Fragment on the Constitution (January 1861)

Contributing Editors for this page include Rob O’Keefe


#50 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents

Annotated Transcript

“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.”

On This Date

[Editorial Note:  This undated fragment has traditionally been considered to have been created in January 1861]

HD Daily Report, January, 1861

The Lincoln Log, January 1861

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Close Readings

Rob O’Keefe, “Understanding Lincoln” blog post (via Quora), June 28, 2014

How Historians Interpret

“As the image of the apple of gold and the picture of silver indicates, Lincoln believed that the Declaration and the Constitution needed each other. The Declaration was a statement of foundational natural rights and natural rights which were shared everywhere by every human being. But it was not, and could not be, a statement about civil or political rights, which were a different thing altogether.”

— Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln as a Man of Ideas (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), 114.


“Pursuing inquiry in Socratic terms, Lincoln the philosopher statesman probed the underlying ‘philosophical cause’ of the Union’s success in maintaining ordered liberty He attributed this success to the perpetuation of the principles of the Declaration as safeguarded by the Constitution. On the eve of the Civil War, the sixteenth president summed up his philosophical vision of the Union in a letter to Alexander Stephens, a former Whig colleague who had initially opposed Georgia’s session. He used a biblical metaphor from Proverbs 25:1, ‘A word fitfully spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver’ to convey the complementary relationship between the Declaration and the Constitution in securing a ‘more perfect’ Union…”

— Joseph R. Fornieri, Abraham Lincoln: Philosopher Statesman (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), 14.


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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, enterprize, 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.
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