Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States was born on this day, February 12, in 1809—exactly 200 years ago. He’s one of three Presidents born in the month of February: George Washington on the 22nd in 1732, and Ronald Reagan on the 20th in 1911.
Washington died in 1797, at the age of 67. This was just thirteen years before Lincoln’s birthday. Had Lincoln lived to be 67 (and died in 1876), Reagan’s birth would have followed only 35 years later. Of the three, Reagan lived longest—93 years. If all three men had lived to be 93, Lincoln would have been 14 at Washington’s death in 1823, and Lincoln would have lived another 46 years, dying the year Reagan was born. Ronald Reagan won the presidential election in the year I was first eligible to vote.
Imagine eavesdropping on a conversation between these three great figures. What would they talk about? Here are portions of one scenario that occurs to me.
Washington (to Mr. Lincoln): We all feared and half-expected that the union of our colonies under a shared constitution might not last. There were many reasons to be skeptical. One, of course, was the problem of black slavery. We believed that a titanic struggle over slavery would come. We expected it much sooner than it happened. But in those days, the infant nation had fought to the fringes of its might the power of king George. The issue of slavery, something that plagued our consciences to our dying days, could not be addressed directly at the time. What little there was of “union” would have dissolved in an instant. Mind you, we also felt that delay on this point would reinforce and perpetuate that damnable practice, so that the struggle which had to come sooner or later could mean the end of our union. It was a risk we had to take, you understand?
Lincoln: That is all as I suspected. It was my singular duty to have charge over the Union when the inevitable occurred. I had no doubt that Providence was at work in the timing of my presidency and what is called the “Civil War.” It was that . . . a civil war. We were a nation of men and women at war with each other. There’s truth in calling it “the war between the states.” Robert Lee’s agreement to lead the “Confederacy” was, I have to say, a shock to me. I believed then that our country would be torn in two, with no prospect of reconciliation. But it turned out we had generals equal to Lee. In due course, I began to imagine the possibility of re-union. Sadly, though the war had been won, my time for leadership—ordained by God—was over before the challenge of reconstruction could begin.
Reagan: It’s a wonder that war didn’t end in anarchy. That it didn’t is a tribute to your leadership, Mr. Lincoln. It’s also a tribute to the ratification of the United States Constitution, General Washington.
Washington: Ratification almost did not happen. Some of us wondered if it would matter. We realized that a document, a piece of paper, could be shredded. Our Republic depended on government “by the people,” as Jefferson wrote, to the consternation of Georgie. If the people could not abide the Constitution in the years ahead, . . . well.
Reagan: Well, some have threatened to shred the Constitution. The greatest offenders have been our own justices of the Supreme Court, and appointed federal judges, who swear to uphold the Constitution.
Washington: That is one of the great surprises for me. Many at the Convention thought a Supreme Court was a bad idea, that it would disallow adequate representation of all the states. They thought the law could be drafted and enforced by the states themselves. This, of course, was nonsense. There had to be laws that protected the union of the states, as well as states’ rights. That called for a judiciary at the federal level. Congress would make law. But there needed to be a sensible body with a steady grip on the Constitution, so that laws passed in Congress and signed by the President would safeguard the survival of a fragile union. It was, I think, one of our better ideas to provide for a federal court.
Reagan: No doubt about it. But appointing judges to the bench was among the most difficult challenges I faced as President. It was clear that certain judges, whom we called “liberal,” were legislating from the bench, and doing so in violation of the Constitution. During my administration, two opposing views about the Constitution had taken root and defined much of the “conservative-liberal” debate. Some held that the Constitution is a “living document,” meaning that the justices had to adapt its general configuration to the needs and circumstances of the times. The other main group argued for “original intent.”
Washington: Yes, the idea that there should be strict adherence to the Constitution as it was intended to be understood by its framers—by those of us who were there. You wish to know the position of the framers on precisely this point? Believe me when I tell you that this was a matter of considerable controversy during the convention. Jefferson warned against a fluid constitution quite explicitly, and I sided with him in the matter. I am happy to say that most agreed that the Constitution should be framed for timeless application. And I dare say that all who were there and finally ratified the Constitution had no doubt about “original intent,” as your generation called it. There were misgivings, to be sure. And this is why the Constitution made provision for amendment. The process of amendment was meant to be deliberately cumbersome. This, no doubt, explains why some preferred to think of the Constitution as a “living document.” Perhaps judges could be influenced to make unofficial amendments and write law when they were supposed to be interpreting law.
Lincoln: It would be odd, would it not, to argue for the “living document” theory on the grounds that this was the “original intent” of the framers of the Constitution?
Washington: Is that how they argued?
Reagan: It is more or less how they argued.
Washington: Well, I can tell you that any person who thinks that is wrong.
Lincoln: “Living document.” That would have been a convenient trick in my day. The justices could have settled our issues with the stroke of their pens. I believe our civil war was fought with deference to the Constitution by both sides. The Confederacy did craft its own constitution, in preparation for independence from the Union. Their constitution was actually adopted, in March of 1861. But I’m sure you know about all that.
Reagan: Well, I know the confederate constitution was virtually identical to the U.S. Constitution.
Lincoln: Quite right. The two main differences were additions. Their constitution stressed greater independence for individual states, and it permitted the ownership of slaves. I always thought their document was a tacit concession to the authority of our Constitution and an admission of guilty rebellion against it.
Washington: This is the form of challenge to the Constitution that we expected in those early days. Secession was a grave concern. And it could not have been tried without bloodshed.
Lincoln: If the southern states had won their independence, their own constitution would have led to strife between the confederate states themselves, with no constitutional recourse to prevent the convenience of secession. I think this would have happened very early on. Within a decade.
Reagan: Why is that?
Lincoln: The states in the south may have shared an approval of slave-ownership—enthusiasm even for that varied considerably from state to state—but they differed on other points. Commercial imports and exports, for example. Some states were bound to enjoy greater wealth and thus be in a position, eventually, to attempt annexation of bordering states with weaker defenses. I never understood why Cobb Howell, and all the others, could not see that their constitutional efforts were thwarted in the very act of waging war with the union army.
Washington: Mr. Reagan, you presided over the conclusion of an altogether different war, the so-called “cold war.”
Reagan: Yes, the “cold” war. There was always the threat of nuclear war and mutual annihilation. Nobody wanted it. But warheads that could destroy whole cities proliferated. One nation would seek its security in the development of more and more arms, just to keep pace with other nations capable of causing mass destruction from a safe distance.
Lincoln: I shudder at the thought of it. We fought with conventional weapons. Had it been otherwise, there may have been nothing left in the end—or no one left—and nothing that could be salvaged and rebuilt into a viable state. The European nations would have swooped in and re-colonized.
Washington: I agree. America’s independence has always depended on its strength as a unified nation. France and England kept a constant vigil for any opportunity to ruin our Republic.
Reagan: The Brits were our closest allies during the cold war. It was fortunate for me and our great country that Maggie Thatcher was prime minister at the time. The French didn’t really enter into the equation all that much. They were, in my judgment, opportunists who might play the sides of the Soviet Union and the United States against each, to whatever advantage they could. They had a reputation for that sort of thing in the twilight years of the 20th century.
[Later in the conversation . . .]
Lincoln: Mr. Reagan, you narrowly survived an assassination attempt. I understand you were wounded, and didn’t know about it for the first few minutes.
Reagan: That’s true. I knew there had been gunfire, and I worried that there might have been injuries. Things happened quickly. I was shoved by security agents into a limousine. We were on our way back to the White House when it was noticed that I was bleeding. So we changed course and went directly to Walter Reed Hospital. It saved my life.
[A few moments pass before anyone speaks.]
Lincoln (quietly and slowly): I lost consciousness the moment Booth fired his pistol. The situation never improved.
Reagan: What happened in that balcony that night is unspeakable.
Lincoln: You know, don’t you, that I would not have won re-election. I was never popular with the people during my presidency.
Reagan: That’s what the history books say. But you were admired by every American in my day.
Washington: Citizens are a fickle lot. Mr. Lincoln, given the opportunity, would you have run for re-election, regardless of public opinion and the likelihood that you would lose?
Lincoln: I would. I was responsible for the conduct of the war, and I wanted desperately to oversee reconstruction. I didn’t think there was anyone else who knew what to do. I still believe that. The Confederacy had surrendered. But the peace had not yet been achieved—not really. They needed to see me reaching out to them with an olive branch. They needed to be able to trust.
Washington: Our enemy was king George. Yours, Mr. Reagan, was the communist party of the Soviet Union. But Mr. Lincoln, for you the enemy was your neighbor.
Lincoln: Sadly true. Our militia was more of a police force at first. It was deployed to deal with internal rebellions. But the southern states formed their own union, declared secession, and mustered an army and a navy. Suddenly, we were at war.
Reagan: No president since the Civil War questioned the wisdom of your leadership during that trying time. Even your vice president, Andrew Johnson, who was a Democrat from Tennessee, supported you. I find that remarkable. I was on friendly terms with many leading Democrats in Congress, but I don’t know that I could have counted on their support in the way you could with Johnson.
Lincoln: I’m glad you mention Johnson. President Johnson was a man of honor. Anyone in his position during Reconstruction would have been in a hard place. He may have been too conciliatory and moved too quickly to accommodate the grievances of the South. I can’t be sure I would have acted much differently.
Reagan: I can tell you this, Johnson was wise in his purchase of Alaska from the Russians. Most people don’t even know about that. I realize he could not have known the significance this investment would have for my generation. But I’m eternally grateful. He didn’t know about the gold in the Alaska territory. He didn’t know about its oil resources. And he certainly didn’t have any reason to expect conflict with the Russians on the scale that we faced during the cold war.
Lincoln: You have my friend, William Seward, to thank, as well. William was my Secretary of State. The purchase of Alaska was William’s idea. Here’s the kicker. He brought it up to me, with annoying frequency, I should say. I could not see the point in it. And it was a distraction. Thank God, Johnson listened to him. William probably made such a nuisance of himself that Johnson simply relented out of sheer exasperation.
Washington: That Johnson fellow was vice president for barely a month before your assassination, Mr. Lincoln. This business of comparing Presidents and sorting out who was the best and who was the worst is unsettling. Andrew Johnson made one momentous decision that might never have been made by anyone else. But the experts rank him down there at “the bottom.”
Lincoln: Would you agree, Mr. Washington, that Providence has a hand in these things?
Washington: I do.
Lincoln: And you, Mr. Reagan?
Reagan: You bet I do.