Lincoln's Declaration — and Ours

Ralph Lerner

Winter 2011

Fond as we are of self-celebration, Americans have needed little urging to praise the patriots who founded this country. Praise is the stuff of those recurring festivals and commemorations that mark our national life: the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and (when recalled and observed) Presidents' Day, Flag Day, and Constitution Day. It is no surprise, then, that even in our age of impoverished and embarrassed oratory, some of the old names and deeds of those 18th-century figures are still exhumed and lauded.

Yet, truth to tell, their moments in the sun are fleeting — as might be expected, given that Americans are a people who, by inclination and necessity, live and think in the present. Filiopietism is not a democratic trait, so there is little to mitigate our rapidly recurring amnesia. Old names and deeds slip quietly into the more remote recesses of our minds.

It is thus to the lasting credit of Abraham Lincoln that he sought, from first to last, to impede that slide into collective forgetfulness. Guided in this effort by the highest motives (as well as by shrewd political judgment), Lincoln chose to make an issue of the relationship between the founding generation, his own, and all generations yet to come. In so doing, he appealed to a standard that the overwhelming majority of Americans would have recognized and might have taken as both admonition and challenge. "On the question of liberty, as a principle, we are not what we have been," he wrote in 1855. Sons and daughters of the founders had fallen far short of that standard; by resorting to some mixture of shame and pride, Lincoln hoped to lead them back to their heritage.

Many passages in Lincoln's writings and speeches support this interpretation of his motives. But there was more than this behind Lincoln's ambition in recalling for Americans the better angels of their nature. His retelling of how America came to be America simultaneously burnished the reputation of those patriots and founders, scraped off some of the patina that, over time, had prettified the revolutionary struggle, and (more audaciously still) remolded a national legacy into one for mankind at large. In short, he dared to reconceive American nationality in ways beyond the thoughts of his contemporaries, and perhaps beyond those of even the most far-sighted founders.

Lincoln's insistent references to the "old Declaration of Independence," to the "old men" who made a revolution and founded a nation, and to his "ancient faith" in the principles they taught and sought to promote were not without risk. "Old" might suggest something passé; Young America, always full of itself and impatient with trite modes of thinking, speaking, and acting, might bristle at the notion that it owed special homage to the opinions of Old Fogy. Rather than put those old men on a pedestal and those old parchments in a holy ark, each and every "now generation" ought to feel free to leave all that behind and steer its own course according to its own lights.

Lincoln, moreover, insisted on distinguishing the "good old" Declaration from the version that Senator Stephen Douglas tried to pass off as the revolutionaries' original intent. Lincoln spared no effort in making that difference vivid to every person within reach of his voice and pen. If the Declaration was indeed (as Douglas would have it) a product of its time — designed by lawyer advocates to address the immediate practical political needs of a people cutting loose from their mother country — then it, and its author, could find a niche in an antiquarian's shop where they might rest undisturbed. They had done their job. Apart from needing an occasional dusting, they could have no genuine hold on those living today. So if we were to accept Douglas's view, Lincoln wondered, why should we celebrate the Fourth of July at all? By this reading, the holiday is little more than an occasion for shooting off firecrackers, and Jefferson's document has as much current relevance as old cannon wadding left to rot on a distant battlefield.

The fluctuating fortunes of the Declaration and its author were fully present to Lincoln's mind. For some prominent Americans, Jefferson's famous assertion of principle had moved from self-evident truth to glittering generality to self-evident lie. All this had transpired in fewer than 80 years. And the public's image of Jefferson had itself undergone protean transformations. Each party and generation claimed its own Jefferson, with one group hailing what the other execrated. The absurd results, which Lincoln likened to two tipsy men wrestling themselves into one another's overcoats and being none the wiser for it, were hardly amusing. His own generation stood in danger of losing the sheet anchor of American republicanism. And in sounding a sustained alarm at the present peril, Lincoln exposed a line of thinking that set him apart.

There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the feeling expressed by the Illinois lawyer in his great speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act: "I love the sentiments of those old-time men." Nor is there reason to discount the president-elect's impromptu remarks at Independence Hall to the effect that he "never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence." Lincoln left many words (speeches, letters, and memoranda to himself) and performed many deeds (as a private man and a public officer) by which to test his claims. Yet this was the same man who could gaze with a coldly analytical eye and declare in public that "the dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present." All this invites a closer view of Lincoln's relation to the founding generation.


Lincoln was but one in a long train of adulators of those whom he called "iron men" — patriots who not only had enunciated a great principle of universal importance, but had stood and fought for that principle. Their success in effecting the political revolution of 1776 entitled them to a permanent place in the pantheon of benefactors of all mankind. Beginning with Washington and Jefferson and continuing down to Henry Clay, those men had labored to establish and secure a political system based on the premise of human equality and dedicated to the enjoyment of liberty by all. Yet in taking a second look at their achievement, Lincoln uncovered factors that made those old men's accomplishments appear less astonishing and arguably less noble. In staking "[t]heir all" upon the success of the revolution, they stood to gain (or lose) everything a towering genius might covet. Their celebrity, fame, and thirst for distinction all rode on the outcome of their experiment in self-government. Here was a powerful incentive indeed to come in first — an incentive not available thereafter to similarly aspiring geniuses who, at best, could now only place or show. Further, those patriots could call on the support of some unlovely human traits to promote their cause. The "deep rooted principle of hate, and the powerful motive of revenge," hitherto directed by the colonial Americans against one another, could now be redirected against the British to good effect (as Lincoln noted in his 1838 address to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield). It was no paradox for Lincoln that the noblest of causes — establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty — should be advanced by the basest principles of human nature. Nor would Lincoln permit his audience to bask in self-satisfaction contemplating that revolution's glorious results — past, present, and still to come — while turning a blind eye to the evils it unleashed. That struggle for independence, he told the Washington Temperance Society of Springfield in 1842,

breathed forth famine, swam in blood and rode on fire; and long, long after, the orphan's cry, and the widow's wail, continued to break the sad silence that ensued. These were the price, the inevitable price, paid for the blessings it brought.

Forgetful of that past — and fooling themselves into believing that they could continue to enjoy those blessings cost-free while denying them to others — Lincoln's contemporaries were an easy mark for seductive demagoguery. It would not be enough simply to help them recall the definitions and axioms of a free society. They needed to be brought to recommit themselves with full consciousness and deliberation to addressing the great unfinished task that still lay before them. In pursuit of that end, Lincoln relentlessly directed all eyes to Jefferson's "immortal paper."

Master of concise and precise speech that he was, Lincoln may be said to have outdone himself in his epitomes of the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. In an 1859 letter reflecting on the anniversary of Thomas 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.

This lapidary sentence is beyond praise. Yet some scholars have questioned whether the historical Jefferson would have recognized his own motives in Lincoln's account. Perhaps it is enough, in defense of Lincoln's view, to recall that throughout his life Jefferson was the jealous, tireless custodian of the words he had written in 1776. He took care in his Autobiography to note every change to his original text that the Continental Congress had made by way of deletion, alteration, or addition. In the very last letter to come from his pen, written in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of American independence, he could characterize himself as "one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world." Thanks to the example of America's successful experiment in self-government and thanks to the ringing language of his Declaration, Jefferson saw grounds of hope for others. "All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man." This he wrote, and this he meant. In this respect, at least, Jefferson was already in Lincoln country.

When Lincoln contemplated the Declaration of Independence, however, he saw not one document but two. First there was the "merely revolutionary document" (and that "merely" is designed to make you pause and catch your breath): the statement of grievances that in toto would justify in the opinion of mankind the decision of those colonists in British North America to separate from an indifferent, hostile, and overbearing metropolis. For the immediate needs of a newly forming people, that declaration would suffice. Among other things, it gave notice to potential European financiers otherwise hostile to British interests that American emissaries bearing empty cups would soon be knocking on their doors. America was open for business.

Thus far Lincoln and his rival Douglas agreed. But where Douglas was all too ready to stop, Lincoln pressed on. He discerned more: a document asserting an abstract truth to the effect that all men are created equal. Far from being the incongruity that Douglas made it out to be — a statement that had to be glossed and interpreted lest the slaveholding master of Monticello (and not only he) be branded a hypocrite of the worst stripe — Lincoln saw in it the very bulwark of Americans' liberty and independence. Our defense against the rise of domestic tyranny, the genius of our own independence, depended on preserving "the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, every where." It was that foundational great principle in the Declaration that gave "liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time." Contra Douglas, the authentic Declaration — Jefferson's and ours — spoke not of the rights of Englishmen, or of Europeans, or of white men, but of "all men." It did so notwithstanding its author's awareness that serfdom, peonage, or chattel slavery has existed in all times and places.

In Lincoln's understanding, the Declaration's principle reflected the simple, untutored sense of justice and human sympathy we all have that would dissuade us from taking away the bread earned by another, let alone expropriating his or her body. But by his time, Lincoln said, the necessary implication of that great principle was increasingly denied. The Dred Scott case showed the Supreme Court leading a pack intent on making the blacks' bondage universal and eternal. In recognition of the barrier posed by Jefferson's abstract truth, the Declaration itself had now come under attack. "It is assailed, and sneered at, and construed, and hawked at, and torn, till, if its framers could rise from their graves, they could not at all recognize it," Lincoln said in an 1857 speech on the Court's decision. One could now argue openly, with Chief Justice Roger Taney, that the founders never thought of blacks as falling in the category of "men," or, with Alexander Stephens (later to serve as vice president of the Confederacy), that the founders thought them men, but were themselves mistaken. Either way, the corruption of public sentiment was proceeding apace. Lincoln conceded (after a fashion) that "in some respects [a black woman] certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of any one else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others." The hour was long overdue for recurring to "the plain unmistakable language of the Declaration."

In speaking of all men as created equal, the framers of the Declaration were not asserting that all men were at that time actually and equally enjoying those inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Nor were they in a position to confer that boon. Rather, the assertion of that right at that time might better be thought of as a promise a free people were making to themselves — and to others yearning to be free. Lincoln put it memorably in another sentence not to be surpassed:

They 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.

These words highlight Lincoln's distinctive contribution to the shaping of public sentiment. He insisted, as did few others, on the transformative power of an abstract thought. But that notion presupposed a belief that the idea still breathed — that there was still life in those seemingly dead bones. Members of that unholy alliance of those who disparaged Jefferson's assertion, or denied that it still spoke to us, or that it meant what it said, were, in effect, attempting to undo the achievement of the political revolution of '76. They were preparing the way for the return of tyranny under one name or another. Lincoln urged his public to consider, on the other hand, the life-giving power of that abstract thought.


On Douglas's reading of the Declaration, the assertion of "created equal" referred to British subjects in America being equal to British subjects then living in Great Britain — period. Where did that leave that half of all Americans in the 1850s who were not descendants of those colonials — people who had emigrated from other European countries or were the descendants of such immigrants? What grounds had they for celebrating America's independence and prosperity? Lincoln's answer, delivered in a speech in Chicago in July of 1858, reaches even today to the very soul of our nation of immigrants:

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 and 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.

We can see here clearly enough Lincoln laboring to revive a distinctively American public sentiment. He understood will to arise out of a blend of moral sense and self-interest. Senator Douglas's "don't care" stance, however, pushed aside consideration of the moral challenge to slavery — thus leaving "no right principle of action but self-interest" to guide public policy. Under the specious banner of "popular sovereignty," each state or territory would be free to permit or forbid slavery within its borders as suited its convenience — and with a clear conscience. Here was the ultimate act of subversion and rejection of what the "fathers" had said and done.

Lincoln directed his audience's attention to an earlier period, "away back of the constitution, in the pure fresh, free breath of the revolution." Especially revealing were the policy and legislative actions that had allowed the western country to expand and prosper. Over the course of the "sixty-odd of the best years of the republic," he said, Virginia had ceded the bulk of its claimed western lands to the nation; the Continental Congress had passed the Northwest Ordinance prescribing how that vast territory might be governed and organized; and, finally, the last of the envisioned states (Wisconsin) had entered the union — and with "no slave amongst them." The fathers' intention had been fulfilled.

Lincoln's meticulous reconstruction of the voting records of those who signed the proposed constitution of 1787 yielded both a negative conclusion and a positive one. First, that "the plain unmistakable spirit of that age, towards slavery, was hostility to the principle, and toleration, only by necessity." The existence of slavery in America was a fact that the founding generation might have deplored, but could not ignore. The framers of the Constitution left the institution as they found it, but with many clear marks of disapprobation upon it — perhaps most notably their resort to "covert language" and refusal to use the words "slave" or "slavery" anywhere in the document, "just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death; with the promise, nevertheless, that the cutting may begin at the end of a given time." The First Congress meeting under the new Constitution treated slavery in the same manner: "They hedged and hemmed it in to the narrowest limits of necessity." By thus arresting the spread of slavery (and cutting off its source in the slave trade), the founding generation had made it possible for "the public mind [to] rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction." Meanwhile, no steps would be taken that might prevent that evil from dying a natural death. Such, Lincoln asserted, was the prevailing understanding until the agitation over the organization and admission of the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. And such was the stance that his own generation needed to recover.

The positive conclusion that Lincoln drew from his historical research pointed through the Constitution and laws of the United States to their animating principles in the Declaration of Independence. This was to be a political regime in which no one had a right to govern another man without first securing his consent. It was to be a place where no one was prevented from enjoying undisturbed the fruits of his labor. It presumed, as an "inherent right given to mankind directly by the Maker," the right of free labor to raise itself. "That improvement in condition that is intended to be secured by those institutions under which we live, is the great principle for which this government was really formed," he said.

Considered in this light, the "electric cord" that bound the latest immigrant to the generation that made the revolution also encircled the lowliest "hired laborer, at twelve dollars per month." Lincoln presented himself as a living witness to the fact that any one of the children of the members of the 166th Ohio Regiment might look forward to becoming, "as my father's child has," a temporary occupant of the White House. A mere beginner, possessed of two strong hands and a willing heart, enjoyed under the Constitution and laws a "just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all — gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all," as Lincoln told the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in September 1859.

One can hardly overlook the cadences here that echo those of Lincoln's statement on the "standard maxim for free society." He infused his understanding of the Declaration into his statement of the Union cause: "It is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men — to lift artificial weights from all shoulders — to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all — to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life." Moral principle thus conjoined with self-interest might engender and sustain the will to secure the Union's continued existence.

It is worth noting that, for all his impassioned calls for law-abidingness, indeed for reverence for the laws, and even for a political religion teaching and channeling that adoration, Lincoln did not place the Constitution atop the highest peak. America and its people had prospered thanks to the Constitution and the Union which that Constitution sought to make "more perfect," but those institutional arrangements were only the proximate cause of American success. At a deeper level there had to be "a philosophical cause," some principle that would "entwin[e] itself more closely about the human heart." Lincoln found that principle in the Declaration's proclamation of "Liberty to all." Here was a promise for which an oppressed people would fight and endure much. Drawing on the moral force and energy of that principle was no less necessary in 1861 than in 1776. Hence Lincoln could exult that the expression of that principle in Jefferson's Declaration, "at that time, was the word, ‘fitly spoken' which has proved an ‘apple of gold' to us." Adapting the figure of speech in Proverbs 25:11, Lincoln encapsulated his own understanding of the primacy of principle in shaping public sentiment:

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.

So let us act, that neither picture, or apple, shall ever be blurred, or bruised, or broken.

That we may so act, we must study, and understand the points of danger.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was a wake-up call for Lincoln. Its passage by Congress in 1854 propelled him back into national politics. He saw that more than the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was being repealed. New constitutional doctrines were being voiced that would subvert and destroy the "picture" itself. This prospect fired him with an urgent sense that the entire republican regime was in jeopardy; he devoted himself to refocusing the public's attention on the foundation of a constitutional order that had brought prosperity and security to all sections of the country.

After first taking the most solemn oath to "preserve, protect, and defend" the Constitution of the United States, Lincoln was spared to live for four more years. Through those terrible years he was unflagging in his efforts to honor that pledge. His memorable letter to Horace Greeley on August 22, 1862, left no doubt: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or to destroy slavery." Lincoln's readiness to consent to a great evil in order to avoid a greater evil epitomized his prudent statesmanship. Like many (but not all) Northerners, he was prepared to continue to bite his lip and "crucify" his feelings. Yet guiding those efforts was the ever-present thought: "The picture was made for the apple." The Union was not only to be saved, but so saved "as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving."


Lincoln's own words — fitly spoken at a time when many held them in derision, and still others nursed murderous intent — proved in their own way to be an apple of gold. He displayed in the concrete pressure of a struggle to preserve the Constitution and the Union at least as much coolness, forecast, and capacity as Jefferson. He proved (as if it needed proof) that a man may be seen treading in the footsteps of a predecessor, however illustrious, and still harvest his own field of glory. His ambition sufficed to push his lofty genius to its utmost stretch. The wonder of it all was that he was able to gratify his thirst for distinction not by enslaving freemen, but by emancipating slaves and freemen alike.

It is hardly surprising that a man of such complex character and momentous decisions should have attracted the attention of a legion of historians and biographers from his day to ours. He left much for others to understand and explain. But as is often the case in such matters, what one sees or does not see is affected by what one brings to the task. Someone dismissive of or oblivious to moral grandeur might fall into comparing the Emancipation Proclamation to a bill of lading. Someone enchanted by Lincoln's soaring prose might be distracted from carefully attending to the magician's calculated moves.

Difficulties of this kind afflict any attempt to understand his life as a whole. They beset, no less, even as narrow an inquiry as the present one. Was Lincoln a restorer of what the founders had wrought? Or did he, under the guise of restoring an endangered union, refound it upon more radical and far-reaching principles than would have been acceptable to the generation that made the revolution and formed the new national government? The answer is that Lincoln was both restorer and refounder, and that therein we can see his greatness.

In his preface to Lord Charnwood's life of Lincoln, British historian Basil Williams remarks on the relative difficulty of recognizing and acknowledging a statesman's greatness. In the case of a warrior, a scientist, an artist, or a poet, there are definite achievements that we can point to and publicly honor. Not so for the statesman. "The greater he is, the less likely is his work to be marked by decisive achievement which can be recalled by anniversaries or signalised by some outstanding event: the chief work of a great statesman rests in a gradual change of direction given to the policy of his people, still more in a change of the spirit within them." Paradoxically, discerning that greater (if necessarily incomplete) achievement demands of us keener sight and hearing than we usually employ.

Abraham Lincoln's achievement was to reconfigure how Americans of all colors and conditions would come to view their common past and future. He repeatedly raised aloft Jefferson's abstract truth, and in so doing extended it to enfold the least of us — right down to the newest immigrant — into the founders' family. By virtue of sharing the same moral principle, all might now be "blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh."

But beyond that, Lincoln effected a change of spirit in his people, leading them to believe that Jefferson's truth was still marching on. Thanks to his retelling of the nation's story, their own and subsequent generations might be inspired to keep that "ancient faith," and so draw ever nearer to fulfilling its promise.

Ralph Lerner is the Benjamin Franklin Professor Emeritus in the College and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. A version of this essay will appear in Selected Writings of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Steven Smith, forthcoming from Yale University Press.


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