July 4, 1861: Lincoln addresses a divided nation
UPDATED 1:00 PM PT – Sunday, July 4, 2021
As Americans have continued to celebrate the nation’s 245th anniversary in a landscape many would call divided, a speech by President Abraham Lincoln signified the freedoms the nation has historically fought to gain and maintain. The Civil War was just beginning in 1861 when Lincoln convened a special session of Congress to meet on July 4.
Standing on America’s founding principles, representative government, civil liberties and rule of law, Lincoln rejected the idea that slave states could violently and unilaterally secede from the Union.
Lincoln stated, “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.”
“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.”
~Abraham Lincoln#Happy4th pic.twitter.com/rVeR3KzhuX
— Joe Scarborough (@JoeNBC) July 4, 2021
Honing in on American democracy, he questioned whether those states seceding were doing so on behalf of the people they represent.
“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,” he said. “Thus, practically put an end to free government upon the earth.”
Arguably the greatest point made was his direct appeal to the Declaration of Independence. Giving his speech just 85 years after the Declaration was pronounced, Lincoln told his congressional audience, in no uncertain terms, the Declaration was the most important foundation of the nation. Appealing to the humanity in all people, he made the case that America’s foundational document was the most conducive to the liberties of the people.
Lincoln claimed the seceded states released their own Declarations of Independence. Maintaining the spirit of the founders, many of these states said they were the true heirs to the free government founded on July 4, 1776. However, he pointed out a major omission from those states that tried to secede.
Abraham Lincoln called the Declaration of Independence “a rebuke and a stumbling-block to tyranny and oppression.” It continues to inspire people around the world to fight for freedom & equality. Learn about America’s founding documents at @USNatArchives: https://t.co/ozXX9wORH7 pic.twitter.com/AegMPBApQp
— U.S. Department of Education (@usedgov) July 4, 2021
“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?” he questioned. “Why this deliberate pressing out of view the rights of men and the authority of the people?”
The 16th president asked under the supposed interest of forming a free government, why states would make such an omission. He recognized the greatness that made up America and her history.
Understanding no government could be perfect, he also made the case that being a free people was worth the potential deficits that a free government comes with. Even when great internal forces threatened to tear the U.S. apart, Lincoln believed it was the national prerogative to maintain a government by the people and for the people, which how it was described in the Declaration of Independence.
The men in the halls of Congress that sweltering July day 160 years ago did not know if their efforts would succeed. They made those efforts to push the founding vision forward and succeeded with Lincoln leading the charge.