We must learn to use freedom wisely

Steve Haycox

Last Sunday was the anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Repeated polls of historians have named Lincoln the most important and influential American ever because he led the crusade to end slavery and successfully defended democracy.

Lincoln understood in ways that many of his countrymen did not that American democracy was, in his words, "the last, best hope of earth." If democracy failed in America, he knew, which would be the result of Confederate victory in the Civil War, it would fail everywhere. Slavery was incompatible with democracy, the object of which is to provide equal access to freedom and justice for all members of a society. Slavery stood as a stark contradiction to the natural right of all people to freedom, and to live under a government to which they had given their consent. Because they were not deemed citizens and could not vote, slaves could not give their consent to their governors. More broadly, if a natural right were denied one class of persons in society, inevitably at some subsequent time natural rights would be denied some other class of persons.

Either all humans are created equal or they are not. Lincoln believed they were and thus he regarded slavery as a moral evil. John C. Calhoun, the chief apologist for the Southern pro-slavery view, believed they were not.

Lincoln distinguished clearly between his moral convictions and his duty under the U.S. Constitution. While he thought slavery a moral wrong, he believed he had no legal authorization under the Constitution to interfere with it in the several states, as he carefully explained in his first inaugural address. He moved against slavery only when he came to regard doing so as a military necessity for defense of the nation, a conclusion he reached in mid-1862. The Constitution authorized that but Lincoln soon went still further, asking Congress for a constitutional amendment prohibiting slavery.

The distinction between moral and legal right is a critical one. It applies directly to many rights we take for granted in our democracy. Freedom is one of the most fundamental of those rights, the linchpin of American political and general culture. The Constitution protects our freedom to do pretty much anything we want that does not jeopardize the rights of other people or endanger public safety.

But freedom is easily wasted. We can easily allow ourselves to sink into lassitude, for example, sitting around watching too much television or playing too long at video games, or sitting around drinking too much beer, or just sitting around. One certainly has the legal right to do that, but does one have the moral right? Is not the waste of capacity a personal betrayal, a betrayal of what we could have done and did not, a choice for the ignoble rather than the noble?

Freedom has traditionally been associated with the American West and pioneering. Because they had to rely more on their own initiative and resolve to protect and provide for themselves, it was said that Westerners were more jealous of their freedom than people elsewhere in the country. And that preoccupation with freedom has long been a hallmark of "the Last Frontier." Many have argued that it's what distinguishes Alaskans from other Americans.

But how are we to learn to use freedom wisely, to honor its moral aspect as well as its legal? This is surely the deepest obligation of our schools, to teach the nature of what it means to be human, how to use well the varied and profound capacities we have as persons.

Some might say that religion is a better moral instructor than education, but in this case that is to confuse content with method. Many a religious faith has tenets of morality one may use to guide life. But is it not far more important first to learn the skills of judgment, of wisdom, to examine and discover one's obligation to self and one's place in humanity and then to act upon that understanding? Such an understanding can precede religious faith without denigrating it.

Lincoln's was a civic morality and he made a rational distinction between it and his constitutional duty, a lesson from which we all might learn.

Steve Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.