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Done Being Born

Israel after Sharon and his generation.

Jan 27, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 19 • By YUVAL LEVIN
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The greatest expression of that anxiety came from the greatest member of America’s third generation. On January 27, 1838, the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, invited an up-and-coming lawyer in town to address the students about an important public question. The 28-year-old attorney, Abraham Lincoln, chose as his subject a question to which he thought his countrymen needed to turn their attention: “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” And he could see clearly why turning to that subject was difficult for America, because the nation in his day (at 63 years of age, almost exactly Israel’s age today) was confronting the challenge of moving from a mode of ambitious founding to a mode of grateful preservation that might allow its people to build on the best of what they had inherited while addressing the terrible problems left unresolved by the founding. Americans of his generation, Lincoln said, lived in a thriving nation blessed with great advantages that, as far as they were concerned, had always been there:

We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them—they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Theirs was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ’tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform. 

That task is, in a word, the task of conservatism—the task of building on the given, not creating something wholly new. It was the task to which Lincoln thought his nation needed to turn if it was to overcome the enormous political and moral challenges it faced without destroying itself. And the move from a mode of founding to a mode of conservation and improvement would be no easy feat for a nation whose founding was so dramatic and which, until so recently, had lived with the direct memory of that founding. But that directness could no longer be appealed to, Lincoln worried:  

I do not mean to say, that the scenes of the revolution are now or ever will be entirely forgotten; but that like every thing else, they must fade upon the memory of the world, and grow more and more dim by the lapse of time. In history, we hope, they will be read of, and recounted, so long as the bible shall be read—but even granting that they will, their influence cannot be what it heretofore has been. Even then, they cannot be so universally known, nor so vividly felt, as they were by the generation just gone to rest. 

At the close of that struggle, nearly every adult male had been a participator in some of its scenes. The consequence was, that of those scenes, in the form of a husband, a father, a son or brother, a living history was to be found in every family—a history bearing the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received, in the midst of the very scenes related—a history, too, that could be read and understood alike by all, the wise and the ignorant, the learned and the unlearned. But those histories are gone. They can be read no more forever. They were a fortress of strength; but, what invading foeman could never do, the silent artillery of time has done; the leveling of its walls. They are gone. They were a forest of giant oaks; but the all-resistless hurricane has swept over them, and left only, here and there, a lonely trunk, despoiled of its verdure, shorn of its foliage; unshading and unshaded, to murmur in a few gentle breezes, and to combat with its mutilated limbs, a few more ruder storms, then to sink, and be no more.

They were the pillars of the temple of liberty; and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason.

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