... Government of the people, by the people, and for the people ... : Perhaps my favorite civic phrase is known (by some, at least) to have come from the last paragraph of the Gettysburg Address.
"... we here highly resolve
that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall
have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people,
for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
The phrase crystallizes the American vision of government so well that I wondered why it was not used before. It turns out that phrases close to it were used before. Lincoln himself might have been influenced by the wording he found in a book given to him. On July 4, 1854, an abolitionist minister named Theodore Parker gave a sermon in which he said, "Democracy is direct self-government over all the people, for all the people, by all the people."
Or maybe he was influenced by Stephen A. Douglas who said in one of those famous debates with Lincoln: "In my opinion, this government is formed on the white basis. It was made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men, in such a manner as they should determine."
In any case, the concept of government of the people, by the people, and for the people was at the core of the American revolution and what the founding fathers had in mind when they created the constitution. Consider that they had been living in a colonial circumstances where none of the following was true.
- Government of the people: While England itself had a constitutional monarchy, with a functioning representative body called the Parliament, its colonies had no representation. They were at the mercy of whatever Parliament--or the King--wanted to do. Taxation, under these circumstances, felt especially onerous.
- Government by the people: While government workers in England were fellow citizens and neighbors, governors and other representatives of the Crown, were appointed by and came from England.
- Government for the people: While Parliament tended to make legislation with the citizens of England in mind, this applied equally well to any legislation that impacted the colonies. Such legislation was made for the benefit of England.
Thus, the colonists were distanced on every level from government, which they saw as of the Crown/Parliament, by the Crown/Parliament, and for the Crown/Parliament. This is abundantly clear in the nature of complaints listed in the Declaration of Independence and, from the more positive point of view, in the structure provided by the Constitution and the freedoms protected in the Bill of Rights.
The colonists saw government as completely connected to the people--of them, by them, and for them.
- Government of the people: The people (or at least white men) within the united states would vote to determine their temporary representatives and administrators
- Government by the people: Government officials--administrators, employees, representatives, judges--employees would come from the pool of local citizens. They would be neighbors, insiders not outsiders.
- Government for the people: The purpose of government would be to serve the people, not the English crown or any other outside group.
President Lincoln well understood this, even extending the concept of "People" beyond the idea that "people" meant "white men."