Posted by Tom Talbott

Introduced by Bob Martin, our speaker Dr. Jean Yarbrough, Professor of Social Sciences/Government/Legal Studies at Bowdoin College, gave us much to consider and reconsider in the world of politics. Being the month of historical Presidential birthdays, she built her talk primarily around Lincoln’s perspective, but also wove into context Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, with quick references to many others. (With 7 pages of note-worthy information, space in our WJ is not long enough to capture the myriad historical twists imparted by Dr. Yarbrough.)   

1. “WE are the progressives. No, you’re not, WE are.”

During a 1913 “Lincoln Day” talk in NYC, Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed that Democrats alone were the true heirs of Lincoln, because he was a forward-thinking progressive who had applied his principals to solve the slavery “issue”. Roosevelt assailed Republicans for being heirs of the men who opposed the Constitution. Jean disagreed, pointing to numerous historical omissions in Roosevelt’s speech. In 1854, Republicans had made the Constitution the critical plank of their Election platform. At the same time, southern Democrats were trying to repeal the 1820 Missouri Compromise - designed to maintain an equal 50/50 split between free states and slave states.  

Jean said Lincoln was one who looked back to move forward, constantly citing the Declaration of Independence (DOI) in his speeches. He maintained that the principles were true, a philosophical statement of what we ought to be. “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.”

2. History is better studied backward, then looking wishfully forward.  

To Lincoln the problems facing the U.S needed to be solved on a philosophic basis, or the union cannot be maintained. If we hold these truths to be self-evident, then how can slavery be tolerated? How can it be argued that a segment of the population does not have rights? The great divide: to tolerate slavery or end it. The DOI proclaimed that all men are created equal, so why didn’t they just end slavery at that point? Thomas Jefferson described it as a battle between moral principles and political necessity. In writing it they way they did, they left the door open for it to be abolished. 

Lincoln’s 1860 speech at Cooper Union argued that Democrats had abandoned the Constitution, and was no longer the party of Thomas Jefferson. He said Republicans were truer to the principals of the DOI. If you want success he said, we need to be steadfast to the DOI. That doesn’t mean a rubber stamp, but it is the best guidepost to keep moving forward, since the future is undetermined. 

For Lincoln, there was nothing more critical than the Constitution’s 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery in 1865. Without this, he knew the War would have been little more than a military conflict. Lincoln stressed that we could not go backwards, we had to make it stick. 3 months later he was assassinated. 

3. “Great minds transcend the time in which they lived.”   

Times change. Politics shift. How can a document written nearly 250 years ago have application to govern today? Professor Yarbrough said this is a frequent proposition of her students. “We need to look forward.” Her response was that thoughts and accomplishments are not necessarily forever locked into the era that it was created. Principles of from Mozart....are with us today. Great minded people have produced timeless work for the ages, they transcend the time in which they lived. If the principles of the work have truth, they endure.

“Historicism”, is the belief that knowledge is shaped and developed by history, and Lincoln would be in this category, as he drew extensively from the Constitution and DOI. The opposing point of view is that each era is free to establish its own truths, subject to changing cultures, technology, and innovation.




(Photo L-R: President John Curran, Jean Yarbrough, and Bob Martin.)