|“A Word Fitly Spoken”: Abraham Lincoln on the American Union
[Library of Congress image of 1860 campaign illustration of Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln (with the words Union, Liberty, and Constitution specifically noted)]
Lesson #1: Fragment on the Constitution and Union (1861)—The Purpose of the American Union
“A word fitly spoken by you now would be like ‘apples of gold in pictures of silver.’” Alexander H. Stephens, a former Georgia congressman, wrote these words to president-elect Abraham Lincoln on December 30, 1860. He quoted from Proverbs 25:11 to persuade Lincoln that a public statement from the newly elected president would help greatly in the mounting crisis of the divided country. A student of the Bible in his own right, Lincoln reflected on Stephens’s biblical reference and, in a note to himself, used the “apples of gold” reference to clarify the connection between America’s constitutional union and the principle of “Liberty to all.”
When Lincoln was elected the first Republican president of the United States in November of 1860, he received no votes from nine southern states; what Lincoln called in 1858 the “crisis” of the American “house divided” had come to a head. On December 22, 1860, the president-elect wrote Stephens, a former Whig ally, to assuage his fears about the incoming administration: “Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears.” Stephens, who in February 1861 would be elected Vice President of the Confederate States of America, replied with his December 30 letter, which led Lincoln to jot down what is known as his “Fragment on the Constitution and Union.”
This lesson will examine Lincoln’s brief but insightful reflection on the importance of the ideal of individual liberty to the constitutional structure and operation of the American union.
II. Guiding Question
How did Lincoln understand the principles of the Declaration of Independence as the goal of the American union, secured by the U.S. Constitution?
III. Learning Objectives
After completing this lesson, students should be able to:
Explain what Lincoln thought was the chief cause of America’s prosperity.
Explain the principles of human equality and government by consent expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
Show how the principles of the Declaration represent the aim of the American union and constitution.
Articulate how Lincoln used a verse from Proverbs to symbolize the relationship between the principle of individual freedom and the practice of constitutional self-government.
IV. Background Information for the Teacher
The main goal of this lesson is to teach students that Lincoln revered the Constitution and American union because of what they stood for—what he calls in his Fragment “the principle of ‘Liberty to all.’” To be sure, the Constitution contained a few provisions that slowed the immediate achievement of this goal for every American: namely, clauses that allowed slavery to extend its life in several of the states (i.e., the Three-Fifths Compromise, Fugitive Slave clause, and prohibition against Congress banning the importation of slaves prior to 1808). Nevertheless, Lincoln believed the American founders created a federal government that would promote the equal protection of rights over the long term. Their intent was, in Lincoln’s words, to put slavery “on the course of ultimate extinction.” Thus, he understood the Constitution and Union as the means, and individual liberty as the end, of the American regime.
Lincoln also believed that as the American union found its clearest expression in the Constitution, the principle of liberty was best expressed in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In the 1850s, as the nation grew increasingly divided over the future of slavery, Lincoln repeatedly cited the Declaration of Independence to remind Americans of the goal to which their federal union and governmental structures should be devoted. To lose sight of the goal of “Liberty to all” was to subvert American self-government. It would turn republican government into a form of majority rule that allowed mere numerical might to determine which individuals would receive the protection of their rights. If this were to happen, Lincoln once remarked, he would “prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”
When Alexander Stephens wrote his December 30, 1860 letter, in which he cited the biblical text of Proverbs 25:11, Lincoln found an apt metaphor to describe the relationship between the Constitution and Union on the one hand, and individual liberty on the other. Proverbs 25:11 reads: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (King James Version). Lincoln’s allusion to this Bible verse is found only in a fragment he apparently jotted down for his own use, for no known letter or speech of his contains this biblical reference. But he occasionally sketched out an idea in the briefest of terms to isolate the main line of argument he would use in a speech. The metaphor of “apples of gold” in “pictures [or settings] of silver” helped Lincoln clarify for himself the connection between the means and ends of American self-government. Even though he was a devoted Union man, he understood the Union (and thus the Constitution) as a means to a higher end: namely, the protection of individual rights. To forget that the constitutional union existed for this end was like forgetting that settings of silver are made to show off a more valuable object, like apples of gold.
Lincoln’s illustration suggests how means could be mistaken for ends in themselves. “Pictures” or settings made of silver could be mistaken as the main object of beauty, thereby obscuring or blurring the real object to be noticed—the apples of gold. Similarly, without human liberty as the aim of the Constitution and Union, the republican forms of government could become instruments of oppression, as when one group of people (e.g., whites) uses their numerical might to deprive another class of people (e.g., blacks) of their natural rights. Majority rule or government by the consent of the governed becomes a crude form of majoritarianism.
Lincoln argued that during the founding era, ownership of black slaves was viewed by white citizens as a necessary evil; however, by the 1850s, slavery was increasingly defended in the South as good for both the master and the slave, and a state institution that could not be interfered with by the federal government. This view of the Constitution meant that “the Blessings of Liberty” promised in its preamble would apply only to white Americans. Lincoln believed the Constitution was being reinterpreted to establish a race-based, federal system of government that would eventually extend slavery into every territory and state of the American union. This “blurred” the meaning of the Constitution, as it became a tool of despotism rather than liberation.
But what disturbed Lincoln even more than the southern defense of slavery as a “positive good” were signs of northern indifference towards black slavery. As evidence he pointed to the increasing popularity of the concept of popular sovereignty, which was promoted by his Illinois nemesis, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, in the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. Popular sovereignty (or “congressional nonintervention,” as it was sometimes called) was Douglas’s attempt to settle the slavery controversy by removing it from the domain of Congress and reserving the regulation of slavery to the local populations directly affected by it.
Lincoln disagreed with popular sovereignty because he thought Congress had constitutional authority over the issue of slavery in the federal territories. In addition, he thought that Douglas’s professed indifference regarding the future of slavery in the federal territories—a position Lincoln referred to as the “don’t care” policy because it taught Americans not to care about slavery as long as it was black slavery—would actually result in the spread of slavery and its eventual legality in every state of the Union. Applying popular sovereignty to the slavery question taught Americans that as long as folks voted on the issue, majority rule could determine whether slavery was right or wrong.
By 1860, Lincoln would exhort the nation to “have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” He believed that matters of right and wrong were not the mere product of majority vote, but derived from moral standards that transcended nations and reached across time. Lincoln believed the American founders declared their independence by appealing to these standards of right, and that the nation now faced a crisis that could best be resolved by a return to the Founders’ approach to the issue.
Note: Because the “Fragment on the Constitution and Union” was not used by Lincoln in any speech or letter that survives today, scholars are unsure when it was written. The editors of the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln date it around January 1861, after Lincoln received the December 30, 1860 letter from Stephens but before his inauguration on March 4, 1861.
V. Preparing to Teach this Lesson
This lesson makes use of written primary source documents and worksheets, available both online and in the Text Document that accompanies this lesson. Students can read and analyze source materials online, or do some of the work online and some in class from printed copies.
Read over the lesson. Bookmark the websites that you will use. If students will be working from printed copies in class, download the documents from the Text Document and duplicate as many copies as you will need. If students need practice in analyzing primary source documents, excellent resource materials are available at the EDSITEment-reviewed Learning Page of the Library of Congress: http://memory.loc.gov/learn/lessons/psources/analyze.html. Helpful Document Analysis Worksheets may be found at the site of the National Archives:
VI. Suggested Activities
The goal of the activities in this section is for students to see how Lincoln’s understanding of the meaning of the American union was based upon a prior understanding of the principle of “liberty to all” found in the Declaration of Independence. Moreover, Lincoln used a verse from Proverbs to symbolize the relationship between these ideas in his “Fragment on the Constitution and Union.” Because Lincoln wrote the Fragment with the verse from Proverbs and the Declaration of Independence in mind, students will need to analyze Proverbs 25:11 and the Declaration before going on to examine Lincoln’s Fragment. To demonstrate their grasp of the connections made in Lincoln’s thought, they will be asked to answer, in their own words and in paragraph form, the question posed by the Guiding Question above. Then they will submit their paragraphs to peer evaluation in order to help them refine their writing of the final draft.
This lesson is built around the following sequence of tasks:
1. Students analyze supplementary texts:
(a) Proverbs 25:11
(b) Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776)
2. Students analyze the primary text of this lesson:
Abraham Lincoln, “Fragment on the Constitution and Union” (1861)
3. Students write to demonstrate understanding and then submit their work to peer
Activity #1: Supplementary Texts: How Do They Shed Light on the Primary Text?
1(a). Write Proverbs 25:11 (“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver”) on the board for the students to read. Given this King James translation of the Bible verse, explain to the students that the word “picture” does not mean a picture or painting within a frame. As students will see when they read the Fragment later, Lincoln himself interprets “picture” as something that is “framed around” the object on display. Another word for “picture” is “setting,” so now draw a line through the word “pictures” and insert “settings” to have the verse on the board read, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in
pictures settings of silver.” This will help students see the original verse as it literally reads in the Bible, as well as how the word “pictures” in this context was understood in Lincoln’s time.
To help clarify the analogy of “apples of gold” and “pictures of silver,” have students draw a simple picture of the analogy used in Prov. 25:11. The verse is included in the Text Document on page 1, along with space for their drawing and the questions they will answer about the verse. Have the students label on the picture what the apples of gold and the “pictures” or settings of silver represent. Then pair off the students so they can briefly explain their pictures to each other. Then have them answer the following questions:
What do the “pictures [or settings] of silver” represent?
What do the “apples of gold” represent?
What is the purpose of a good setting?
1(b). Have students read the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776), with particular focus upon the first two sentences of the second paragraph, and answer, individually or in groups, the questions that follow below, which are available in worksheet form on page 3 of the Text Document. A link to the text of the Declaration of Independence can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site “Charters of Freedom” of the National Archives:
http://www.archives.gov/national-archives-experience/charters/declaration_transcript.html. The relevant excerpt of the Declaration of Independence is also included in the Text Document on page 2, and can be printed out for student use.
In the second paragraph, what truths are held to be “self-evident”?
What does “self-evident” mean?
According to the Declaration, in what way are human beings created equal? Does this apply to some human beings and not others?
According to the Declaration, what is the source of human rights?
According to the Declaration, what is the purpose of government and what is its only legitimate basis?
In the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, what statement does Lincoln paraphrase as “Liberty to all”?
Activity #2: Understanding the Primary Text: What Does It Say?
1. Have students read Lincoln’s “Fragment on the Constitution and Union” (c. January, 1861) and answer, individually or in groups, the questions that follow, which are available in worksheet form on pages 5-6 of the Text Document. A link to the text “Fragment on the Constitution and Union” can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site “Teaching American History”:
http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=29. The Fragment is also included in the Text Document on page 4, and can be printed out for student use.
Looking through the first paragraph, what does Lincoln mean by “All this” and “the result”? What is he referring to?
What does Lincoln call “the primary cause” of America’s prosperity? (Hint: It is not the Constitution or the Union.)
Who does Lincoln think should benefit from this cause of America’s prosperity, and what four things result from this cause?
Where does Lincoln find the principle of “Liberty to all” expressed among America’s founding documents? In other words, where can someone find the philosophy of the American people?
What symbol does Lincoln use to represent the principle of “Liberty to all”?
What symbol does Lincoln use to represent the Union and the Constitution?
How does Lincoln describe the proper relationship between the “apple of gold” and the “picture of silver”?
What is the proper relationship between the principle of equal liberty and the U.S. Constitution (i.e., which exists for the sake of the other)?
Activity #3: Making Connections and Evaluating Ideas
1. Making Connections: Write to Demonstrate Understanding
Students now need to see if they understand the main point of the lesson. Instruct them to write a paragraph or two explaining how Lincoln connected the principle of “liberty to all” in the Declaration of Independence to the deeper meaning and ultimate goal of the American union.
2. Evaluating Ideas: Peer Feedback Groups
Divide students into groups of three or four. Tell them that in their groups they will be evaluating each other’s paragraphs: specifically, noting what is well-expressed, identifying problem areas, and making comments. Stress to the students that their feedback should be helpful, constructive, and specific. Each person in the group is to use a pen or pencil of a different color and make all markings in that color, including writing his or her name at the top of each paper. This will enable each author to go back to the student making comments for further clarification. Encourage them to use the feedback to produce a better final draft, which they will be asked to do for a grade in the Assessment Section below.
No “Mere Change of Masters”: Reflecting upon Lincoln’s View of American Independence and Union
Instruct students to answer the following questions in one or two paragraphs, which are available in worksheet form on page 7 of the Text Document:
1. Why does Lincoln think people should see a “philosophical cause,” and not the Constitution or the Union, as the key to America’s prosperity? Is this distinction relevant for how Americans govern themselves today? Explain.
2. How did Lincoln connect the principle of “liberty to all” in the Declaration of Independence to the deeper meaning and ultimate goal of the American Union? (Students should utilize what they gained from peer feedback in answering this question.)
* Optional questions, available in worksheet form on page 8 of the Text Document:
1. Lincoln argues that the “picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it,” and closes with an appeal “that neither picture, or apple, shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken.” Given the state of the American union in early 1861, how did he believe some Americans were interpreting the Constitution and union to conceal or destroy the apple of freedom? What examples of blurring or breaking might he have been thinking of?
2. Lincoln appealed to a principle in the Declaration of Independence, that of “liberty to all,” to show the purpose or goal of American constitutional government. Can you find other principles in the second paragraph of the Declaration that might be applied to contemporary issues facing the American public? Identify the principle and explain how it could be used to shed light on a current issue.
VIII. Extending the Lesson
Two Opponents of Lincoln: Politicians Who “Blurred” the Apple of Liberty
1. John C. Calhoun, “Slavery a Positive Good” (February 6, 1837)
Have students read John C. Calhoun, “Slavery a Positive Good” (February 6, 1837) and answer the questions that follow, which are available in worksheet form on page 12 of the Text Document. A link to the text of “Slavery a Positive Good” can be found the Douglass Archives of American Public Address [http://douglassarchives.org/calh_a59.htm], which is linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed resource History Matters [http://historymatters.gmu.edu/]. The speech is also included in the Text Document on pages 9-11, and can be printed out for student use.
Who does John C. Calhoun say benefits from slavery?
According to Calhoun, what justifies American slavery? In other words, why does he think whites can legitimately enslave blacks?
According to Calhoun, what kind of labor and economics system must be devised to produce a prosperous society?
2. Stephen A. Douglas, “Homecoming Speech at Chicago” (July 9, 1858)
Have students read Stephen A. Douglas, “Homecoming Speech at Chicago” (July 9, 1858) and answer the questions that follow, which are available in worksheet form on page 16 of the Text Document. A link to the full text of “Homecoming Speech at Chicago” can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site “Teaching American History”: http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=156. A shorter excerpt from the speech is also included in the Text Document on pages 13-15, and can be printed out for student use.
What does Douglas mean by “popular sovereignty”?
What practical examples of “popular sovereignty” does he give to establish its legitimacy?
Why does he think “popular sovereignty” should not be limited in any way?
IX. EDSITEment-reviewed Web Resources Used in this Lesson
History Matters: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/
Douglass Archives of American Public Address: http://douglassarchives.org/
Slavery a Positive Good: http://douglassarchives.org/calh_a59.htm
National Archives: http://www.archives.gov/
National Archives Experience: http://www.archives.gov/national-archives-experience/
Declaration of Independence: http://www.archives.gov/national-archives-experience/charters/declaration_transcript.html
Teaching American History: http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org/
Fragment on the Constitution and Union (1861):
Homecoming Speech at Chicago (1858):
X. Additional Information
U.S. History - African-American
U.S. History - Civics and U.S. Government
U.S. History - Civil Rights
Lesson One—“ Fragment on the Constitution and Union (1861)—The Meaning of the American Union.” Three forty-five minute class periods.
Lesson Two—“The First Inaugural Address (1861)—Defending Union.” Three forty-five minute class periods.
Lesson Three—“The Gettysburg Address (1863)—Testing Union.” Three forty-five minute class periods.
Lesson Four—“The Second Inaugural Address (1865)—Restoring Union.” Three forty-five minute class periods.
finding and using internet resources
interpreting primary source documents
drawing visual representations of verbal ideas
making connections between ideas
understanding sequential thought
making inferences and drawing conclusions
evaluating peer writing
using editorial comments to write a final draft
finding and applying principles
NCSS – 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
NCSS – 6: Power, Authority, and Governance
NCSS – 10: Civic Ideals and Practices
Author/Lesson Plan Writer
Lesson Writer: Lucas Morel, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia
Managing Editor: Constance Murray, Grace Christian High School, Staunton, Virginia
Related EDSITEment Lesson Plans
Declare the Causes: The Declaration of Independence:
The Preamble to the Constitution: How Do You Make a More Perfect Union? http://edsitement.neh.gov/view_lesson_plan.asp?id=233
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854: Popular Sovereignty and the Political Polarization over Slavery: http://edsitement.neh.gov/view_lesson_plan.asp?id=661
Abraham Lincoln, the 1860 Election, and the Future of the American Union and Slavery: http://edsitement.neh.gov/view_lesson_plan.asp?id=662