Abraham Lincoln’s Declaration of Independence

When ordinary Americans reflect at all on their political tradition, the Gettysburg Address invariably stands at the center of those thoughts. Yet there is reason to doubt whether it ought to occupy the same rarified air as the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist, or other celebrated documents in American history. The Gettysburg Address has displaced these other works from their centrality in the American mind, but it shouldn’t.

Elihu Vedder's mural Government (1896).

Elihu Vedder’s mural Government (1896).

Before elaborating, let me be clear about what I am not saying. I am not criticizing Lincoln’s oratorical power. When I hear the clauses and cadence of the Gettysburg Address, I am moved for many of the same reasons as my fellow Americans. Neither do I wish to criticize either Lincoln’s prudence or the moral character of his presidential actions. These tasks are likely better left in the more capable hands of moral philosophers and theologians. But I do wish to reflect on the place of this brief address in American lives today and to question whether it ought to be central to Americans’ self-understanding.

Lincoln begins by situating his address in American history. His touchstone is, famously, the Declaration of Independence. For him, it is the point of origin for the United States and he takes from this, and from a particular reading of that Declaration, a new norm for what it means to be an American.

“Four score and seven years ago,” according to Lincoln, something of world-historic moment happened: A group of men, without being coerced (“conceived in liberty”), decided to start something new. They set out to rid themselves of their previous political tradition, or, if we are to take them at their words, they sought to preserve what they could of their political system while removing what pernicious innovations could be removed. This amounted to chopping off the upper portion of the political pyramid. The only remaining elements of the British regime would be republican: representation, the rule of law, the common law, etc.

For them, King George III and the King-in-Parliament had gone astray from the political tradition that English mainlanders and American colonists alike both held dear. As late as July 1775, the Second Continental Congress was complaining only of the “late violation” of the American “birthright”. In that document, the Congress is somewhat ambiguous on whether the elements of this birthright are natural rights or whether they are more confined to the traditional common law rights of Englishmen. Absolutely clear, however, is the aim of the colonists:

Lest this declaration should disquiet the minds of our friends and fellow-subjects in any part of the empire, we assure them that we mean not to dissolve that union which has so long and so happily subsisted between us, and which we sincerely wish to see restored. — Necessity has not yet driven us into that desperate measure, or induced us to excite any other nation to war against them. — We have not raised armies with ambitious designs of separating from Great-Britain, and establishing independent states. We fight not for glory or for conquest. We exhibit to mankind the remarkable spectacle of a people attacked by unprovoked enemies, without any imputation or even suspicion of offence. They boast of their privileges and civilization, and yet proffer no milder conditions than servitude or death. (Emphasis added)

Upon reading these words, we see more clearly that the Declaration of Independence, a year later, is a document brought upon by political necessity. The Declaration is an articulation of why this new and drastic step—disavowed in mid-1775—has finally become necessary. In this light, we see that the most telling and important parts of the Declaration of Independence are not the fabled first paragraphs, but the nearly thirty charges against King George that come after the opening lines. The Declaration of Independence is an indictment and, as I often tell my students, a break up letter. It is not a document of political union. It does not give America a mission or supply anything that was not already in the American mind, as indicated by Jefferson’s own comments in retirement at Monticello.

If the Declaration of Independence, or even the event that it marks, was America’s point of origin along the lines Lincoln indicates in the Gettysburg Address, one would expect that the government arising out of this newly-effected independence would back this up. Yet the Articles of Confederation were anything but a well-oiled machine designed to effect the political, economic, or any other sort of equality of men, women, blacks, whites, slaves, freemen, or any other designation. The Articles of Confederation were notoriously ineffective. They were ineffective because they did not grant the powers required to achieve even the most basic goals of national government or foreign relations. But if we are to read the Declaration of Independence, as Lincoln does, as the most significant and the normative articulation of the mission of the American people, then the members of the Second Continental Congress are either very bad about linking means and ends (since the Articles could not possibly achieve the sort of equality Lincoln and Lincolnians imagine) or we have gotten the whole picture wrong. The latter disjunct is, it seems to me, the correct one. And the error comes from the Gettysburg Address.

Let me put this another way. The national government under the Articles was so weak and held so dear the decentralization of power that these facts ought to force us to reconsider Lincoln’s interpretation of the prior document, the Declaration of Independence, and, thus, the American political tradition as a whole. The Declaration itself, once we read it carefully, seeks only to indicate that the former colonies are now “Free and Independent States,” which “have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.” Thirteen such independent states will require another dozen years before a more centralized government comes to be. And even then, it is hard to say that the limited government sketched out by the framers could achieve the goals Lincoln seems to espouse at Gettysburg.

The old saw says that it is hard to argue with success. Lincoln’s revision of the American political tradition has certainly been successful. Most today agree that the Declaration—not as originally intended, but as interpreted by Lincoln—is the central document of our political life. When we look at ourselves, what we see is the “Lincoln-Declaration”, not the Declaration itself, nor its fit with the rest of our political development and tradition. And though this revision was not necessarily Lincoln’s idea alone, he did more to advance it than anyone else. He did most famously in the speech we remember today.

Justin B. Litke

Justin B. Litke is assistant professor of government and political philosophy at Belmont Abbey College. He is the author of Twilight of the Republic: Empire and Exceptionalism in the American Political Tradition.

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Comments

  1. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    For an essay that effectively problematizes Professor Litke’s interpretation, see Kenneth M. Stampp, “The Concept of a Perpetual Union,” The Journal of American History , Vol. 65, No. 1 (Jun., 1978), pp. 5-33. Stampp traces the ambiguities of the decades’ long argument over the constitutional origins of the Union, giving proper attention to the full range of arguments and evidence on both sides.

    An older, but nonetheless useful essay that makes a case antagonistic to the one offered above, see Alpheus Thomas Mason, “The Nature of Our Federal Union Reconsidered,” Political Science Quarterly , Vol. 65, No. 4 (Dec., 1950), pp. 502-521.

    Stampp and Mason are heavy weights. They are not engaged in partisan interpretation–they ground their arguments and conclusions in close analysis of evidence. Both conclude that, properly weighed against the evidence, Lincoln’s interpretation of the constitutional history is more persuasive than that represented by Madison (of 1799-1800), Jefferson, and the Virginia and South Carolina statesmen of the 19th century who followed them.

    I don’t think we can just ignore the best arguments of meticulous scholars like these. Other careful, conservative scholars like Herman Belz also arrive at similar conclusions. Any attempt to make the case that Professor Litke makes above needs to show why the arguments of Stampp, Mason, and others like them are wrong.

    All best wishes,
    Kevin

    • Kevin R. Hardwick says

      I am guilty of writing too hastily. My post above can be read to imply that Professor Litke is writing partisan polemic and not proper scholarship. Read that way, I am being egregiously unfair to him, and that is not what I intend to convey.

  2. Justin B. Litke says

    Thanks for reading, Kevin, and for your comments.

    Stampp’s argument ought not to be ignored–but in a 1000-1200 blog piece one cannot, of course, cite everything. In passing, I would note that the perpetuity of the union notwithstanding, my point here is to question what is the defining point of origin for the country. Even if it were the Declaration of Independence, as Lincoln (and Everett) suggested 150 years ago today, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the country needs be set on a mission to proclaim, ensure, or be concerned about the sort of equality a that today most Americans today take for granted. In other words, the Lincoln-Declaration appears to me to be the main document constituting American identity. I think that’s a revision and a mistake. And I think this is clear by looking at the Declaration in its context and at the events and documents surrounding it. This affects questions about the nature of the union–more confederal or more national–but only incidentally. Whether more national or more confederal, I see a change in that Lincoln sees the country being set on a mission in 1776. It’s not at all clear to me that that’s what the Second Continental Congress meant, or intended, or wished for.

    • gabe says

      Justin:

      It seems as if you are asserting that the “equality proposition” of Lincoln (and thus, perhaps, the founders) can be equated with the concept of equality prevalent in today’s environment. That is a dubious proposition at best.
      Can one argue that Lincoln’s arguments / propositions can be susceptible to the abusive expansion that was performed by the Progressives – yes, indeed. However, that is a far cry from a proper indictment of Lincoln and the Founders.
      Similar arguments to yours can be found at another site i visit, Nomocracy in Politics. They are indeed somewhat polemical and admittedly so and have recently advanced the proposition that the American founding was not liberal (Of course this depends on which age specific definition of liberal one wishes to employ).
      My argument is that it was both liberal (Lockean economic liberalism) AND conservative in that it sought to “conserve” traditional values of religion, ethics,family etc. At worst, one could argue that it was liberal in the modern sense only in that it sought via the positive law of the US constitution to enhance central power in order to counter the “mis-behavior of the states, i.e., all the limits placed upon state powers to coin, commerce, comity, contracts, and the Supremacy Clause amongst others.
      Regrettably, several generations of Black Robes on the Court have also abusively expanded these powers. The fault of the founders ? or the Black robes?

      take care
      gabe

      BTW: Kevin: I finally received Mason’s book you recommended. look forward to tackling it. THX

    • Kevin R. Hardwick says

      Justin–

      Like Gabe, I think there is a considerable difference between the kind of equality for which Lincoln advocated (and which, in my view anyway, he apprehended correctly to be the kind of equality for which Jefferson and Locke also advocated) on the one hand, and the equality for which many (but thankfully not all) Americans advocate today.

      The modern-liberal conception of equality dates back to the late 1930s, and to the vision of America captured by the fourth and most radical of FDR’s “four freedoms,” freedom from want. For this reason, I don’t think it is accurate to equate the New Deal, modern-liberal vision with that of the earlier progressives, who to my eye used the term much more in keeping with earlier generations of Americans and Britons. But that is an aside–my point here is that this is not the equality of which Lincoln speaks, nor that of the great liberal thinkers who predated Lincoln. Modern-liberalism starts with FDR, and not with Lincoln.

      Equality for Locke meant the equality we confront in the State of Nature, in which we each face the equal duty of interpreting and enforcing for ourselves the requirements of the Law of Nature. I see nothing in the body of Lincoln’s writings to suggest that he understood equality in the same fashion as did FDR, which was equality of economic condition.

      Like Ron Johnson, below, I am not convinced that a purely functional reading of the Declaration of Independence adequately captures the basis for its claims, or the importance of its argument for subsequent generations of Americans. The Declaration stands in for a whole host of similar statements written in the mid-1770s. Take a look, for example, at the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which of course provided the model for the language found in most of the other state constitutions or bills of rights. As Pauline Maier demonstrated many years ago, all that Jefferson accomplished was to summarize and synthesize arguments that were commonplaces in 1776.

      I think we err if we focus solely on the function of the Declaration, and limit its meaning in such a fashion as to minimize the sources of intellectual and moral justification that it evokes. This is far more than just rhetoric, either for Jefferson or for Lincoln. When we frame it that way, we are at risk of taking profound ideas, and reducing them to sophistry.

      I am not saying here that you are wrong. But I am intending to signal a strong skepticism. I am willing to be persuaded, but you have not adduced anywhere near sufficient evidence or argumentation yet to do so. I suspect you can not do so in this kind of forum, for the reasons you adduce in your reply to me. So–what else by you can I read, to see the argument made in greater substantive depth?

      All best,
      Kevin

      • gabe says

        Kevin:
        Which book by Maier. I am about to read her Ratification book. should i also find another?
        thx and as always,
        take care
        gabe

        • Kevin R. Hardwick says

          Gabe–

          The book is Pauline Maier, AMERICAN SCRIPTURE: MAKING THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. (1998). If Professor Litke is correct, then Maier is wrong. And given the care with which Maier produced her scholarship, he has a pretty high bar to surpass. I remember the book mostly for its treatment of the origins of the document–but in reading the squib on Amazon, I recall now her fine treatment of the canonization of the DOI in the 19th century. Her book, along with David Armitage’s book on the Declaration, are the most current and most definitive modern treatments.

          Here is the squib:

          “Pauline Maier shows us the Declaration as both the defining statement of our national identity and the moral standard by which we live as a nation. It is truly “American Scripture,” and Maier tells us how it came to be — from the Declaration’s birth in the hard and tortuous struggle by which Americans arrived at Independence to the ways in which, in the nineteenth century, the document itself became sanctified.

          Maier describes the transformation of the Second Continental Congress into a national government, unlike anything that preceded or followed it, and with more authority than the colonists would ever have conceded to the British Parliament; the great difficulty in making the decision for Independence; the influence of Paine’s Common Sense, which shifted the terms of debate; and the political maneuvers that allowed Congress to make the momentous decision.

          In Maier’s hands, the Declaration of Independence is brought close to us. She lets us hear the voice of the people as revealed in the other “declarations” of 1776: the local resolutions — most of which have gone unnoticed over the past two centuries — that explained, advocated, and justified Independence and undergirded Congress’s work. Detective-like, she discloses the origins of key ideas and phrases in the Declaration and unravels the complex story of its drafting and of the group-editing job which angered Thomas Jefferson.

          Maier also reveals what happened to the Declaration after the signing and celebration: how it was largely forgotten and then revived to buttress political arguments of the nineteenth century; and, most important, how Abraham Lincoln ensured its persistence as a living force in American society. Finally, she shows how by the very act of venerating the Declaration as we do — by holding it as sacrosanct, akin to holy writ — we may actually be betraying its purpose and its power.”

          • Justin B. Litke says

            Kevin,

            Thanks again for your thoughtful comments. I fear I am not being clear enough. I, like you, respect Maier’s work a great deal. I, like you, think that she did yeoman’s work on the DofI and how it morphs in meaning over time. And I, like you, think that the significance of the Gettysburg Address is not limited to the plain meaning given there.

            Part of the significance of documents and speeches and events like these is in what they come to mean–not only what they meant at the time. I don’t think we have to cease appreciating many things about Lincoln in order to lay at his feet the first domino in a line that leads to FDR. FDR’s notion of freedom need not have been meant or intended by Lincoln in order for Lincoln to bear some of the responsibility for FDR’s later foothold. Note that I am not at all saying that Lincoln causes the Progressives. I am not at all saying that Lincoln causes FDR.

            But I think there is a case to be made that the reformulation of what it is to be American that we find in the GA is not unproblematic. This reformulation might even be necessary to attain some of the things we want to happen–abolition anyone? reunion of north with south?–but what is the problem with simultaneously pointing out that Lincoln paves the way toward things less than totally salutary for the republic? What’s the problem with demurring slightly from Lincoln hagiography? Does that make me a supporter of slavery? No. Nor do I mean to suggest that this was your suggestion, Kevin, though this is often the charge.

            I mean that Lincoln’s account of America as a nation dedicated to a proposition makes possible these later distortions and itself relies on a distortion. Is this what you’re denying? Does Lincoln misappropriate the DofI or does he not? And if he does, and if that has further consequences, then where do we disagree?

          • gabe says

            Justin:
            “Lincoln’s account of America as a nation dedicated to a proposition makes possible these later distortions and itself relies on a distortion.”

            1) To me, this statement is akin to asserting that Henry Ford’s introduction of the automobile is in some way responsible for the drunk driving of the local inebriates. While factually correct, it is nonetheless, untrue. Abuse of a beneficial technology is no different than abuse of a beneficial exposition of a core principle – and all such expressions are so susceptible.
            2) One may as well argue that the creation of civil society is then responsible for the abuses of government – again correct but untrue.

            What is needed to advance an assertion such as yours is a clear and unbroken link between the “reformulation” (more below) and the current sorry state of american virtue. I believe that no such link can be definitively established.
            3) Often times people make this “reformulation” assertion. would it surprise you to know that even John C. Calhoun accepted the centrality of the equality proposition within the American experience. He, of course, simply derided it as a lie. Also, in an 1817 Court Case Justice Taney also made the same assertion as Lincoln with respect to the meaning and centrality of the equality proposition.
            So upon what grounds do we indict lincoln for this? It is fair to say that lincoln in the GA and numerous other instances “re-emphasized said centrality” bit it is stretching it a bit to argue for re-formulalion.
            Finally, ask yourself this: Would Lincon support any of the current Proggie fancies such as abortion rights, same sex-marriage, “freedom from want,” transfer payments?
            I think not: what say you?
            BTW; I must say that you are perhaps the most temperate of all who wish to attribute to Lincoln some measure of responsibility for the modern “rights” deluge. I appreciate that.
            take care
            gabe

          • Kevin R. Hardwick says

            Justin–

            You are remarkably even tempered and fair minded, and I am sure I am not the only one much to appreciate the spirit with which you have engaged in this conversation.

            I need to bow out of the conversation for the moment, not because I wish to do so, but rather because I am in the process of passing a kidney stone and am not thinking clearly.

            Please do not construe my silence for lack of interest.

            All best wishes,
            Kevin

  3. Ron Johnson says

    Professor Litke is separating the particular function of the Declaration, which was the justification of rebellion, from its use of the natural rights of Englishmen in shorthand form to provide a context and foundation for that justification. Similarly, Lincoln was using this shorthand argument as a springboard for his particular argument about the purpose of our great experiment in self-rule. Thus, Lincoln was following the rhetorical form of the Declaration to make his case and Professor Litke seems to be picking a fight where there should be none.

  4. Justin B. Litke says

    Ron,

    You’re absolutely right in drawing our attention, as does Prof. Driesbach in his essay today, to Lincoln’s rhetorical excellence. He was a master at this. And it’s important to keep in mind the distinction between the use to which Lincoln puts the Declaration and the actual sense of the Declaration in 1776 and afterward. My point is this: if there is a distinction to be made, then there may well be some daylight between Lincoln’s interpretation of the Declaration and the sense of the document itself, both read in isolation and read in context.

    Thanks for reading and commenting. Best,

    JBL

  5. EdP says

    Was Lincoln really using the occasion to make the case that America’s point of origin was the Declaration of Independence? Seems like and off place to do so and his timing couldn’t be worse. Or was he simply using the Declaration to prepare the “nation” for a “new birth of freedom” meaning the freedom for slaves and the country from slavery? He wasn’t interpreting the Declaration but bending it to fit his needs. He uses the Declaration to encourage the Union to follow through on the promise that “all men are created equal” by staying the course and winning the war and thus ending slavery. The Declaration, with its phrase “all men are created equal” was the founding document of choice by anti-slavery groups. It was used to make the connection back to the founders and to give validity to their cause. And, with its reference to Creator adding a religious element, provided an available counter weight against the pro-slavery forces who used the Bible and the Constitution to support their cause. So, any Declaration vs. the Constitution talk during this time was really anti-slavery vs. slavery. People at this time would’ve understood the connection as it was commonly used.

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