Tuesday, November 8, 2022

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people”

Allen Guelzo on Lincoln on democracy:
.... The least well-examined words of the address...are its expansive triplet: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” This wasn’t merely a rhetorical flourish. In that triplet, Lincoln lays out the three fundamental elements of democracy. The first is consent—government of the people. “According to our ancient faith,” Lincoln said in his 1854 speech objecting to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which compromised on slavery, “the just powers of governments are derived from the consent of the governed.” That meant plainly “that no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent. I say this is the leading principle—the sheet anchor of American republicanism.”

A second distinctive feature of democracy is the people’s voice in the affairs of governing—government by the people. It matters little whether that active voice is the direct participation of individuals, as in ancient Athens, or through their representatives, as in the American Constitution. From his earliest moments in politics, Lincoln argued that government by the people—through their laws and through elections, and not by mobs with nooses and shotguns—was the only legitimate expression of democracy. “I do not deny the possibility that the people may err in an election,” he conceded in 1861. “But if they do, the true cure is in the next election.”

The third basic element of democracy is a government that serves the interests of the people—government for the people—not those of a monarch, an aristocracy or an angry and contemptuous elite. For that reason, Lincoln wrote, government served to do only those things that need “to be done, but which they can not, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves,” such as roads and bridges, schools and asylums, the enforcement of the laws and the defense of the nation. While government isn’t “charged with the duty of redressing, or preventing, all the wrongs in the world,” he said in 1859, it does have the responsibility to keep from “planting and cultivating too many thorns in the bosom of society.” ....
Allen C. Guelzo, "Lincoln’s Vision of Democracy," Wall Street Journal, Nov. 8, 2022.

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