American Independence Day 2019
On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln gave “remarks” at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where a savage, decisive battle had been fought in the American Civil War. Those “remarks” have endured as a timeless statement of the American project — to establish and maintain a “nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Lincoln grounds his understanding of our country’s principles most fundamentally, not in the Constitution, but in the Declaration of Independence, the signing of which we commemorate on this annual holiday. The Declaration encapsulates the American dream which the Constitution was designed (imperfectly) to administrate.
The southern states also based their decisions to secede on the Declaration of Independence. South Carolina’s declaration (Dec. 24, 1860), for example, directly appealed to the founding document’s first paragraph:
“They further solemnly declared that whenever any ‘form of government becomes destructive of the ends for which it was established, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government.’ Deeming the Government of Great Britain to have become destructive of these ends, they declared that the Colonies ‘are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.'”
…Thus were established the two great principles asserted by the Colonies, namely: the right of a State to govern itself; and the right of a people to abolish a Government when it becomes destructive of the ends for which it was instituted.
The South was declaring a second American Revolution. Claiming that the Federal government had repeatedly violated its own constitution and that the northern states had banded together to elect President Lincoln, a person openly hostile to slavery and thus incapable of leading a common government for all the states, they stated their intention to secede rather than endure what they deemed to be a lesser status than the North. They saw themselves firmly in the tradition of the founding generation.
The Civil War was essentially a battle over the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. The meaning of America.
For Abraham Lincoln, the emphasis lay in what he saw to be a more fundamental principle set down in the document. The president put his finger on “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that 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.” And the next phrase: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
A government of the people, by the people, for the people – to secure the rights of all people.
Lincoln’s great concern was that the American project would fail and “perish from the earth.” He had been elected by the people. He and other governmental officials were not sovereign rulers but democratically elected public servants chosen by the governed to represent them. Their job was to maintain and strengthen a Union designed to exist in perpetuity for the common good through an ongoing “perfecting” process. In his first inaugural Lincoln said:
Descending from these general principles, we find the proposition that in legal contemplation the Union is perpetual confirmed by the history of the Union itself. The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured, and the faith of all the then thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was “to form a more perfect Union.”
The original American Revolution had been waged against the tyranny of a king and a sovereign government established, it was claimed, by divine decree. However, if the southern states should be allowed to revolt against and secede from a government formed by the people’s choice, they would not be taking the path of legitimate revolution (against despotism and tyranny) as outlined in the Declaration. Indeed, they would be acting directly against the intentions of the founders. Lincoln profoundly disagreed with the South’s appeal to our founding document.
Abraham Lincoln is one of my most beloved heroes. His more than any other voice has shaped my American identity. I profoundly lament the horrific tragedy of the Civil War. And I mourn that in many ways, that war is still being fought in thousands of more subtle battlefields across our land every day. I deeply disagree with my fellow citizens who continue to sow partisan division and refuse to extend equal rights, opportunities, and protections to all Americans. And though Lincoln’s Second Inaugural contains the words of his that I love most, it all ultimately comes back to the Gettysburg Address and its insistence on the fundamental principles in the Declaration of Independence.
Which we celebrate today.
And which we are still learning (far too slowly) to incorporate into our national life.
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.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.