On July 4, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln sent a message to Congress that deserves to rank with his greatest speeches. Having summoned that body into special session to deal with a civil war that was already underway, Lincoln sought to explain why it was necessary to fight, rather than surrender to, secession. Much lengthier than his much-more-celebrated Gettysburg Address, this message was the president's answer to anyone who might have been tempted to carve "war is not the answer" into his horse-drawn buggy.
In his first inaugural address, Lincoln expressed his hope that what he called the "mystic chords of memory" might be enough to hold the Union together without war. They weren't. By the time of his second inaugural address, the country had experienced nearly four years of war. Now Lincoln took it upon himself to prepare the country for bloodiness still to come. How long would it continue? Only God knew — and might "will" that it would continue "until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid with another drawn by the sword …"
The sin of slavery had long been on Lincoln's mind. So had the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln's selection of July 4 to make his case for war was far from an accident. In a speech delivered in Trenton, N.J., on his way to Washington to assume the burden of the presidency, Lincoln let it be known that he had "never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence." On more than one occasion he referred to that document as the "sheet anchor" of republican government. In his mind it was — and remained — our founding creed.
"Four score and seven years ago," began his Gettysburg Address in November 1863. Do the math. By Lincoln's estimate, this new American nation was born in 1776. Therefore, if there was a first founding father, it was Thomas Jefferson.
Therein resides a problem for us, but not for Lincoln. We have been inclined to dismiss Jefferson as a slaveholding hypocrite at best and a slave-bedding predator at worst. I know that I was so inclined earlier in my teaching career. My job, so I told myself, was to demythologize the American past. And what better way was there to do that than by revealing — and harping upon — the sins of the founders. What follows is an apology of sorts to those students who were subjected to what I now consider to have been my not-so-better way.
In all likelihood, Lincoln knew nothing about Sally Hemings and plenty about the flawed nature of humans, himself and Jefferson included. Nonetheless, Lincoln was not about to deny the greatness of Jefferson and his historic declaration: "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."
Of course, Jefferson spelled out more than one truth dictated by the "laws of Nature and Nature's God." The most "self-evident" among them were that all men "are created equal (and) are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness …" The other key truth was that the most legitimate governments "derived their just powers from the consent of the governed."
That those words were penned by an owner of slaves should not detract from their power — or their truthfulness. Lincoln was right. The founders may not have ended slavery, but they did intend to set it on the road to "ultimate extinction." So what happened? Slavery grew hugely profitable, and scientific racism reared its ugly head. Here the founding father was John C. Calhoun, who called upon science to declare that the country had progressed since 1776, because science deemed that black slaves were of a lower order and not subject to the "laws of Nature and Nature's God."
Let's briefly return to July 4, 1861. In that forgotten message, Lincoln wondered if republics had a "fatal weakness." The question that had to be answered was this: "Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?" Lincoln's immediate answer was to fight a war to preserve the Union. His final answer was to eliminate slavery and thereby give the country a "new birth of freedom."
Now let's fast-forward to another wartime president, Woodrow Wilson. In 1907, Wilson, then president of Princeton University, wrote that it was up to each generation of Americans to "form" its own "conception of liberty." He went on to contend that "Jefferson and his colleagues … did not attempt to dictate the aims and objects of any generation but their own." According to Wilson and other modern progressives, our founding document was something other than timeless.
A near-successor to Wilson disagreed. On the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, President Calvin Coolidge recalled the words — and thoughts — of Lincoln. "About the Declaration," said Coolidge, "there is a finality that is exceedingly restful." Questioning the very idea of progress, he went on to say that "if all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress, can be made beyond these propositions."
Lincoln, Jefferson and Coolidge — a somewhat strange trio, but a package deal nonetheless. One is almost universally revered; the other two are now commonly scorned. But something terribly important — and universal — unites them. Set against them is another strange trio and yet a package deal as well: Calhoun, Wilson and any Wilson admirer among modern progressives.
I wish I could say that I'd have taken Lincoln, Jefferson and Coolidge any day. But that wasn't always the case; hence this public apology to any former student who thought they were benefiting from my better way that wasn't.
John C. "Chuck" Chalberg teaches American history at Normandale Community College.