Like apples of gold in settings of silver
Is a word spoken in [a]right circumstances.(Proverbs 25:11)
Last month we celebrated President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. In 2012 celebrating the life of our 16th President seems more about getting a great bargain on a new sectional for your living room than it does about remembering the kind of man he was and the legacy he left our great nation.
There is much that we can learn today from this great champion of the Constitution and of the principles of the American founding. This is especially true today, when our founding principles are under relentless attack. Even in Lincoln’s time, these principles were “denied, and evaded, with no small show of success,” as Lincoln himself put it . Lincoln dedicated all of his public life to the preservation of these principles, and we should aspire to live up to his example.
Lincoln knew that the eternal truths of the Declaration must be guarded by the carefully balanced republic of the Constitution. His beautiful analogy for the relationship between the Declaration and the Constitution, where he likened the former to a golden apple and the latter to a “picture of silver, framed around it,” is well worth quoting: “The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple-not the apple for the picture.”
On December 30, 1860, as the United States approached civil war, prominent Georgia politician Alexander H. Stephens (1812-1883) implored the president elect Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) to make a public statement. Stephens alluded to Proverbs 25:11 when he wrote, “A word fitly spoken by you now would be like ‘apples of gold in pictures of silver.’” Lincoln reflected on Stephens’ biblical reference and found the principle “liberty to all” to be words fitly spoken. He responded:
All this is not the result of accident. It has a philosophical cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of “Liberty to all”—the principle that clears the path for all—gives hope to all—and, by consequence, enterprise, and industry to all.
The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate. Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. No oppressed, people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters.
The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture.
So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken.
That we may so act, we must study, and understand the points of danger. (Lincoln, “Fragment on the Constitution and the Union”, January 1861)
It fell upon Lincoln to guide the nation through a bloody civil war to eradicate the evil of slavery and to forge the two divergent regions into “a more perfect Union.” It is easy to underestimate the gravity of the choices Lincoln had to make, treading carefully between letting the Union fall apart and maintaining it at the cost of the Constitutional Republic.
Lincoln wanted freedom for the slaves, but he was no progressive. He was a prudent statesman and in this prudence lies the essence of his conservatism. He recognized the inherent flaws and limitations of human nature. He did not want to somehow “supersede” or “go beyond” the Constitution, as progressives do. He instead wanted to see his beloved country live up to its founding principles, while upholding the Constitution.
Former Alaska Governor and Republican Vice-Presidential Nominee, Sarah Palin writes in her book, America By Heart the following about the importance of both the Declaration and the Constitution. Palin states, ”To me, the Declaration of Independence is an expression of our ideals as a nation—the ideals of liberty and equality—and the Constitution is how we make those ideals a reality.” She further speaks about Lincoln’s use of the Proverb to draw on the idea of how the Declaration and the Constitution are intertwined. She says, For Lincoln, the principles of the Declaration—that we are granted by our Creator with inalienable rights—are the apples of gold. “The Union, and the Constitution,” Lincoln wrote, “are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it.”
We are not alone in the fight to preserve the self-evident truths that are the foundations of this nation. Nor is our fight new, or unique. We are but the newest carriers of the torch of American liberty in the midst of the darkness of the progressive movement in our country today. It is a sometimes daunting but always honorable duty. Next year as we celebrate Lincoln’s birthday, I hope we can focus as he did on the goal “that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken.”