Justice and fairness has become something of a mantra ever since presidential candidate Barack Obama told Joe the plumber that his hope was to spread the wealth around so that the economy is good for everybody. The plumber, Samuel Wurzelbacher, was less than thrilled by the implications of spreading the wealth, since his fear was that much of the wealth the president-to-be proposed to spread around was the plumbers. But that has done nothing to give pause to President Obamas determination to answer the call to justice and fairness. In his 2009 Lincolns Birthday speech in Abraham Lincolns hometown of Springfield, Illinois, the president described justice and fairness”the sense of shared sacrifice and responsibility for ourselves and one another”as the very definition of being American.
Perhaps. But that was not Abraham Lincolns definition of justice or fairness or being American. And our current presidents failure to see that gives us an uneasy sense that Barack Obama has wrapped himself in some other mans coat.
Lincoln certainly had more than a little to say about justice. After all, he was a lawyer by profession. My way of living leads me to be about the courts of justice, he joked in 1848, although what he saw happening there wasnt always justice. I have sometimes seen a good lawyer, struggling for his clients neck, in a desperate case, employing every artifice to work round, befog, and cover up, with many words, some point arising in the case, which he dared not admit, and yet could not deny. And in politics, which was his other great vocation, he had seen how often the immutable principles of justice are to make way for party interests, and the bonds of social order are to be rent in twain, in order that a desperate faction may be sustained at the expense of the people.
But this somehow never made Lincoln cynical about either law or politics. He never doubted that certain immutable principles of justice existed, or that people could discern them in the law of nature itself. Slavery was a prime example. In one of his earliest political acts in the Illinois state legislature, Lincoln branded the institution of slavery as founded on both injustice and bad policy. That injustice was so plain that it scarcely needed explaining. All feel and understand it, even down to brutes and creeping insects. Even the ant, who has toiled and dragged a crumb to his nest, will furiously defend the fruit of his labor, against whatever robber assails him. And, by the same token, even the most dumb and stupid slave that ever toiled for a master, does constantly know that he is wronged. In their heart of hearts, slaveholders knew it, too: Your sense of justice, and human sympathy is continually telling you, that the poor negro has some natural right to himself”that those who deny it, and make mere merchandise of him, deserve kickings, contempt and death. What trampled across this inherent sense of the injustice of slavery was nothing but self-interest, aided by pure, raw power, since an arbitrary exercise of power is what leads to still more flagrant violations of right and justice.
But Lincoln believed that the chief barrier to power was not fairness, but law. The injustice of men is not righted by compensatory displays of well-intentioned power, but by faithful adherence to law. If some men will kill, or beat, or constrain others, or despoil them of property, by force, fraud, or noncompliance with contracts, it is a common object with peaceful and just men to prevent it, Lincoln explained. Hence the criminal and civil departments of law. One of the tasks of government, then, is the impartial application of law to all of its citizens.
Still, even government can develop a nasty appetite for power, especially if it can be disguised as the dispensing goddess of fairness. The legitimate object of government, Lincoln argued, is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they can not, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves. It could not reach toward the redress of inequities in property, talent, wealth, industriousness, or self-esteem without appropriating lethal amounts of power that, sooner or later, would bring down both fairness and law together. At the foundation of the sense of justice there is in me, Lincoln said, is the proposition that each man should do precisely as he pleases with all which is exclusively his own. And he extended that to communities of men, as well as to individuals.
Lincoln was not oblivious to economic or social unfairness. How could he be, having been born poor? But what he thought was the genius of the American system of law and government was the opportunities for self-transformation it opened up, not the fairness it mandated. Twenty-five years ago, I was a hired laborer, he said in 1859. But the hired laborer of yesterday, labors on his own account to-day; and will hire others to labor for him to-morrow. Under a government of laws, it is best for all to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can. That will not guarantee the same results for everyone. Some will get wealthy. But in the case of those who didnt, the solution was not to spread the wealth by interposing the hand of power. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself.
Not every complaint about fairness is really a protest against injustice; and not every complaint about injustice can be satisfied without running some risk that its real motive is the will to power. Inequality is certainly never to be embraced for its own sake, Lincoln admitted. But that was no sanction for the pernicious principle . . . that no one shall have any, for fear all shall not have some. Two hundred and one years after Lincolns birth, it might be well to remind ourselves that the real enemy of both fairness and justice is not weakness of will or an unwillingness to bear shared sacrifice, but the seeping gas of power.
Allen C. Guelzo is Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and Director, Civil War Era Studies, at Gettysburg College.
This Fourth of July the words "with liberty and justice for all" may seem to ring empty for many of our nation's bravest citizens. Included in our nation's Pledge of Allegiance, the phrase is supposed to represent the idea that each citizen is equal under the law. It represents the concept that every American is free and not to be "deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," as indicated in our Bill of Rights. However, if we are going to continue to carry the banner of the "land of the free," there must continue to be change in the "home of the brave." This is because the very brave we speak of are being denied liberty and equal protection under the law.
Recently, MA2 (SW) Brian Double and Joseph Robinson were married in Washington, D.C. MA2 (SW) Double has shown that we are indeed the "home of the brave" by continuing to put his life on the line in order to defend the ideals and freedoms this nation holds dear. Yet while he serves his nation honorably, his nation does not recognize his marriage, simply because he is not heterosexual. This sadly means a host of problems for his family.
As a military family, service to this nation comes with challenges that accompany the military lifestyle. Despite the fact MA2 (SW) Double is legally married in Washington, D.C., the military denies care and support to his husband Joe. Joe is denied access to the military's medical and dental insurance, military family-support programs, relocation and transportation support when it's time to move (again) to a new duty station, employment and education support for spouses, family separation allowance during deployments, and even surviving spousal benefits if (heaven forbid) his husband were to lose his life in service to our nation. He is denied legal services, military family housing, shopping on base, and on and on it goes. All these support programs and benefits are designed to help the military family, yet because they are tied to the federal definition of marriage, gay military families are treated as if they don't need or, even worse, don't deserve this help.
Are we still the land of the free if we continue to deny the brave the ability to marry their loved one? Despite the challenges of equality we still face as a nation, I do believe we are the land of the free. We still have far to go in terms of liberty and justice for all, but thanks to those who refuse to settle for the status quo, our nation moves forward. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "I say to you that our goal is freedom, and I believe we are going to get there because however much she strays away from it, the goal of America is freedom." Change just doesn't happen, though. It is up to us as Americans to continue to push for equality.
This time of year, as we celebrate our nation's independence and the freedoms we as Americans hold dear, we must remember the brave men and women who allow us to enjoy that liberty. Although we have a ways to go in reaching our ideals, I continue to "pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all."
Follow Stephen Peters on Twitter: www.twitter.com/stephenpeters2