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Historians’ Observations

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Independence Hall

Independence Hall

Lincoln's address at Gettysburg Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

  • Psychohistorian Dwight Anderson: “But it was one thing for [George Washington biographer Parson] Weems to hold that the Constitution and Washington’s injunctions regarding its maintenance were sacred, and quite another for Lincoln to do so. Weems, after all, saw American history as but a variation on a biblical theme in which the hand of God was everywhere writ large. On what basis could Lincoln make a similar assumption? Though he had no sound basis for it, he certainly intimated one. Lincoln understood that the Declaration of Independence was sacred because lives, fortunes, and honor had been pledged in its defense, and at times, had been sacrificed in its behalf. To swear by the blood of the Revolution was to reaffirm ritualistically the sacrifice and thus the sacredness of the Declaration. Lincoln was later to view the yearly fourth of July celebration as just such a reenactment: the ritual by which not only the descendants of the men of the Revolution, but later immigrants as well, were collectively regenerated by renewed contact with the moral principles of the Declaration. He also knew that no lives or fortunes had been sacrificed for the sake of the Constitution, and that whatever honor had been committed to the cause, it was largely self-serving, being inseparably linked to the ambitions of the founders. In calling upon his fellow-citizens to take up the pledge of 1776 in behalf of the Constitution and its laws, he was tacitly admitted that the Constitution was not yet sacred; at the same time, he was also suggesting how it could become so: ‘Let reverence for the laws…become the political religion of the nation; and let [everyone]…sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.”1


  • Historian Herman Belz: “The inference can be drawn the Lincoln viewed the Declaration of Independence as the nation’s primary constitutive document, and as the source fo the substantive principles of the Constitution. The Declaration created Union, making liberty, equality, and consent the fundamental principles of republican government. The Constitution in turn was written in order to make a more perfect Union that would preserve those principles.”2


  • Historian Kenneth A. Bernard: “Abraham Lincoln spoke many times on the subject of slavery (in his famous contest with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 for a seat in the Untied States Enate he and Douglas spoke more than one hundred times). His position, which he emphasized again and again, was essentially this: Slavery was morally wrong and it was contrary to our highest ideals as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. But slavery, already here when the country was formed, was of necessity recognized in the Constitution. Slaveholders therefore had certain constitutional rights to their property in slaves, and the Congress had no right to interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed. But Congress had the right and the duty to prevent the spread of slavery into new territories, and by not allowing it to spread but by confining it within limits, we could look forward to its ultimate extinction.”3


  • Historian Gabor S. Boritt: “He built the Gettysburg Address on ‘the proposition’ he believed the United States had been founded on, ‘that all men are created equal.’ it was this, Jefferson’s Declaration, which Lincoln saw as the first enunciation of the American Dream, for which his soldiers ‘gave the last full measure of devotion.’ They had died, he also said, so that the ‘nation might live,’ and they had died so that the ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.'”4


  • Lincoln biographer Lord Charnwood: “There is one marked feature of his patriotism, which could be illustrated by abundance of phrases from his speeches and letter and which the people of several countries of Europe can appreciate to-day. His affection for his own country and its institutions is curiously dependent upon a wider cause of human good, and is not a whit the less intense for that. There is perhaps no better expression of this widespread feeling in the North than the unprepared speech which he delivered on his way to become President, in the Hall of Independence at Philadelphia, in which the Declaration of Independence had been signed. ‘I have never,’ he said, ‘had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here and framed and adopted that Declaration of Independence…..'”5


  • Historian Richard N. Current: “The ideas of the Gettysburg Address were not more original with Lincoln that those of the Declaration of Independence were with Jefferson. The principles of each of these great statements of American democracy were widely held and had been often expressed. But they had never been put so well. Jefferson and Lincoln each for his time and for all time, crystallized in superb language the ideals and aspirations of millions of men and women. Herein lies the greatness of the two documents.”6


  • Political scientist John Patrick Diggins: “Lincoln was in love not with a woman but with a document. In 1858, in his debates with Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln reminded Americans of the meaning of the Declaration of Independence and its self-evident’ truths. Although Thomas Jefferson conceived the document as a scientific statement, Lincoln recast it as spiritual and even mystical when he urged Americans to ‘return to the fountain whose waters spring close by the blood of revolution.'”7


  • Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher: “The ‘white man’s charter of freedom,’ Lincoln had called it. What about the black man? Was not he, too, created free and equal? Was not the Declaration also the black man’s charter? More and more, Lincoln by his own logic was driven in the direction of an affirmative answer. In 1854 he said: ‘When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government — that is despotism. If the Negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal’; and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.” At that time Lincoln left unspoken the next conclusion to be drawn from the same logic, namely, that there could be no moral right on one man’s making a social and political inferior of another merely because of race.”8


  • Historian William E. Gienapp: “He placed great emphasis on the idea that Douglas’s law [the Kansas-Nebraska Act] overturned the policy of the Founding Fathers, who, he maintained, had intended for slavery to gradually die out. ‘Let no one be deceived. The spirit of seventy-six and the spirit of Nebraska, are utter antagonisms; and the former is being rapidly displaced by the latter.’ In advancing this proposition, designed to link the anti-Nebraska cause to the ideals of the Founders and make it seem conservative, Lincoln simplified the Founders’ record concerning slavery, which was much more mixed than he suggested. It was at this point in his career that the Declaration of Independence became a significant component of Lincoln’s thought. Hailing it as the ‘first precept of our ancient faith,’ he henceforth designated it (rather than the Constitution) as the nation’s founding charter.”9


  • Historians Oscar and Lillian Handlin: “Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, had also formulated the policy of excluding slavery from the territories, and all the Founding Fathers agreed because slavery was ‘a monstrous injustice’ and an affront to American ideals. The base principle of self-interest on which it rested denied man’s lofty character. Blacks were human, not property. Hence the Constitution had envisaged the end of the slave trade; and, Lincoln reminded his audience, free Negroes nowhere received the treatment of free horses.”10


  • Contemporary biographer William H. Herndon: “If he was defending the right, if he was defending liberty, eulogizing the Declaration of Independence, then he extended out his arms, palms of his hands upward somewhat at about the above degree, angle, as if appealing to some superior power for assistance and support; or that he might embrace the spirt of that which he so dearly loved. It was at such moments that he seemed inspired, fresh from the hands of his Creator.”11


  • Contemporary Josiah G. Holland on Lincoln-Douglas debates: “These debates of these two champions, respectively of the principles of Declaration of Independence and of party policy, were published entire as a campaign document in the republican interest, when Mr. Lincoln was nominated for the presidency, without a word of comment, the people being left to form their own conclusions as to the merits of the controversy, and the relative ability of the men whom it represented.”12


  • Historian Richard Hofstader: “In Lincoln’s eyes the Declaration of Independence thus becomes once again what it had been to Jefferson — not merely a formal theory of rights, but an instrument of democracy. It was to Jefferson that Lincoln looked as the source of his political inspiration, Jefferson whom he described as ‘the most distinguished politician of our history. “The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society,’ he declared in 1859.” Hofstadter added: “The Declaration of Independence was not only the primary of Lincoln’s creed; it provided his most formidable political ammunition. And yet in the end it was the Declaration that he could not make a consistent part of his living work.”13


  • Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer: “One of the most important — and perhaps the most memorable — ongoing battles of the Lincoln-Douglas debates came over interpreting the Declaration of Independence. To Lincoln, the inalienable rights it guaranteed were designed for every living person, white or black, free or slave, at least as far as they assured the basic opportunity to eat the bread earned with one’s own hands. Douglas countered that America ‘was established on the white basis…for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever.”14


  • Historian Harry V. Jaffa: “Lincoln says the object of the Declaration of Independence was plainly not to declare the colonies independent of one another, as secessionism maintained. And indeed, there is no shred of evidence from the era of Revolution itself that those who were making the Revolution were conscious of any such intention. Secessionist theory imputed to the historical past a consciousness based upon the logic inherent in their doctrine of state rights, a consciousness that the historical past could not have possessed because the theory upon which it was based had not yet been invented…..That the authentic history of the Revolution was what Lincoln asserted it to be is shown as well by the resolutions adopted by the Revolutionary colonial assemblies authorizing union as well as independence.”15


  • Historian Robert W. Johannsen: “One of Lincoln’s basic arguments against the inhumanity of slavery was his conviction that it violated the promise of America’s democratic experiment. America was founded on the theory of ‘Universal Freedom’ that was embodied in the words of the Declaration of Independence (which he altered slightly to fit his argument): ‘All men are created free and equal.’ By so stating, the drafters of the Declaration had established ‘a standard maxim for free society,’ yardstick against which all societies could be measured, a standard that would be 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.'”16


  • Historian Frank L. Klement: “The words ‘eight-seven years ago’ had evolved into ‘four score and seven years ago,’ and borrowing phrases or clauses from the Declaration of Independence was his common practice. After all, he has said repeatedly that he got all of his political ideas from the Declaration of Independence and from Thomas Jefferson. Years before Lincoln had been mesmerized by the inspiring words of the second sentence of the Declaration ‘…all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”” Lincoln’s opening sentence was a subtle justification of his emancipation proclamations, still being criticized by some conservatives, including Democratic spokesmen.”17


  • Lincoln scholar Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr.: “The Declaration’s ‘all men are created equal’ had been used before by Lincoln in his Henry Clay eulogy. And the use, in various forms, of the three prepositions — of the people, by the people, for the people — has been attributed to at least twelve men, including Patrick Henry and Daniel Webster. Probably the most likely source was Theodore Parker, the abolitionist minister from Massachusetts whose lectures and sermons had been printed and were called to Lincoln’s attention by his law partner William Herndon. ‘Democracy is self-government,’ Parker has said, ‘over all the people, for all the people, by all the people.'”18


  • Lincoln chronicler Ralph G. Lindstrom, “To Abraham Lincoln the American Declaration of Independence set forth the basis for free people, the world over….His thinking embraced all men everywhere. Of the work of the authors of that great Declaration he said: ‘This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. Yes,…to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man….In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.”19


  • Historian James M. McPherson: “The ‘first cause,’ the central vision that guided Lincoln the hedgehog, was preservation of the United States and its constitutional government, which he was convinced would be destroyed if the Confederate States established their independence. Lincoln’s nationalism was profound. It was not merely chauvinism, not the spread-eagle jingoism typical of American oratory in the nineteenth century. It was rooted in the Declaration of Independence and the ideals of liberty and equal opportunity that the Declaration had implanted as a revolutionary new idea on which the United States was founded.”20


  • Poet Marianne Moore: “There is much to learn from Lincoln’s respect for words taken separately. He was determined ‘to be so clear’ he said, ‘that no honest man can misunderstand me, and no dishonest one can successfully misrepresent me.’ Exasperated to have been misquoted, he protested a specious and fantastic arrangement of words by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse. He said of Stephen A. Douglas, ‘Cannot the Judge perceive the distinction between a purpose and expectation. I have often expressed an expectation to die, but I have never expressed a wish to die.’ The Declaration of Independence he made stronger by saying, ‘I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men were equal in all respects.'”21


  • Lincoln biographer Mark E. Neely, Jr.: “In truth, the Constitution stood as an embarrassment to the antislavery cause. It protected slavery in the states as surely as it did anything, and all politicians, Republican and Democrat alike, knew it. The best these antislavery politicians could do was to find antislavery tendencies in the document. In building a mythical past for his political platform, Lincoln preferred to state the antislavery interpretation of the Constitution and get on quickly past that document to the Declaration of Independence. In a speech in Chicago on July 10, 1858, for example, he said, ‘We had slavery among us, we could not get our constitution unless we permitted them to remain in slavery, we could not secure the good we did secure if we grasped for more, and having by necessity submitted to that much, it does not destroy the principle that is the charter of our liberties. Let that charter stand as our standard.’ The spirit of the Constitution, properly and carefully looked at, was antagonistic to the Kansas-Nebraska bill, Lincoln could say after elaborate argument, but it was easier to say that the ‘spirit of seventy-six’ and ‘the spirit of Nebraska’ were ‘utter antagonisms.'”22


  • Historian Allan Nevins: “His confidence in the people, confidence in the inspiring charters the fathers of the nation had given them, and confidence in the world future of their central idea, he all summed up in a few sentences of his appeal to the Border State representatives in July 1862. ‘You are patriots and statesmen,'” he said.”23


  • Lincoln biographer Stephen Oates: “By the time he became a politician in the 1830s, Lincoln idolized the Founding Fathers as apostles of liberty (never mind for now that many of those apostles were also southern slaveowners). Young Lincoln extolled the Fathers for beginning a noble experiment in popular government on these shores, to demonstrate to the world that a free people could govern themselves without hereditary monarchies and aristocracies. And the foundation of the American experiment was the Declaration of Independence, which in Lincoln’s view proclaimed the highest political truths in history; that all men were created equal and entitled to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”24


  • Lincoln biographer James G. Randall: “Lincoln frequently mentioned Jefferson, turning to him as to a basic authority. In the index to his writings, letters, and speeches, as edited by [John G.] Nicolay and [John] Hay, there are nineteen references to Jefferson while there are only two to Hamilton. References to Jefferson were on fundamental and far reaching matters; of the two meager citations of Hamilton, one was the briefest allusion to his support of the United States Bank, while the other was a passing mention of the New York leader as anti-slavery, which could have been said equally, indeed more emphatically, of Jefferson. Lincoln was shocked to note the repudiation by a Virginia clergyman of Jefferson’s doctrine of human equality. The repudiation, he thought, sounded, ‘strangely in republican America.’ ‘The like was not heard,’ he said, ‘in the fresher days of the republic.’ He found it painful in later troubled days to note that adversaries had ‘adopted…declarations of independence in which, unlike the good old one, penned by Jefferson, they omit the words ‘all men are created equal.'”25


  • Presidential assistant and biographer William O. Stoddard: “Mr. Lincoln understood the people very well. He was a sort of revolutionary dictator. He was ready and willing to use all powers given him by his unwritten commission to ‘See to it that the Commonwealth suffers no harm.’ He was also a Constitutional President, under an oath to protect the rights of all citizens of every part of the country.”26


  • Historian Glen E. Thurow: “Lincoln cannot be understood unless we see that the past does not pass on a set of values, as a father might pass his estate to his heir. A later generation does not simply receive the past as though it were a material object. For the founders to have their proper authority, the present must also see the truth of the principles that moved those earlier men. Lincoln’s interpretation of the Civil War can be experienced as the correct interpretation because the citizens can understand themselves as the result of the past which Lincoln draws for them.”27


  • Historian Garry Wills: “Lincoln was able to achieve the loftiness, ideality, and brevity of the Gettysburg Address because he had spent a good part of the 1840s repeatedly relating all the most sensitive issues of the day to the Declaration’s supreme principle. If all men are created equal, they cannot be property. They cannot be ruled by owners-monarchs. They must be self-governing in the minimal sense of self-possession. Their equality cannot be denied if the nation is to live by its creed, and voice it, and test it, and die for it.”28


  1. Dwight Anderson, Abraham Lincoln: The Quest for Immortality, p. 72-73.
  2. Herman Belz, Abraham Lincoln, Constitutionalism, and Equal Rights in the Civil War Era, p. 87-88.
  3. Henry B. Kranz, editor, Abraham Lincoln: A New Portrait, p. 38 (Kenneth A. Bernard, “Lincoln the Emancipator”).
  4. Gabor S. Boritt, Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream, p. 282.
  5. Lord Charnwood, Abraham Lincoln, p. 184.
  6. Richard N. Current, The Lincoln Nobody Knows, p. 10.
  7. John Patrick Diggins, “Lincoln’s America: Toward a Reinterpretation of American History”, .
  8. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Speaking of Abraham Lincoln, p. 101.
  9. William E. Gienapp, Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America, p. 51.
  10. Oscar and Lillian Handlin, Abraham Lincoln and the Union, p. 98.
  11. Emanuel Hertz, editor, The Hidden Lincoln, p. 192 (Letter from William H. Herndon to Truman H. Barlett, July 19, 1887).
  12. Josiah G. Holland, Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 193.
  13. Richard Hofstader, American Political Tradition, p. 129-130.
  14. Harold Holzer, editor, The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, p. 22.
  15. Harry V. Jaffa, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, p. 372.
  16. Robert W. Johannsen, The Frontier, the Union and Stephen A. Douglas, p. 259-260.
  17. Frank L. Klement and Steven K. Rogstad, The Gettysburg Soldiers’ Cemetery and Lincoln’s Address: Aspects and Angles, p. 140.
  18. Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., A New Birth of Freedom: Lincoln at Gettysburg, p. 60-61.
  19. Henry B. Kranz, editor, Abraham Lincoln: A New Portrait, p. 61-62 (Ralph G. Lindstrom, “Lincoln’s Views on Government”).
  20. James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, p. 115-116.
  21. Ralph G. Newman, editor, Lincoln for the Ages, p. 381-382.
  22. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties, p. 216-217.
  23. Allan Nevins, The Statesmanship of the Civil War, p. 111.
  24. Stephen B. Oates, Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths, p. 59.
  25. James G. Randall, Lincoln the President: Springfield to Gettysburg, Volume I, p. 24-25.
  26. William O. Stoddard, Abraham Lincoln: The Man and the President, p. 329.
  27. Gabor S. Boritt, editor, The Historian’s Lincoln: Pseudohistory, Psychohistory, and History, p. 134 (Glen E. Thurow).
  28. Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg, p. 120.