The arc of history

Another bit from Kagan: 

The authors of the Declaration of Independence were indeed Anglo-Protestants, most of whom did not believe that Catholics were fit for democracy (nor were women, much less blacks or Asians or Muslims). However, they consciously and explicitly rejected the idea that the rights they claimed derived from their status as Englishmen, nor did they claim that only Anglo-Protestants could be trusted to protect and advance those rights. They even recognized that the slavery they wrote into the Constitution contradicted their universalist claims and anticipated the day when slavery would wither and the contradiction would be resolved. The universal principles they enshrined in the Declaration had more lasting power than the Anglo-Protestant culture from which they sprang. These continued to be the driving force in American life — the ‘apple of gold’, as Lincoln put it — superseding even the Constitution, ultimately leading to the abolition of slavery, the promise of rights for former slaves and for every group that followed, regardless of religion or cultural background. The continual expansion of rights to protected minorities is the one constant in American history. That is the essence of America as it was established by the founders, and though Americans often stray from it, eventually they are tugged back.

Robert Kagan, The Jungle Grows Back

Kagan squares this comparatively optimistic view of Americans with his generally pessimistic view of foreign policy’s tendencies, identifying the danger that catastrophic problems may arise before Americans return to their ground state. In a way, this is related to the skewness issue.

I hadn’t read the ‘apples of gold’ thing, but it’s from a fragment of a note Lincoln wrote in the midst of the secession crisis.

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.

Abraham Lincoln, Fragment on the Constitution and the Union 

Good explication of that here

Both are referring to Proverbs 25:11

Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a ruling rightly given.