“Blowing Out the Moral Lights Around Us:” The Abandonment of Decency in Leadership.
“He is blowing out the moral lights around us, …he is penetrating, so far as lies in his power, the human soul, and eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty…” — Abraham Lincoln at the Debate at Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois (1858).
So spoke then candidate for the United States Senate, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. Lincoln would lose to his opponent Judge Stephen A. Douglas. But before losing, he would test the logic of the Constitution and the doctrines of white supremacy that served the slave-holding power in the Nation as enunciated in the Dred Scott case. For Lincoln the test of slavery’s fate in the Union was a moral test that we must prove ourselves capable of overmastering. To do so, would take the light of reason and the love of liberty.
Reason as a guide was so self-evident in Lincoln’s mind that it showed us the proof of the common inheritance and God-given right to liberty among mankind. Thereby, Lincoln proved that slavery must be an imperfect status quo among mankind supported only by the flawed institutions of history. He went on to explain that it was Judge Douglas’ intent to perpetuate the institutions of slavery by and through a National design, which if otherwise left alone might die a natural death.
For slavery was itself a creation and creature of local laws — at least until the Dred Scott case. Chief Justice Taney’s ruling that no power under the Constitution existing at the time of the founding accounted for the dignity of African Americans must be seen as unconvincing to Lincoln — who saw in that ruling not a structural flaw in our Constitutional design — but the revelation of its deepest mispronunciation.
For Lincoln, the syntax of the Constitution was its ability to adapt to the Framers’ ideas of liberty and reason shown ever more clearly by our willingness to hold up “the moral light around us.”
These moral lights must inevitably be lit by our past and present experience as a Nation; by our recognition of its failures and the willingness to experiment with principles of equality and civic accommodation of the “human soul.”
Insofar as we could bring ourselves to follow these moral lights, Lincoln argued, we might revisit honestly what he would later call the “quiet dogmas of the past.” We would be willing to unsettle outworn institutions and to confront what Jefferson called the tyrannies of the mind.
No nation, thought Lincoln, could long succeed if it allowed its leaders to “blow out the moral lights” that might show the path of reason; or, who while in the dark of crises and contradiction could by “penetrating” our souls find in their baser elements our willingness to wander blindly through that dark.
Lincoln was telling us that no leader in a free Republic will ask the people willingly to retreat inside the walls of “outworn doctrines” or the “quiet dogmas of the past.” The eradicating of the light of reason and love of liberty of which Lincoln spoke can only long endure inside the moat or bunker. They last inside the dampened dark of lies.
Thought Lincoln, only a kind of slavery beckons to us there. “He is blowing out the moral lights around us,” said Abraham Lincoln. And only darkness awaits us there.
What we see now, ironic as it may, be is Mr. Lincoln’s own party having devolved itself into a kind of darkness; a pyramid scheme enshrouded in lies and appeals to bigotry.
We will see in the coming week if it has tragically turned inward on itself and away from America to blow out the moral lights around us.
-Albert Turner Goins
[This piece is based upon an earlier essay.]