties. The problem is that electioneering has become the only direct impact that political parties have on most of our lives. Yet this impact is more like an assault in which forceful political advertising paints alternatingly idyllic and terrifying images that are designed to affect one distinct behavior at one distinct time, namely to vote accordingly (and give money, of course). The ubiquity of these images teaches all of us who are not shielded by public relations firms to remain safely on the periphery. But, if our goal is to renew the spirit of self-rule in the American Republic, then our parties must help forge civic identities in shared processes of becoming political animals. From the perspective of the Political Animal Project, we must begin reordering our political culture according to the internal demands of what Tocqueville called the apprenticeship to liberty.

This perennial idea of an apprenticeship to liberty describes the ongoing attempts in the West to upbuild a foundation beneath our tenuous humanity. Considering the human tendency to swing between extremes and potentially become a devouring beast or a dissociated god of abstract reasoning, freedom-loving peoples continuously maintain the human mean by orchestrating personal and shared goods. What Tocqueville and like-minded thinkers are saying is that self-rule in the American political tradition is largely the outcome of habits learned across numerous institutions such as family, church, school, voluntary associations, business enterprises, military service, and political parties—and that an apprenticeship to liberty is characteristic of a political culture that roots these distinct institutions in a shared point of origin from which a common vision of ends can emerge.

The Political Animal Project seeks to champion this cultural dialectic by endeavoring to connect the next generations to the enduring problems and possibilities of self-rule. Presently, our political education fails to forge new links in a common chain due, in part, to the difficulty of persuading individuals to project themselves into the West’s dynamic human-nature teachings. The problem here is that without going through a personal process of validating what is and is not timeless in our cultural antecedents, individual fields of vision become dangerously narrow and unable to appreciate the complexities of political deliberation. What’s more, so long as individual experience remains securely rooted in one’s personal context, the force of our psychological identifications tends to exclude the possibility of differentiating between natural and civil liberty (a relationship that we will explore later). In sum, we cannot renew the spirit of self-rule without re-establishing constructive tension between individual desires for fulfilment and an end-oriented vision of political life. We therefore turn towards the Lyceum Address for insight into the nature of what such a constructive cultural undertaking would entail.

Appraising the Materials

Lincoln sheds light on the necessity of pursuing both civil and religious liberty while also revealing how new modes and orders of self-rule are developed in relationship to these fixed moral ends. Though before wading into these depths, we should attend to a lingering difficulty within our first example from the Lyceum Address. There you’ll recall Lincoln telling us that republics maintain themselves through the ongoing process of joining stories together. If we take this idea seriously, then it seems fitting to inquire to what exactly one would be joining their story. Is the process of joining stories a sort of endless, and more importantly, foundation-less process that becomes whatever we make of it? Or, politically speaking, is there an internal necessity to search out load-bearing principles that can support constructive endeavors across ages and places? Such a possibility is difficult to entertain today. Some will be unable to accept the idea of a first-story because if it is simply a story, why then should we connect our lives to this point and not another, or to any at all? Others will take issue with this rendering because if it is truth, or natural right at the basis of our Republic, then why diminish it by calling it a story? Further, if we accept the premise of a first-story, what is it about our present context that would make the adjoining of stories to a fixed-point function as a mode of political renewal?

Let’s begin with the last difficulty first and consider the broad contours of our present context as reflected to us in the two-fold orthodoxy of the age—political materialism in our public domain and moral relativism in the private realm. The crux of political materialism resides in the idea that justice is basically a contract established by people covenanting together; in other words, there is no transcendent standard of justice for political materialists because man is the measure of all things, and since man seems to change over time with the world around him, justice is therefore reckoned as a relative agreement between a given people in a particular time and place. The private corollary of this progressive public creed is a moral relativism in which each individual ought simply to have preferences, whatsoever they might be, so long as each agrees that others ought to have their own preferences regardless of their objects (save that they are predominantly peaceable).vi

Drawing these elements together, we find ourselves in a vexing political context in which the nature and extent of our social-sovereignty claims tend to atomize individuals and said atomization thereby fosters anti-political tendencies within the people. Political materialism begins with a grain of truth that people in past times failed to adequately account for the whole in their relative, contractual formulations, and then the materialists unjustifiably reject the whole as an orienting standard in the present. Yet there’s no escaping the rub that if self-interest does not become concerned with the state of the whole, then man’s autonomy tends toward anarchy. The issue here is that without periodically recalling the limits of human knowledge, or the problem of the whole as such, we are prone to swing blithely between culturally destructive extremes, blindly determined by the forces of human nature that we pretend aren’t there.

Within this milieu of materialism and relativism, the search for a fixed-point takes on the character of a radical enterprise. Without having yet unfolded our touchstone, we can nevertheless discern how the connection of our personal experiences to an unchanging point would function as a mode of political renewal. Man, the animal of many-turnings, who recognizes an enduring foundation of right at the basis of existence, would have to think and speak differently about the role of law in human life. Rather than merely an external convention for managing fluid affairs, one who discovers a fixed-point in the fabric of reality has discerned an internal connection between lawfulness and life well-lived. Such a recognition can, in turn, incrementally effect political renewal by slowly re-ordering speech and thought according to the vision upbuilt out of a timeless principle of natural right (soon to be further explained).

It is because we seek to understand the deeper connection between that which exists by nature and the best of our human makings that we turn now in earnest to the Lyceum Address to explore a master example of how a given narrative might be fruitfully joined to fixed reference points. Fortunately, we needn’t look farther afield than Lincoln’s first sentence to find the interpretive keys for why a free people must maintain the pursuit of both civil and religious liberty.

Blueprinting the Vision

Turning to the Lyceum Address, we read as follows: “In the great journal of things happening under the sun, we, the American People, find our account running, under date of the nineteenth century of the Christian era.” In this first line, we hear Lincoln establishing a connection with at least two different root stories: Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Scriptures and our Declaration of Independence.

First, Lincoln situates the American political project as one part of an overarching whole joined together “under the sun.” We believe that this is a thinly veiled but unmistakable allusion to King Solomon’s Ecclesiastes in which the phrase “under the sun” is used repeatedly. Second, Lincoln’s phrase “we, the American People, find our account running…” hearkens to the Declaration’s introductory description of a people who would be free and “…assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect of the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation” (italics added). We will show that Lincoln’s Lyceum Address continues this task of a free people in his account of the causes of our blessings and burdens.

Before tracing out the significance of these of first-stories, let’s focus our inquiry. We will not be giving an account of Ecclesiastes or the Declaration on their own terms or drawing out all the connections with Lincoln’s Lyceum Address. Instead, we call upon these root-stories, first, because Lincoln invites us to look for the sources to which he connects his Address, and secondly, because what was centrally important for Lincoln—the inseparability of the ends of civil and religious liberty—sounds strangely provincial today. We no longer differentiate between civil and natural liberty in everyday speech, and religious liberty commonly connotes a private affair of the conscience that all too often seems out of place in public speech. What for Lincoln was such an obvious relationship that he didn’t need to spell it out is for us another uncertain proposition. Hence, we turn back in search of the cultural antecedents to which Lincoln joined his story so that we might better discern the relevance of his fundamental ideas.

Now that we’ve limited our inquiry, let’s restate our question. Are the ends of civil and religious liberty merely the expression of a value-set localized in time and place or do these ends place demands on any people who would maintain a share in ruling and being ruled while also preparing their children for freedom’s blessings? The Lyceum Address brims with political wisdom to help us answer these questions, yet Lincoln further substantiates the timeless nature of these ends by interweaving the same human problems articulated in Ecclesiastes into his Address.

King Solomon frames their shared problematic by asking “what real value is there for a man in all that he makes beneath the sun?” (Eccl 1.3). What is the meaning of real value? The meaning is clarified in the next chapter where we learn that after he had tested all that happened under the sun, and appraised wisdom and folly itself, Solomon’s “thoughts turned to all the fortune my hands had built up, to the wealth I had acquired and won—and oh, it was all futile and pursuit of wind; there was no real value under the sun! For what will the man be like who will succeed the one who is ruling over what was built up long ago?” (Eccl 2.1-12; italics added). The wise Solomon evidently located the human problem as such in the tension between the makings of our hands and the education of our children. Yet within this tension we also find the promise of all constructive political cultures: the formation of new links in the chain of moral freedom so that each generation might maintain the mean of our humanity amidst great cultural wealth.

Lincoln restates Solomon’s concern as he considers how to perpetuate our political institutions when we “toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them [land and political institutions].” To even raise such a question significantly challenges the modern premise that a mechanistic system of checks and balances is sufficient for keeping democratic passions from undermining a popular regime. Lincoln leads us to ask what real value can be found in the trappings of constitutional government if individuals do not become virtuous citizens capable of bearing the burdens of self-rule. Clearly, Lincoln has internalized the ancient counsel that it is “folly to hand on a fortune made with wisdom, knowledge, and skill to somebody who did not toil for it.” (Eccl 2.21). Modern sensibilities often insulate us from the idea that America’s system of political institutions is double-edged and can harm the hand that holds it if the political strength of the people atrophies. Both Lincoln and Solomon share the view that the people’s moral capacity determines how its inherited political institutions will be wielded. Therefore, all who would be free, according to Lincoln, are obliged “to transmit [both this goodly land]…unprofaned by the foot of the invader” and our political edifice of liberty and equal rights “undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know.”

How exactly are we supposed to transmit our land unprofaned and beliefs intact to the end of time? Solomon sums up his answer as follows: “Thus I realized that the only worthwhile thing there is for them is to enjoy themselves and do what is good” (Eccl 3.12). Lincoln similarly describes the perpetuation of our political institutions in terms of a “task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general...” What’s common here is the connection between transmitting these fundamental human goods through time and the relative position of the appetites in the soul’s order. For both thinkers, the basic appetites of life—such as hunger and thirst—mount a case for their own goodness, and inferentially, for the goodness of our appetites as such. Yet there is an irrational aspect of mankind that tends to sever goods from their enabling contexts and leads to cases in which “…the man who is alone, with no companion, who has neither son nor brother; yet he amasses wealth without limit, and his eye is never sated with riches” (Eccl 4.8). What Solomon is telling us is that without the limits in which we thrive, i.e. family and friendship, the human heart becomes a gristmill of unfulfilled longing—for “two are better off than one” and “a three-fold cord is not readily broken” (Eccl 4.9, 4.12). This deeper vein of wisdom teaches that it is love, in its various forms, that draws the appetites into the greater pursuit of abundance ordered by humane limits. Such self-limiting wisdom is the central virtue of our forefathers according to Lincoln for “theirs was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights.”

Let’s gather these ideas together for a moment. Before explicitly establishing our case for a free people’s enduring unity of ends, we can start to see how the Lyceum Address serves as a “new mode” of Solomon’s ancient wisdom. By beginning with the continuity of both the human condition and humane wisdom, Lincoln could join his story to the tonic root of Ecclesiastes and then transpose its teachings into a contextually fitting mode for the year 1838. Yet Lincoln did not confine his counsel to his own generation. Fifty years after the founding, Lincoln addressed the problem that confronts any generation that finds itself following such mighty examples. Of course, the founding experience cannot be repeated. We cannot once again cross the ocean and sow seeds that flourish in the Declaration and then sacrifice so much to establish the United States—we cannot go back and bear the marks of such a becoming. So, Lincoln hazards the course braved by all great Western souls—he calls upon citizens to embrace a cultural apprenticeship that might recultivate the virtues of self-possession so that we can bear the burdens unique to our own age. We now arrive at the crux of our argument that such a cultural apprenticeship requires that we orient our vision according to the ends of civil and religious liberty.

Discerning the Ends

As is our fashion, we must make another beginning to draw closer to our goal. This time we’ll consider Lincoln’s age-old understanding that if danger is ever to approach a free people, it “must spring up amongst us.” As evidenced in his idea that freemen “must live through all time, or die by suicide,” we find freedom’s primary limits in the constraints of human nature itself. Such a perspective on freedom chafes against today’s default norms. Rather than describing our collective well-being as merely a market function or the reflection of our domestic and foreign policies, Lincoln bases our state of freedom upon the dispositions of mind and heart in the citizens. Why should the prospects of political freedom rely on the state of our private habits? In a word, because of the effective power of prosperity. The ends of civil and religious liberty must guard our future freedom because man is inclined to set aside the burdens of self-rule to follow paths of less resistance.

As alluded to elsewhere, civil liberty stands in distinction to natural liberty. Beginning with what is more readily apparent, we see that natural liberty describes man’s native capacity to pursue self-interest howsoever it is immediately understood. Man has the power to seek wealth, pleasure, and power practically without limit and this capacity describes our natural liberty. Such natural liberty is experienced as a sense of autonomy, which must then rely on strength and cunning (or prior agreements, so long as they hold) to determine whose interests will prevail when conflicts arise with others’ natural liberty. Practically speaking, due to the habits of restraint that were formed in our youth, most people experience limited degrees of natural liberty without pushing to the extreme case of wanton disregard for any and all others. Yet, as we lose a sense of shared cultural ends, we can no longer rely on the formation of politically supportive habits. And once our culturally-generative habits lose their hold, mankind is prone to retrogress towards the condition of Homer’s Cyclopes in which each becomes a law unto themselves.

Now, without having to strain our imagination, we can see that if natural liberty is pushed to its logical extent, the possibilities of both a well-lived life and of life itself are undone. Natural liberty cannot account for the whole of our human potential because we all know that it is bad for another person to wantonly inflict pain and suffering upon us as individuals (those who differ on this point merely prove the rule). If there is anything that we know from the womb onwards, it’s the injustice of another person impairing or destroying our lives. This instinct to thrive, in turn, reveals the natural right foundation of life itself. We can discern natural right at the root of existence by reasoning in reverse from our individual experience of life as the basis for all the goods that we have experienced (and hope to enjoy in the future), and conclude that it would be unjust for anyone to deprive us of this life if we did not first engage as a combatant. Stated positively, living beings, in their very living of life, bear out evidence of a common ground of right and justice in the quickening, growth, flourishing, and decay of life. In other words, natural right is self-evident.

What we see playing out here is that natural right and natural liberty can easily find themselves opposed to one another. We certainly have the power, and sometimes the inclination, to take by force or fraud what is natively another person’s. Yet force differs from right in a manner that parallels how life differs from life well-lived. More simply put, people desire happiness (among other things). Hence, beginning from the natural right foundation of life itself and integrating the personal desire for happiness, we are led to the conclusion that a full and complete life is premised on the fundamental—and continuous—discrimination between virtue and vice. For once we acknowledge that life itself is good (evident, again, in the obvious wrong of its impairment or destruction by another), then both reason and emotion must agree to call that which causes conditions to flourish, virtuous, and that which frustrates our capacities for action, vicious. Based on the idea that danger first approaches a free people from within, we can now articulate why an overarching vision of civil liberty is necessary for a people to remain free throughout the ages.

Individual interests, left largely to their own devices, will seek out paths of least resistance for their fulfillment. Such self-centrism draws our attention from things that are common towards private concerns. We are then more inclined to accept ideological formulations which tell us that each individual’s pursuit of private interest is our best means of contributing to the common good. Yet such formulations merely substitute private pleasures for public responsibilities. And what’s lost in the exchange is the character of a people capable of bearing freedom’s burdens.

We can understand civil liberty as a kind of cultural counterweight to the all-too-reliable forces of private self-interest. As an end, civil liberty upholds the strength of the commonweal as the source of individual benefits. The pursuit of civil liberty leads individuals to engage with the matters at hand in search of means that support common and private goods. Such an orientation recognizes that virtue, or moral excellence, is the only thing that can hold together private and public spheres. This moral excellence, or practical wisdom, is a state of character that is imprinted upon the young in family life and which grows in richness and breadth from there. Critically, the orientation toward civil liberty does not negate natural liberty, but is a sort of ongoing persuasion of our native forces to align with greater, shared goods while simultaneously seeking personal well-being. Civil liberty is therefore an ideal which enables us to continuously reshape that which is material in pursuit of becoming or remaining free. For nothing more effectively initiates a state of despotism than a majority of individuals who are consumed by their own self-interests.

Now, if civil liberty is such an all-encompassing rule, why would a free people need to endeavor after religious liberty as well? Again, our answer relates back to the immediately effective force of prosperity. Considering our desire for both ourselves and our children’s children to enjoy freedom’s blessings, it behooves us to remember how material interests tend to draw our attention away from moral concerns. The problem is that we don’t instinctively know how to live as a self-ruling people. We must learn and then teach in such a way that those who learn from us will be able to teach their kindred as well. And while the end of civil liberty can be rationally understood, this mature recognition depends largely upon our rational capacity’s pre-existing degree of development. In other words, as a rule, one does not integrate the necessity of pursuing civil liberty without already having had one’s habits imprinted by the desire for liberty itself.

If we take the following as givens: 1) Virtue should be pursued instead of vice in order to live well as a political community of free people; 2) Individual appetites arise and develop before one knows that one should pursue virtue; and 3) There is a real and critically important difference between the public and private realms of existence; we can then discern that the perpetuation of freedom bears within it an internal necessity for an institution that reaches individuals in the private realm and which prepares people to voluntarily identify with greater, shared goods whose commitments inform their actions in the public domain. It is within this very human context that the political relevance of religion becomes apparent.

More specifically, the pursuit of religious liberty as an end is necessary because the life-long process of wrestling with the teachings of transcendence—in both Creation from nothing, life after death, and justice itself—forms a state of character capable of resisting the hegemonic and reductive demands of materialism. Character developed in such a crucible prepares people to differentiate between the false light of force and the incisive demands of right. In short, the ends of civil and religious liberty are politically necessary because of the all-too-human tendency to collapse the distinction between virtue and vice and reason aimlessly between means rather than ruling over means according to our vision of noble ends. If we hope to maintain (or renew) our tenuous humanity, then we need the goal of civil liberty to draw the impulses of natural liberty into a constructive political enterprise and the pursuit of religious liberty to train the soul to orient the material according to the demands of transcendent principles such as justice.

Living the Pursuit

The ends of civil and religious liberty are fundamental for the perpetuation of political institutions because they both nurture a reverence for law in the conduct of our public and private affairs. Whether embodied in natural right or the laws of the land, lawfulness holds the central position in a life well-lived for Lincoln because the experience of the political community repeats the developmental course of the individual at a higher level. Just as each person can easily become vicious if they are not loved and educated to recognize the noble mean of our humanity, so too a free people will fail materially and morally when no longer up-reared into a political edifice of liberty and equal rights.

Working against freedom’s internal and external need for lawfulness is the materialistic creed of our commercial Republic so famously enshrined in the Federalist defense of our Constitution. Therein, the vice of greed was explicitly revalued into a primary political virtue. Yet, by enshrining a limitless desire in the human soul as the source of our shared good, we set the central tenets of political liberalism in direct opposition to the larger whole of our political faith that readied us from 1630 to 1776 to declare our independence. So strong were our inherited habits of self-rule that the anti-political tendencies of our private pursuits hid in plain sight amidst the systems of checks and balances that were supposed to keep the mechanisms of government running while our interests diverged. As generations followed, the practices and institutions that bound together the private and public realms became ever more reduced into the image of our self-interested economic pursuits.

So, what does all this mean for the renewal of self-rule in the 21st century? First, that we can and must argue against the limitlessness of materialism’s creed and declare with Lincoln et al. that vice is a political usurper. This is not an argument against the production and enjoyment of wealth, but rather a recognition of the fact that civil and religious liberty are the enabling conditions of great wealth throughout human history. The problem is that once the duly limiting ends of civil and religious liberty are displaced from the horizon of our political vision, our political capacities begin to atrophy and ultimately the goods that we sought to achieve with our limitless materialism undermine the possibilities of freedom in the first place.

We’ve now reached the proper beginning for our Political Animal Project. In pursuit of tomorrow’s constructive political culture, we commit today to becoming political animals oriented by the ends of civil and religious liberty. The time is at hand to upbuild local examples of freedom’s apprenticeship through which we might discover sources of strength in our weaknesses. Let us hazard the risk and declare our identities presently incomplete while striving to integrate ever greater goods. And, emboldened by the timeless hopes of our hearts, resolve to remake the conditions of our lives to accord with our shared destiny as a free people. Sow we begin.

The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions:

Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois

January 27, 1838


As a subject for the remarks of the evening, the perpetuation of our political institutions, is selected.


In the great journal of things happening under the sun, we, the American People, find our account running, under date of the nineteenth century of the Christian era.--We find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate. 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 of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them--they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Their's was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; 'tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.


How then shall we perform it?--At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?-- Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!--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.


At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? 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.


I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice. This disposition is awfully fearful in any community; and that it now exists in ours, though grating to our feelings to admit, it would be a violation of truth, and an insult to our intelligence, to deny. Accounts of outrages committed by mobs, form the every-day news of the times. They have pervaded the country, from New England to Louisiana;--they are neither peculiar to the eternal snows of the former, nor the burning suns of the latter;--they are not the creature of climate-- neither are they confined to the slave-holding, or the non-slave- holding States. Alike, they spring up among the pleasure hunting masters of Southern slaves, and the order loving citizens of the land of steady habits.--Whatever, then, their cause may be, it is common to the whole country.


It would be tedious, as well as useless, to recount the horrors of all of them. Those happening in the State of Mississippi, and at St. Louis, are, perhaps, the most dangerous in example and revolting to humanity. In the Mississippi case, they first commenced by hanging the regular gamblers; a set of men, certainly not following for a livelihood, a very useful, or very honest occupation; but one which, so far from being forbidden by the laws, was actually licensed by an act of the Legislature, passed but a single year before. Next, negroes, suspected of conspiring to raise an insurrection, were caught up and hanged in all parts of the State: then, white men, supposed to be leagued with the negroes; and finally, strangers, from neighboring States, going thither on business, were, in many instances subjected to the same fate. Thus went on this process of hanging, from gamblers to negroes, from negroes to white citizens, and from these to strangers; till, dead men were seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every road side; and in numbers almost sufficient, to rival the native Spanish moss of the country, as a drapery of the forest.


Turn, then, to that horror-striking scene at St. Louis. A single victim was only sacrificed there. His story is very short; and is, perhaps, the most highly tragic, if anything of its length, that has ever been witnessed in real life. A mulatto man, by the name of McIntosh, was seized in the street, dragged to the 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.


Such are the effects of mob law; and such as the scenes, becoming more and more frequent in this land so lately famed for love of law and order; and the stories of which, have even now grown too familiar, to attract any thing more, than an idle remark.


But you are, perhaps, ready to ask, "What has this to do with the perpetuation of our political institutions?" I answer, it has much to do with it. Its direct consequences are, comparatively speaking, but a small evil; and much of its danger consists, in the proneness of our minds, to regard its direct, as its only consequences. Abstractly considered, the hanging of the gamblers at Vicksburg, was of but little consequence. They constitute a portion of population, that is worse than useless in any community; and their death, if no pernicious example be set by it, is never matter of reasonable regret with any one. If they were annually swept, from the stage of existence, by the plague or small pox, honest men would, perhaps, be much profited, by the operation.--Similar too, is the correct reasoning, in regard to the burning of the negro at St. Louis. He had forfeited his life, by the perpetration of an outrageous murder, upon one of the most worthy and respectable citizens of the city; and had not he died as he did, he must have died by the sentence of the law, in a very short time afterwards. As to him alone, it was as well the way it was, as it could otherwise have been.--But the example in either case, was fearful.--When men take it in their heads to day, to hang gamblers, or burn murderers, they should recollect, that, in the confusion usually attending such transactions, they will be as likely to hang or burn some one who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is; and that, acting upon the example they set, the mob of to-morrow, may, and probably will, hang or burn some of them by the very same mistake. And not only so; the innocent, those who have ever set their faces against violations of law in every shape, alike with the guilty, fall victims to the ravages of mob law; and thus it goes on, step by step, till all the walls erected for the defense of the persons and property of individuals, are trodden down, and disregarded. But all this even, is not the full extent of the evil.--By such examples, by instances of the perpetrators of such acts going unpunished, the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint, but dread of punishment, they thus become, absolutely unrestrained.--Having ever regarded Government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations; and pray for nothing so much, as its total annihilation. While, on the other hand, good men, men who love tranquility, who desire to abide by the laws, and enjoy their benefits, who would gladly spill their blood in the defense of their country; seeing their property destroyed; their families insulted, and their lives endangered; their persons injured; and seeing nothing in prospect that forebodes a change for the better; become tired of, and disgusted with, a Government that offers them no protection; and are not much averse to a change in which they imagine they have nothing to lose. Thus, then, by the operation of this mobocractic spirit, which all must admit, is now abroad in the land, the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed--I mean the attachment of the People. Whenever this effect shall be produced among us; whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision-stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this Government cannot last. By such things, the feelings of the best citizens will become more or less alienated from it; and thus it will be left without friends, or with too few, and those few too weak, to make their friendship effectual. At such a time and under such circumstances, men of sufficient talent and ambition will not be wanting to seize the opportunity, strike the blow, and overturn that fair fabric, which for the last half century, has been the fondest hope, of the lovers of freedom, throughout the world.


I know the American People are much attached to their Government;--I know they would suffer much for its sake;--I know they would endure evils long and patiently, before they would ever think of exchanging it for another. Yet, notwithstanding all this, if the laws be continually despised and disregarded, if their rights to be secure in their persons and property, are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, the alienation of their affections from the Government is the natural consequence; and to that, sooner or later, it must come.


Here then, is one point at which danger may be expected.


The question recurs, "how shall we fortify against it?" The answer is simple. Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor;--let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children's liberty. Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap--let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;--let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.


While ever a state of feeling, such as this, shall universally, or even, very generally prevail throughout the nation, vain will be every effort, and fruitless every attempt, to subvert our national freedom.


When I so pressingly urge a strict observance of all the laws, let me not be understood as saying there are no bad laws, nor that grievances may not arise, for the redress of which, no legal provisions have been made.--I mean to say no such thing. But I do mean to say, that, although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed. So also in unprovided cases. If such arise, let proper legal provisions be made for them with the least possible delay; but, till then, let them, if not too intolerable, be borne with.


There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law. In any case that arises, as for instance, the promulgation of abolitionism, one of two positions is necessarily true; that is, the thing is right within itself, and therefore deserves the protection of all law and all good citizens; or, it is wrong, and therefore proper to be prohibited by legal enactments; and in neither case, is the interposition of mob law, either necessary, justifiable, or excusable.


But, it may be asked, why suppose danger to our political institutions? Have we not preserved them for more than fifty years? And why may we not for fifty times as long?


We hope there is no sufficient reason. We hope all dangers may be overcome; but to conclude that no danger may ever arise, would itself be extremely dangerous. There are now, and will hereafter be, many causes, dangerous in their tendency, which have not existed heretofore; and which are not too insignificant to merit attention. That our government should have been maintained in its original form from its establishment until now, is not much to be wondered at. It had many props to support it through that period, which now are decayed, and crumbled away. Through that period, it was felt by all, to be an undecided experiment; now, it is understood to be a successful one.--Then, all that sought celebrity and fame, and distinction, expected to find them in the success of that experiment. Their all was staked upon it:-- their destiny was inseparably linked with it. Their ambition aspired to display before an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better, than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves. If they succeeded, they were to be immortalized; their names were to be transferred to counties and cities, and rivers and mountains; and to be revered and sung, and toasted through all time. If they failed, they were to be called knaves and fools, and fanatics for a fleeting hour; then to sink and be forgotten. They succeeded. The experiment is successful; and thousands have won their deathless names in making it so. But the game is caught; and I believe it is true, that with the catching, end the pleasures of the chase. This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?--Never! Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.--It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? 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.


Distinction will be his paramount object, and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.


Here, then, is a probable case, highly dangerous, and such a one as could not have well existed heretofore.


Another reason which once was; but which, to the same extent, is now no more, has done much in maintaining our institutions thus far. I mean the powerful influence which the interesting scenes of the revolution had upon the passions of the people as distinguished from their judgment. By this influence, the jealousy, envy, and avarice, incident to our nature, and so common to a state of peace, prosperity, and conscious strength, were, for the time, in a great measure smothered and rendered inactive; while the deep-rooted principles of hate, and the powerful motive of revenge, instead of being turned against each other, were directed exclusively against the British nation. And thus, from the force of circumstances, the basest principles of our nature, were either made to lie dormant, or to become the active agents in the advancement of the noblest cause--that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty.


But this state of feeling must fade, is fading, has faded, with the circumstances that produced it.


I do not mean to say, that the scenes of the revolution are now or ever will be entirely forgotten; but that like every thing else, they must fade upon the memory of the world, and grow more and more dim by the lapse of time. In history, we hope, they will be read of, and recounted, so long as the bible shall be read;-- but even granting that they will, their influence cannot be what it heretofore has been. Even then, they cannot be so universally known, nor so vividly felt, as they were by the generation just gone to rest. At the close of that struggle, nearly every adult male had been a participator in some of its scenes. The consequence was, that of those scenes, in the form of a husband, a father, a son or brother, a living history was to be found in every family-- a history bearing the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received, in the midst of the very scenes related--a history, too, that could be read and understood alike by all, the wise and the ignorant, the learned and the unlearned.--But those histories are gone. They can be read no more forever. They were a fortress of strength; but, what invading foeman could never do, the silent artillery of time has done; the leveling of its walls. They are gone.--They were a forest of giant oaks; but the all-resistless hurricane has swept over them, and left only, here and there, a lonely trunk, despoiled of its verdure, shorn of its foliage; unshading and unshaded, to murmur in a few gentle breezes, and to combat with its mutilated limbs, a few more ruder storms, then to sink, and be no more.


They were the pillars of the temple of liberty; and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason. Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.--Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws: and, that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered his name to the last; that, during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place; shall be that which to learn the last trump shall awaken our WASHINGTON.


Upon these let the proud fabric of freedom rest, as the rock of its basis; and as truly as has been said of the only greater institution, "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."


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The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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