This weekend, Americans everywhere will celebrate the Fourth of July, the Declaration of Independence, and the Founders who created this magnificent country.
We naturally associate certain names – Washington, Jefferson, Adams – to the holiday. We don’t, however, tend to think of Abraham Lincoln on the Fourth. But Lincoln – while not a Founder – forged a strong tie to the Revolutionary generation and its principles.
In his most well-known speech – the Gettysburg Address – Lincoln harkened back to that time with his famous opening: “Four score and seven years ago, our Fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation…”
By going back 87 years, Lincoln was specifically referencing the Declaration of Independence. By the mid-1850s, Lincoln had come to see the Declaration as his guidepost, “his political chart and inspiration.” But he knew that America was not living up to what he called the Declaration’s “ancient faith,” – that “all men are created equal.”
In an 1859 letter to a Republican festival in Boston marking the anniversary of Jefferson’s birth, Lincoln wrote: “All honor to Jefferson – to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”
The great dividing issue of Lincoln’s day was, of course, slavery. And Lincoln used the Declaration as a “rebuke and stumbling-block” to slavery. As Rich Lowry has written, Lincoln “wielded it as a rhetorical weapon, made it a rallying cry, and established it” by the end of the Civil War “as national gospel.”
In 1858, Lincoln gained national prominence when the Illinois Republican Party nominated him to run against Stephen Douglas for the United States Senate. Lincoln eventually lost that campaign, but in accepting the nomination, he gave “one of the most incendiary speeches in American history.” He told the convention that slavery had made the United States “a house divided against itself,” and that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Shortly thereafter, Douglas gave a speech – with Lincoln in attendance – in which he expressed his disagreement with Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech. According to Douglas, Lincoln’s assertion that America couldn’t exist “half slave and half free” was inconsistent with the “diversity” in domestic institutions that was “the great safeguard of our liberties.”
Afterward, Lincoln invited Douglas’s audience to return the next night for his reply. And so, on the evening of July 10, 1858, a crowd gathered to hear Lincoln’s memorable response to Douglas. The entire speech is too long to recount here, but at one point, Lincoln once again invoked the Declaration of Independence and its promise of equality.
He said that in the 1770s, we find a race of men “we claim as our fathers and grandfathers; they were iron men, they fought for the principle that they were contending for; and we understood that by what they then did it has followed that the degree of prosperity that we now enjoy has come to us.” We hold annual Fourth of July celebrations, Lincoln said, “to remind ourselves of all the good done in this process of time…and how we are historically connected with it.”
We go from those celebrations in better humor, he said, but “we have not yet reached the whole. There is something else connected with it. We have besides these men – descended by blood from our ancestors – among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe – German, Irish, French and Scandinavian…or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things.
“If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.
“That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.”
It became known as his “Electric Cord Speech,” and it furthered Lincoln’s crusade to fight off the assaults on the Declaration of Independence from Douglas and others who tried to relegate it to a graveyard of historical documents with no bearing on the present.
Despite his invocation of the Declaration, Lincoln understood that the Founders weren’t asserting that all men in 1776 were actually enjoying the “inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” He also knew that the Founders weren’t in a position to make it a reality at that time. But he believed that the assertion in the Declaration of that “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times,” was a promise to the future.
Lincoln declared that the Founders “meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”
Happy Fourth of July everyone.
The writer is a justice on the Ohio Supreme Court.