Debate or Distraction: Why Some Are Fretting Over the ACS Pocket Constitution

July 20, 2010
Guest Post

By Caroline Fredrickson, Executive Director, American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS).
In what may be an example of calculated distraction from things that matter, a gaggle of rightwing bloggers, precipitated by an article by Princeton University professor Robert P. George in the conservative magazine First Things, has decided to vent their fury at a small (4 inch) pocket Constitution published six years ago by the American Constitution Society because of what George claims are missing two words from Lincoln's Gettysburg address.

The publication, offered free to attendees at most ACS events, includes the U.S. Constitution and two other documents that provide important context for understanding our founding document: the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. But rather than acknowledge the goal of the booklet -- to help ensure that Americans have ready access to these primary documents - George and his posse of rightwing bloggers baselessly finds a conspiracy afoot, suggesting, erroneously, that "The American Constitution Society had omitted Lincoln's reference to the United States as a nation under God from the address he gave at the dedication of the burial ground at Gettysburg."

Apparently, in his eagerness to find a conspiracy, George has chosen to either ignore or willfully distort the history of this important document. The truth is, five drafts of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address exist, and historians are uncertain about which one Lincoln actually read on the battlefield. Three included references to God and two did not. Which one was the most accurate is not and cannot be known for certain. George cites the recollections of several reporters of the time who stated that the president included the words "under God" in his remarks. Did President Lincoln improvise and add those words as he spoke? Perhaps! I wasn't at Gettysburg, so I can't be sure that George wasn't. As for the journalists' accounts, it would be interesting to read a history of the Civil War based solely on contemporaneous reports of journalists of the time, which would include countless conflicts, distortions, and inaccuracies. At the very least, honest scholars must acknowledge that wise people have differing views based on the available facts.

Even more disturbing (and clearly erroneous) is the claim that ACS deliberately manipulated the texts out of an alleged anti-God agenda of our organization. One need only open the first page of ACS's pocket publication and look at the first lines of the first document - the Declaration of Independence, to see very clear references to God and "the Creator." George simply ignored this fact, since it did not fit within his conclusion.

At a time when many conservative pundits and policymakers can only try to distract from the administration's efforts to address real problems, it is perhaps not surprising that some would try to refocus attention on such peripheral issues. Indeed, the hysteria over our pocket Constitution is reminiscent of debate over conservative "originalism," in which highly complicated matters from the past which are open to a variety of interpretations with considerable evidence for each get boiled down into tendentious little just-so stories about how everyone who has a different view of the evidence hates God and America.

The draft of the Gettysburg address included in our pocket Constitution is just that, one of Lincoln's drafts, word for word. Nothing crossed out, nothing redacted, and nothing hidden. George and his handful of fellow travelers know this, but they don't want to discuss or debate matters of dire seriousness to the nation.

[image via Wikimedia Commons]