Abraham Lincoln had a habit of working through thoughts and ideas by writing them down in notes, some of which he used later in public speeches and addresses. This fragment was written after Lincoln’s election as President but before he had officially taken office, and just as several states had seceded or declared their intent to secede from the Union in opposition to his election. In preparation for the extreme challenges that lay before him, Lincoln reflected on the nature and purpose of the Constitution and Union, the fundamental principles informing them, and why they are worth preserving.
Questions for consideration: What principle is the primary cause of prosperity in America according to Lincoln, and why? How did that principle influence what Americans fought for during the American Revolution? What is the relationship between the “apple of gold” and the “picture of silver”?
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.
Source: The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, volume 4 (Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, NJ, 1953), 168-169.Core Document