Mr. Lincoln's Commitment to the Founders
"I love the sentiments of those old-time men; and shall be most happy to abide by their opinions," said Abraham Lincoln of the writers of the Declaration of Independence.1 Historian Richard N. Current wrote: "The only thing like passion or infatuation in the man," Walt Whitman once said of Abraham Lincoln, "was the passion for the Union of These States." To Lincoln, the Union was far more than an aggregation of people or an expanse of land; it represented the democratic reality, a sacred covenant between represented the democratic reality, a sacred covenant between government and the people, and a promise for the future. 'He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity, and glory, because he saw, in such, the advancement, prosperity, and glory of human liberty, human rights, and human nature.' The words are Lincoln's from his eulogy of Henry Clay but the tribute can be applied as fittingly to Lincoln."2
Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass said of President Lincoln: "Even those who only knew him through his public utterances obtained a tolerably clear idea of his character and his personality. The image of the man went out with his words, and those who read them knew him."3 That was evident when Mr. Lincoln spoke of July 4, 1776. For him, Independence Day was no mere holiday. "I am very glad indeed to see you to-night, and yet I will not say I thank you for this call, but I do most sincerely thank Almighty God for the occasion on which you have called," President Lincoln told a serenade on July 7, 1863 three days after the Confederate garrison at Vicksburg surrendered and four days after Confederates abandoned the Gettysburg battlefield. "How long ago is it? eighty odd years since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that 'all men are created equal.' [Cheers.] That was the birthday of the United States of America. Since then the Fourth of July has had several peculiar recognitions. The two most distinguished men in the framing and support of the Declaration were Thomas Jefferson and John Adams--the one having penned it and the other sustained it the most forcibly in debate the only two of the fifty-five who sustained [signed?] it being elected President of the United States. Precisely fifty years after they put their hands to the paper it pleased Almighty God to take both from the stage of action. This was indeed an extraordinary and remarkable event in our history.
President Lincoln added that "now, on this last Fourth of July just passed, when we have a gigantic Rebellion, at the bottom of which is an effort to overthrow the principle that all men were [are?] created equal, we have the surrender of a most powerful position and army on that very day, [cheers] and not only so, but in a succession of battles in Pennsylvania, near to us, through three days, so rapidly fought that they might be called one great battle on the 1st, 2d and 3d of the month of July; and on the 4th the cohorts of those who opposed the declaration that all men are created equal, 'turned tail' and run. [Long and continued cheers.] Gentlemen, this is a glorious theme, and the occasion for a speech, but I am not prepared to make one worthy of the occasion."4
The theme about the Founders which Mr. Lincoln was exploring was not new. As a boy, two of the first books Abraham Lincoln read were biographies of George Washington by David Ramsay and Parson Weems. Noted Lincoln biographer Benjamin Thomas: "From Abe's reading, scanty as it was, he had already acquired a sincere respect for the founders of the American Republic and for the receipts of the Declaration of Independence. Reading Parson Weems' Life of Washington, he thrilled to the accounts of the battles of the Revolutionary War. The hardships and determination of the soldiers so impressed him that even as a boy he thought 'there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for."5 Lincoln biographer Louis A. Warren wrote: "In Washington, as depicted by Weems, he found an ideal, to serve as an inspiration and challenge ,a personification of the hopes and inspiration of those who had fought for independence, and founded the new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to justice."6 In Ramsay's biography, according to Warren, young Lincoln found "a more detailed account of the Revolution than he had in Weems's volume, and more information about the beginnings of the Federal government."7
President-elect Lincoln recalled his early reading about General Washington in a speech he gave to the New Jersey Senateat Trenton, New Jersey on February 21, 1861: "I remember all the accounts there given of the battle fields and struggles for the liberties of the country, and none fixed themselves upon my imagination so deeply as the struggle here at Trenton, New-Jersey. The crossing of the river; the contest with the Hessians; the great hardships endured at that time, all fixed themselves on my memory more than any single revolutionary event; and you all know, for you have all been boys, how these early impressions last longer than any others. I recollect thinking the, boy even though I was, that there must been something more than common that those men struggled for; that something even more than National Independence; that something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come; I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in according with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle."8
Mr. Lincoln thought the lessons of the Founding needed to be shared with the youth of every generation. In 1859-1860, Mr. Lincoln's eldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, attended Phillips Exeter Academy while preparing for entry to Harvard College. Robert was asked to read the Declaration of Independence at an Independence Day celebration, but declined to do so without his father's permission. Friend Frank Fuller wrote Robert's father asking for the permission and claimed to have received a reply from Springfield: "Tell Bob to read that immortal document every chance he has, and the bigger the crowd, the louder he must holler."9
The Revolution had been at the center of Mr. Lincoln's first major speech which he gave to the Springfield Lyceum in 1838 on "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions." Mr. Lincoln warned against the dangers to democracy that had recently been exhibited by a mob that murdered abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois.
The question recurs "how shall we fortify against it?" The answer is simple. Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor; let every many remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character [charter?] of his own, and his children's liberty. Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges;--let it be written in Primmers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.10
Mr. Lincoln went on to preach reverence of the rule of law as a war of preserving the principles of the Founders:
When I so pressingly urge a strict observance of all the laws, let me not be understood as saying there are no bad laws, nor that grievances may not arise, for the redress of which, no legal provisions have been made. I mean to say no such thing. But I do mean to say, that, although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should religiously observed. So also in unprovided cases. If such arise, let proper legal provisions be made for them with the least possible delay; but till then, let them if not too intolerable, be borne with.
Historian Glen E. Thurow wrote: "In his Lyceum Speech Lincoln described and analyzed the erosion of revolutionary sentiments taking place as early as the 1830s: This erosion was due not only to the mere passage of time, but also to the fact that the revolutionary fervor had never been firmly attached to the Constitution and laws of the United States. And this was in part due to the very nature of those revolutionary principles."12 In his speech Mr. Lincoln seemed nostalgic for the passions with which the Revolution defined the new Republic: "Another reason which once was; but which, to the same extent, is now more, has done much in maintaining our institutions thus far. I mean the powerful influence which the interesting scenes of the revolution had upon the passions of the people as distinguished from their judgement. By this influence, the jealousy, envy, and avarice, incident to our nature, and so common to a state of peace, prosperity, and conscious strength, were, for the time, in a great measure smothered and rendered inactive; while the deep rooted principles of hate, and the powerful motive of revenge, instead of being turned against each other, were directed exclusively against the British nation. And thus, from the force of circumstances, the basest principles of our nature, were either made to lie dormant, or to become the active agents in the advancement of the noblest of cause[s] that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty."13
Though Mr. Lincoln was deficient in formal education, his readings of the Founders were among Mr. Lincoln's most important teachers. Psychobiographer Charles B. Strozier wrote of young Lincoln's relationship to his biological father and the fathers of the nation: "Thomas Lincoln, as we have seen, failed to live up to his son's expectations. In the Lyceum speech, Lincoln invested the founders and their work with all the grandeur so lamentably absent in the real father. His feeling for the 'old fathers' and their famous documents was to continue unabated. In speech after speech he invoked the spirit of the 'fathers' and their Declaration of Independence as the basis for the salvation and rejuvenation of the country."14
The education continued throughout his life. "This Lincoln was a learner. He was in particular a moral learner. If the term 'self-improvement' did not now have such banal associations, we might use that term for Lincoln's own serious lifetime undertaking," wrote historian William Lee Miller in Lincoln's Virtues. "He learned what it took for his ambition to serve his virtue: it took subordination to a worthy end, and self-restraining generosity in seeking it. The story of his life, morally considered, would be the increasing development, by his own conscious effort, of his original worthiness, so that it would come to correspond to the increasing vastness of the political field within which he would act."15
Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher wrote that "Lincoln retained his faith in law as the best instrument of justice, in democracy as the best form of government, and in the capacity of man to improve, as well as endure, an always imperfect world."16 Mr. Lincoln, whether consciously or unconsciously, was laying the groundwork for the future. Historian Harry V. Jaffa wrote: "When the opportunity came, Lincoln was prepared by long forethought to shape from the materials of the American tradition that political religion which in 1838 he had seen to be necessary for the perpetuation of our political institutions. He found the experience of that people two pre-eminent obstacles, or antagonisms, whose reconciliation it would be the essential task of that religion to effect. One was the antagonism between the American secular and religious traditions and other the inner conflict, to which we have adverted, engendered in part by the Declaration of Independence itself, between the principles of popular government and the passions of the people."17
The Declaration of Independence and the Founding of the Republican were the centerpiece of his rhetoric increasingly so as the Civil War approached. In 1855, Mr. Lincoln wrote his long-time friend, Joshua Speed, about his own political beliefs and his worries about his country's future: "I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty--to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be take pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic]."18
The controversy over Dred Scott drove Mr. Lincoln closer to the Founders. Historian Gabor S. Boritt wrote: "The 'central idea of America was equality, Lincoln noted in 1856, taking his stand squarely on the Declaration of Independence. Whether his historical judgment was accurate is open to question. But we can be certain that the meaning he gave to Jefferson's words was scarcely identical with Jefferson's own. Whatever equality meant to the Virginian and his age, Lincoln crowned the work of the Jacksonian generation by extending its meaning to equality of opportunity to get ahead in life. This was his 'central idea.' One may dare to suggest that this is one of the most important metamorphoses of an idea in American history."19
The centerpiece of the Declaration for Mr. Lincoln was its applicability to all men. Distinguished Civil War historian James M. McPherson observed: "The American vision of republican liberty encompassed more than simple freedom; it included also the civil and political equality of freemen. Governments derive 'their just power from the consent of the governed,' wrote Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Those 'who have no Voice nor Vote in the Electing of Representatives, do not enjoy Liberty,' declared other spokesmen of the Revolutionary generation. 'To be enslaved, is to have Governors whom other Men have set over us, and to be subject to laws made by the Representatives of Others.'"20
Lincoln biographer Benjamin Thomas wrote of positions Mr. Lincoln took in 1854: "In Lincoln's first major speech after re-entering politics, he pleaded: 'Let us re-adopt the Declaration of independence, and with it the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it....If we do this we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving. We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the later generations."21 Historian Robert W. Johannsen wrote: "For Lincoln, liberty and equality derived their legitimacy from the Declaration of Independence and it was from that Declaration, the 'sheet anchor' of American republicanism as he termed it, that Lincoln's convictions drew their sustenance."22 Historian Mark E. Neely, Jr., wrote: "Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence assumed a conspicuous place in Lincoln's political imagery in this period."23 In his Springfield speech in 1857 on the Dred Scott decision, "Lincoln had once again laid bare the heart of the controversy, and his logic was scarcely assailable: if the Declaration of Independence were of limited application, it had no meaning at all," according to historians William and Bruce Catton.24
Mr. Lincoln turned repeatedly to the Declaration in his 1858 debates with Senator Stephen Douglas repeatedly challenging Douglas's interpretation of the Founding. At the first debate in Ottawa, Mr. Lincoln closed his one and half hour speech by saying: "To my thinking, Judge Douglas is, by his example and vast influence, doing that very thing in this community, [cheers,] when he says that the negro has nothing in the Declaration of Independence. Henry Clay plainly understood the contrary. Judge Douglas is going back to the era of our Revolution, and to the extent of his ability, muzzling the cannon which thunders its annual joyous return. When he invites any people willing to have slavery, to establish it, he is blowing out the moral lights around us. [Cheers.] When he says he 'cares not whether slavery is voted down or voted up,' that it is a sacred right of self government he is in my judgment penetrating the human soul and eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty in this American people. [Enthusiastic and continued applause.] And now I will only say that when, by all these means and appliances, Judge Douglas shall succeed in bringing public sentiment to an exact accordance with his own views--when these vast assemblages shall echo back all these sentiments when they shall come to repeat his views and to avow his principles, and to say all that he says on these mighty questions than it needs only the formality of the second Dred Scott decision, which he endorses in advance, to make Slavery alike lawful in all the States old as well as new, North as well as South."25
As Mr. Lincoln's views were summarized by legal scholar George Anastaplo, "Lincoln had to indicate that the Framers were in fact opposed to slavery, an institution that presented them with a detestable necessity with which they had to live but whose elimination they looked forward to. HE repeatedly quoted their sentiments on slavery, critical (sometimes even anguished) sentiments that were reinforced by various measures designed to limit slavery in this Country such measures as the pre-Constitutional legislation of 1787 (reaffirmed by the First Congress in 1789 prohibiting the introduction of slavery into the Northwest Territory and the provision in the 1787 Constitution recognizing the power in Congress to prohibit altogether the international slave trade from 1808 on (which trade Congress did prohibit as early as it could). Lincoln also made much of the fact that the words 'slave' and 'slavery' were never used in the Constitution, reflecting (he said) the Framers' expectation that the institution would some day be eliminated, leaving behind no trace of its legitimacy in the Constitution itself."26
Historian William Lee Miller wrote that before the Lincoln-Douglas Debates began in late August 1858, Mr. Lincoln concluded a speech in Lewiston on August 17 "with two paragraphs of the most extraordinary insistence upon the importance of the egalitarian principle of the Declaration of Independence, the second and last of which, ending the speech, insists extravagantly on his own insignificance in comparison to that principle:
Think nothing of me...but come back to the truths that are in the Declaration of Independence. You may do anything with me you choose, if you will but heed these sacred principles. You may not only defeat me for the Senate, but you take me and put me to death.27
It was a combination of the Declaration and the Constitution which Mr. Lincoln thought proved the Founders' antislavery credentials. In an April 1859 letter to Boston manufacturer Henry L. Pierce and several other Massachusetts Republicans, Mr. Lincoln concluded: "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 tyrany [sic] and oppression."28
The 1856 Republican National Convention contained a resolution about the Revolution: "That the maintenance of the principles promulgated in the Declaration of Independence and embodied in the federal Constitution is essential to the preservation of our Republican institutions, and that the federal Constitution, the rights of the states, and the union of the states, shall be preserved."29 Four years later, this sentiment was not so easily adopted. Wisconsin Republican leader Carl Schurz wrote in his memoirs about the controversy over the Declaration of Independence at the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago. Republican pragmatists like New York Tribune Editor Horace Greeley tried to increase the Republicans' electoral chances by downplaying controversial stands like Declaration's commitment to equality:
"When the draft of the platform was read to the convention, enthusiastic applause greeted almost every sentence of it, and an impatient call for a vote followed from all parts of the vast assembly. But amid this noise arose above the heads of the multitude the venerable form of Joshua R. Giddings of Ohio. Everybody knew him as one of the veteran champions of the anti-slavery cause. He had pleaded for that cause with undaunted courage and fidelity when even in many parts of the North no one could do so without danger. It was the religion of his life. No sooner had the clamor for a vote sufficiently calmed down to let him be heard, than he expressed himself painfully surprised that the Republican platform, that solemn promulgation of its political faith to be put forth by the part of freedom, should not contain a word of recognition of the Declaration of Independence.
Mr. Lincoln was not in Chicago to participate in these convention maneuvers, but he did condition his candidacy on approval of the party platform. In January 1861, President-elect Lincoln set down his ideas on the relation between the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Union in a speech fragment that apparently was never delivered but foreshadowed much of what he sought to accomplish as President under Civil War conditions:
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, enterprise, and industry to all.
Psychobiographer Dwight Anderson wrote that the Civil War required an adjustment of Mr. Lincoln's priorities: "After he assumed the presidency, this order of priority, which suggested that the Union took its meaning and importance only from the Declaration of Independence, could not be publicly maintained. Slavery, after all, was still a legal part of the established constitutional order. Although Lincoln had repeatedly expressed his wish that both the institutions and the liberties of the country be perpetuated, he did not intend to say, as he almost did in Independence Hall, that the union without the principle of the Declaration was without purpose or meaning. Nevertheless, it seems quite clear that privately the Union was of secondary importance for Lincoln, that for him the true source of American greatness was to be found in the words and deeds of 1776 rather than of 1789, that the nation's immortality depended upon the principle which 'gave hope to the world for all future time.'"32
The Declaration was a vital weapon in the arsenal of liberty. Historian James M. McPherson wrote in Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, "As for Lincoln himself, he said repeatedly that the right of revolution, the 'right of any people' to 'throw off, to revolutionize, their existing form of government, and to establish such other in its stead as they have choose' was 'a sacred right a right, which we may hope and believe, is to liberate the world.' The Declaration of Independence, he insisted often, was the great 'charter of freedom' and he insisted often, was the great 'charter of freedom' and in the example of the American Revolution 'the world has found...the germ...to grow and expand into the universal liberty of mankind.'"33
The culmination of Mr. Lincoln's thinking on the Declaration of Independence came in the Gettysburg address which began: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."34 Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald observed: "In invoking the Declaration now, Lincoln was reminding his listeners and, beyond them, the thousands who would read his words that theirs was a nation pledged not merely to constitutional liberty but to human equality. He did not have to mention slavery in his brief address to make the point that the Confederacy did not share these values."35 Historian Glen E. Thurow wrote of the Gettysburg Address: "Although Lincoln believes that equality applies to all people everywhere, he points not to a natural but to a customary origin of principle. This implication is strengthened by Lincoln's terming the self-evident truth of the declaration a proposition. A self-evident truth is necessarily true and does not need to be proven; a proposition may be either true or false and must be proven to be one or the other. A proposition unlike an axiom, may be teachable."36 Historian Robert W. Johannsen wrote: "It was in the Gettysburg Address that Lincoln brought the twin concepts of liberty and equality together."37
Nearly six months later, Mr. Lincoln took the opportunity of a speech at sanitary fair in Baltimore to expound on his idea of liberty by commenting on the progress being made in Maryland toward emancipating the state's slaves:
The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatable [sic] things, called by the same name liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two difference and incompatable names liberty and tyranny.
Legal scholar George Anastaplo wrote: "The perpetuation of our political institutions was the task to which Abraham Lincoln, a devoted grandson of the Revolution, can be said to have dedicated himself from the days of his youth in Springfield he was not yet thirty when he spoke on this subject to the Young Men's Lyceum until the hour of his assassination on Good Friday, in the year 1865."
But the perpetuation of these institutions was unthinkable with liberty. Mr. Lincoln understood liberty to be a universal concept one enshrined in the Declaration of Independence but not limited to it. It was fundamental to the Founding, fundamental to democracy, and fundamental to Mr. Lincoln's political thought. As Mr. Lincoln said in the Lyceum Speech: "Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs."39