The American Proposition: What Honest Abe’s Warnings Can Teach Us This Constitution Day

It is no coincidence that as America has become more ignorant, it has also become more cynical, more factional, and less confident. As Constitution Day approaches, learn what it means to be an American and what everyday citizens can do about it.

Most Americans are somewhat familiar with the hagiographic version of Abraham Lincoln: the man who grew up in a Kentucky log cabin, who was entirely self-taught and self-made, who heroically navigated the American republic through the crucible of the Civil War, and most important of all, the man who helped purge America’s soul of its original sin of slavery.

However, what Americans truly need today is a different Lincoln: Lincoln the political scientist, who searched his whole life for a way to connect a diverse citizenry to a singular American polity.

This is the Lincoln who proclaimed in his First Inaugural Address, “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land.”

This is the Lincoln who, as president, used the bloodshed of Gettysburg to presage a “new birth of freedom” by reminding Americans that our patriotic fealty is oriented not around kings, popes, and aristocracies, but the Jeffersonian “proposition” that “all men are created equal.”

This is the Lincoln who, over two decades before becoming president, delivered a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield warning them that insufficient memory of the sacrifices of the American Revolution and disrespect for the law are threats to “the political religion of our nation.”

The genius of Lincoln and the acumen of his statecraft is highlighted in the juxtaposition between the “self-evident truth” at the center of the Declaration of Independence and the “proposition” Lincoln describes in the Gettysburg Address. To further explain: a self-evident truth requires no effort, no political project, no patriotism — it is true whether or not citizens understand or recognize it.

A philosophy teacher might say it is an “a priori” truth, but a proposition is different. As University of Chicago professor Leon Kass observes, a proposition is “like a geometric theorem . . . whose truth must be proved.” Thus, the grand and stirring truth recognized by Lincoln is that American citizenship is a multi-generational project of perpetually re-proving, widening, and amplifying the propositional truth of universal human equality that stands at the heart of the American regime.

This is why robustly teaching American history and American civics is the essential task of education in a pluralistic constitutional republic. For America to endure, every generation must understand and acquiesce to certain political truths, namely those enshrined in our two founding documents — the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution.

Which begs a colossally vexing question: what happens if virtually no modern Americans understand the American proposition? What if they cannot articulate, much less renew, what Jefferson called “The American Mind” and FDR labeled “Americanism?” What if they do not appreciate the sheer power of Martin Luther King’s observation that, “. . . the goal of America is freedom . . . before the pen of Jefferson scratched across the pages of history with the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here.”

It is not hyperbolic alarmism or crotchety cynicism to point out that what Lincoln feared most, a generation of ignorant Americans who would somehow sever themselves from the knowledge and habits that make the American Experiment possible, has become a haunting and dystopian political reality.

The evidence of our civic decline and ignorance is everywhere around us. Only 12% of American high school seniors are proficient in U.S. History. Of all the major subject matter categories—mathematics, reading, science, and the like—U.S. History was dead last. And not by a small margin, either. The second worst subject was geography, with 20% of 12th graders reaching proficiency.

Though, let’s not pretend it’s only school-age students. Only one in four Americans can name all three branches of government. Concepts like federalism and judicial review remain mysteries to broad swathes of the public. One in ten college graduates — no, this is not a joke — think Judge Judy is a Supreme Court justice.

Jefferson famously remarked “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Americans read less, associate with fewer citizens of different political leanings, and obtain their information from siloed news sources. They know very little of American history and even less about constitutional norms and expectations. Political campaigns are no longer calibrated to persuade independent or moderate voters, but attuned to rile up and terrify “the base” by selling them on the pernicious notion that half the country is a threat to the very fabric of the republic itself. Political discourse comes to resemble schoolyard taunts—“You’re a fascist!” “No, you’re the real fascist!”

It is now oddly vogue for modern conservatives to celebrate harsh critiques of classical liberalism from intellectuals who have decided the problem isn’t weak families, a narcissistic consumer culture, or moral relativism, but John Locke and the very philosophy of the American founding.

When we don’t understand values like free speech, we come to believe demagogic tropes like “politics are personal” or “silence is violence.” When we don’t understand that broad political disagreements have always defined America’s political landscape, we decide to end friendships on the basis of mask mandates and MAGA hats. Younger Americans won’t date those with a different political point of view.

Lincoln’s fear that we would abandon our civic glue and become unyoked from our constitutional union is happening right before our very eyes. Which brings us to the most under-appreciated and least celebrated national holiday: Constitution Day.

Our English friends have spent the past week rightly celebrating the extraordinary life of Queen Elizabeth II. Andrew Sullivan humorously, but insightfully, noted, “However sh***y the economy, or awful the prime minister, or ugly the discourse, the monarch is able to present the nation all the time.” Of course, we have no king or queen, no sovereign to unite or unify us. Instead, we have a constitution, a document that is not only a noun, but also a verb, because it “constitutes” a nation by providing the legal framework for “We The People” to become a singular nation with a singular ethos.

On this Constitution Day, take a few minutes to learn about the American Constitution. Figure out why Madison was the Father of the Constitution. Read up on the differences between an article and an amendment. Say the Preamble out loud.

Most of all, don’t take Constitution Day for granted. It is more important than we think. Just ask our sixteenth president.

Jeremy S. Adams is the author of Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation, recently released in paperback. He has taught American civics for 24 years in Bakersfield, California and was the 2014 California Teacher of the Year (DAR). You can follow him on Twitter @JeremyAdams6.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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