The impassioned reactions to the draft court opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization pushed aside the most profound statement in the opinion, a provocation from Abraham Lincoln. In the course of determining the meaning of liberty, Justice Samuel Alito began by quoting Lincoln from his Sanitary Fair address (April 18, 1864) “We all declare for Liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.” In fact, the short Lincoln speech offers insight into the meaning of liberty and therefore our politics generally, and abortion specifically. Exploring the nuances of Lincoln’s extraordinary remarks was not Alito’s obligation, but let it be ours.
Lincoln begins by acknowledging the changes in his appearances in Baltimore: between the time he evaded assassins by sneaking through on a train to his inauguration in 1861, and his presence on that day, three years later. No one thought the war would last this long, and “Neither did any anticipate that domestic slavery would be much affected by the war.” Reflecting on this state of affairs, he cites an old saying, “So true is it that man proposes, and God disposes,” paraphrasing Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (1418). We will hear this judgment again, in the Second Inaugural, with its terrifying allusion to a vengeful and a merciful God judging America. We should read the rest of the speech as though we were being judged.
Then comes a one-sentence paragraph: “But we can see the past, though we may not claim to have directed it; and seeing it, in this case, we feel more hopeful and confident for the future.” He is referring to the purpose and as well the end of the war. Seeing the past—and presumably understanding its causes and consequences—makes us “feel more hopeful and confident for the future.” This is a moment of contemplation, a time of peace in the midst of a war, in whose outcome Lincoln has increasing confidence. Let’s see what he concludes. He gives us a parable that starts with the riddle quoted by Justice Alito.
“The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one.” Lincoln implies that the savage war that has been waged lacks a purpose. Both sides declare for freedom, but what can this mean? Linguistic consensus is meaningless here.
Seeking to clarify the meaning of liberty, Lincoln gives a parable drawn from the Bible (remember, we are under God’s supervision). He describes a shepherd who guards his sheep from wolves. To the sheep this good shepherd is a guardian of their lives and liberty. To the wolves he is a tyrant who violates their liberty and, moreover, in doing so would take their lives, even over a black sheep. What the sheep regard as liberty, the wolves take for tyranny. (Wolves presumably do not prefer or disdain black sheep, so they would wonder why a shepherd would single them out for protection.) But the good shepherd does not prefer any particular sheep; he would protect them all, even irrationally abandoning his herd of 99, as in the Gospel, to find the one stray.
Lincoln thanks the people of Maryland for “doing something to define liberty” and repudiate “the Wolf’s dictionary.” He refers to the expected submission of a new, anti-slavery constitution in Maryland to a vote of the people that November.
But this does not close the book on the issue. Who are the sheep and the wolves? Not Northerners and Southerners, nor many blacks and some whites. Lincoln was referring to all human beings, whom he sees as a mixture of sheep and wolves; no one is wholly innocent or completely depraved. Recall his characterization of southerners in his Peoria speech: “They are just what we would be in their situation.” How would post-war Americans react to the new age of universal freedom?
Furthermore, Lincoln opens the question of whether there even are earthly good shepherds—after all, shepherds keep sheep so they (or their owners) may make of those sheep lamb chops and wool sweaters. (That they might be occasionally sacrificed to God is beside the point.) Human beings, of mixed characters, former wolves and sheep, will have to rule themselves; there will be no godlike shepherd to rescue or punish. This is the sober truth of human equality. We are not separate species but one, which covers a spectacular range of types, as glittering as Shakespeare’s universe of characters or as dull as contented sheep or as vicious as ravenous wolves. Thus, liberty will remain a mystery to those who don’t discover that its meaning lies in first knowing equality. Lincoln will test us to know this answer.
And Lincoln immediately gives his audience a test to see whether they understand what he has just told them: the alleged massacre of black troops and their white officers at Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River in Tennessee a few days before, on April 12. He portrays the government as on the brink of retaliation for the slaughter of surrendered and surrendering troops (about 300 blacks including some families), along with white Union soldiers.
Lincoln portrays himself as in a dilemma, out of which he will beg his audience to help him. He pleads, “I am responsible for it to the American people, to the Christian world, to history, and on my final account to God.” For Lincoln acceded to blacks serving as soldiers, knowing the risks of execution or enslavement, should they be captured. Did a massacre of black troops occur? If so, “there is no way but to give him all the protection given to any other soldier.” That’s the principle, but how do we apply it to a particular situation, asks Lincoln.
Lincoln does not need to state what should be obvious: the equality principle requires that 300 Confederate prisoners must die in retaliation. He advises caution: “We do not to-day know that a colored soldier, or white officer commanding colored soldiers, has been massacred by the rebels when made a prisoner. We fear it, believe it, I may say, but we do not know it. To take the life of one of their prisoners, on the assumption that they murder ours, when it is short of certainty that they do murder ours, might be too serious, too cruel a mistake.”[emphasis in the original]
In fact, “If, after all that has been said, it shall turn out that there has been no massacre at Fort-Pillow, it will be almost safe to say there has been none, and will be none elsewhere” [emphasis added]. But he concludes (as Abraham debated with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah) “If there has been the massacre of three hundred there, or even the tenth part of three hundred, it will be conclusively proved; and being so proved, the retribution shall as surely come.” Unlike Abraham’s pleading with God, here a tenth of the evil is sufficient to damn the evildoers. War is hell, a lesson he is willing to give to an audience full of women, whose sanitary fair volunteer work involved the raising of funds for and distribution of medical supplies, food, and clothing to the wounded Union soldiers.
Lincoln taught us that all men are created equal by illustrating its meaning before our eyes. He has his Baltimore audience—formerly quite content with slavery, as it was the home state of the Chief Justice Roger Taney of Dred Scott case infamy—now considering the need for vengeance for the massacre of black soldiers in the name of equality, Lincoln’s unarticulated precondition of liberty.
Equality and Abortion
While abortion was certainly not on Lincoln’s mind in that speech, the principles which underlie such a controversy were fully addressed in it and apply to our time.
First, Lincoln warns against self-righteousness. All human beings are a cross between wolf and sheep. We are not angelic, that is, completely selfless, self-sacrificing shepherds. We instruct people not by our self-righteous, moralistic demands but by our admirable, charitable example. We can show how we have absorbed the lessons of the Temperance Address—hating the sin does not mean denouncing the sinner.
Lincoln provides other clues: His preliminary remarks distinguish between “brave men” and “fair women” who have each performed duties reflective of their sexes. They follow nature and learn to please each other.
Lincoln’s concerns about liberty are not those expressed in the 1992 Casey v Planned Parenthood abortion case with its notorious “mystery passage”: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
Neither the founders nor Lincoln would have promoted such nihilism. Of course we rightly deny people the liberty to define themselves through mob violence, murder, or enslaving others. The “mystery passage” authors must have presupposed a society of sheep. In any event, as in the erroneous understanding of Lincoln’s parable, we need to see that the point of talking about liberty is to understand its roots in equality.
Today that understanding has been further obscured by the Biden Administration’s replacement of equality with the subjective notion called equity. This occurred on his first day in office. Equity here clearly means elevating people based on their race, ethnicity, gender, LGBTQ status, and so on. It uses various differences to distinguish them from other people for the purpose of favoring them. The consequences of doing this are implied in Lincoln’s closing discussion. The practice of equity resembles far more the Confederate policy of massacring blacks than it does of treating them equally. If the comparison seems hyperbolic, consider Jason Riley’s recent op-ed on disparate abortion rates for blacks.
Riley elaborates on the causes of the inordinate numbers of abortions suffered by black Americans. He observes that “Nationally, the number of babies aborted by black women each year far exceeds the combined number of blacks who drop out of school, who are sent to prison and who are murdered.” The disproportionate number of black versus white abortions is suggested in a Pennsylvania case study reporting “that in 2018 there were about 61,000 premature white deaths from all causes and 21,000 premature black deaths. “Abortions were 23.9% of the White deaths and 62.7% of the Black deaths.” (One should keep in mind Justice Clarence Thomas’ opinion on abortion and eugenics for the relationship of abortion to population control.)
If the shooting of 11 blacks in Buffalo brings out Joe Biden, what about this enormous number of black lives terminated due to abortions? If Lincoln could speak in distress in a slave state about the equality of black and white military prisoners, surely some president might speak in defense of the equality of all pre-born life.