Sustaining the American Experiment
On this Fourth of July, the words of President Abraham Lincoln provide guidance and inspiration
The words of President Abraham Lincoln that may be most enduring were spoken on the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. One of the bloodiest of the Civil War, that battle fought between July 1 and July 3 in 1863 led to over 51,000 casualties.
President Lincoln, speaking for a mere two minutes on November 19 to an estimated crowd of 15,000 people, was there to dedicate the Gettysburg Civil War Cemetery. He began with these memorable, oft-repeated words:
"Fourscore 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 so dedicated, can long endure.”
Lincoln modestly doubted the potential impact of his own address. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” he said, honoring instead the “brave men, living and dead, who struggled here” and “consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”
But he did not hesitate from asserting the responsibility of all Americans who are committed to the democratic enterprise. These are words that speak so powerfully to our own challenging times, 159 years later.
“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 here 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."
In recognition of the Fourth of July, I have been reflecting on who best can speak to America’s current predicament. So many of the speeches throughout American history addressing Independence Day necessarily focus on questions of sovereignty, the nature of patriotism and the Declaration of Independence. In their prevailing optimism or their glossing over who was not included in the fundamental notion that “all men are created equal,” I have found most of them wanting for this moment.
But I return again to our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, and a much lesser-known address delivered to Congress on July 4, 1861, four months after Lincoln’s term began and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida had already seceded from the Union. Their federal properties, Lincoln noted, “were held in open hostility to this Government.”
While much of his message focused on specific actions taken and the role of the military and its leaders, including the assault on Fort Sumter that officially launched the war, Lincoln also stepped back to ask the larger questions. Referring to the aggressors beginning “the conflict of arms” at Fort Sumter, he said, “In this act, discarding all else, they have forced upon the country the distinct issue, ‘Immediate dissolution or blood.’"
“And this issue embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man the question whether a constitutional republic, or democracy—a government of the people by the same people—can or can not maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes. It presents the question whether discontented individuals, too few in numbers to control administration according to organic law in any case, can always, upon the pretenses made in this case, or on any other pretenses, or arbitrarily without any pretense, break up their government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth.”
Lincoln first answers his own question by asserting that he had no choice but to pursue a war that would resist this aggression and maintain the country’s preservation. Later, he proclaims the value of the country that had declared its independence 85 years earlier.
“It may be affirmed without extravagance that the free institutions we enjoy have developed the powers and improved the condition of our whole people beyond any example in the world. Of this we now have a striking and an impressive illustration…Whoever in any section proposes to abandon such a government would do well to consider in deference to what principle it is that he does it; what better he is likely to get in its stead; whether the substitute will give, or be intended to give, so much of good to the people.”
Then he proceeds to depict the stark difference with those determined to sustain slavery and go their own way.
“Our adversaries have adopted some declarations of independence in which, unlike the good old one penned by Jefferson, they omit the words ‘all men are created equal.’ Why? They have adopted a temporary national constitution, in the preamble of which, unlike our good old one signed by Washington, they omit ‘We, the people,’ and substitute ‘We, the deputies of the sovereign and independent States.’ Why? Why this deliberate pressing out of view the rights of men and the authority of the people?
“This is essentially a people's contest. On the side of the Union 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…I am most happy to believe that the plain people understand and appreciate this.”
Lincoln offered one more summary of the stakes that the United States of America faced in 1861, a reality that America still contends with today following a seditious White House occupant who rejected the peaceful transfer of power. Consider Lincoln’s words:
“Our popular Government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it our people have already settled—the successful establishing and the successful administering of it. One still remains—its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it.
“It is now for them to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets, and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace, teaching men that what they can not take by an election neither can they take it by a war; teaching all the folly of being the beginners of a war.”
In recent months, I’ve been hearing more and more chatter and even serious exhortations—among Democrats and Republicans—that maybe it would be better if certain states go their own way. The presumption is that we cannot find a reasonable or peaceful way through the current attacks on American democracy and the fundamental values contained within the sacred principle that “all men are created equal.”
But on this Fourth of July, exactly 161 years after Lincoln’s address—when he reminded Congress under increasingly fractious and dire circumstances about the principles and achievements that bind Americans—let’s not just celebrate the country’s independence and survival as a democratic republic for 246 years. (And let’s not linger in the dark fear that those days are coming to a close.)
Let’s hold fast to the conviction that we are a people who can find peaceful solutions to what divides us and that the ballot box can remain the place where the majority’s will overcomes the tyranny of a troubled minority.
Enjoy your holiday!