It is remarkable that Abraham Lincoln never delivered a Fourth of July speech.
The closest he came was on July 10, 1858, in Chicago during one of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, when Lincoln spoke of the Founders as “iron men.” He remarked how, every July 4, Americans celebrate those “iron men” and their extraordinary achievement, because we are “historically connected” with it.
Lincoln meant this literally. He was speaking to those who were old enough to remember the Founders from their youth and those descendants of the Revolutionary generation.
But then Lincoln spoke about another set of Americans, the ones whose families came here after the great Revolution was over. In a word, immigrants. Of these, Lincoln said:
“If they look back through this history and trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none. They cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence, they find that those old men say that, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that the moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.”
And so we are. None of us fought at Bunker Hill or Lexington or Concord. None of us endured famine, cold, or the impact of a musket ball. None of us signed our names to a document that made us traitors, fit to be hung.
Yet, despite all that, we are still Americans, and the Fourth is still our celebration, because we hold dear the “moral sentiment” for which those iron men fought and died — “That all men are created equal.”
Lincoln would fight and die for it, too.
Lincoln reassures us that this alone is enough to form that “historical connection” with men who in all other things bear no relation to us. Or, as he puts it: “That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.”
As this speech was delivered in response to Stephen Douglas, a congressman from Illinois, Lincoln connects the “electric cord” in the Declaration with the question of slavery.
“If one man says [the Declaration] does not mean a negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man?”
In a few short paragraphs, Lincoln eviscerates Douglas’ contention that the ideals of the Declaration were reserved for only the true descendants of the American Revolution. It is remarkable that there was a time when Lincoln’s idea, now so central to our American mindset, was not dominant.
And yet we find our present culture riven by a hypersensitive strain of identity politics. We are told, even by some who belong to Lincoln’s party, that we should provide this group of Americans with one kind of government handout and that group with another.
We are told that we must “speak to” a certain group of Americans in a certain way or else lose their vote. We are told that skin color or sex determines whether a group is more or less deserving of government perks. If one disagrees, one is shouted down as a racist, bigot, or chauvinist.
Yet Lincoln would disagree. The Founders would disagree as well. And so must all whose connection with that great and glorious generation of “iron men” consists of embracing an ideal that was meant to be taken literally; namely, that all men are created equal.
But it is not enough to believe this. We must do more than reread those words this Fourth of July in between the barbeques and fireworks. We must do what the Founders did, and what Lincoln did in his own time, and fight against the insidious notion that those words mean other than what they say.
Lincoln believed the Founders asked this of him and his generation. It is what the Founders ask of us still.
Matthew Spalding is associate vice president and dean of educational programs at Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center in Washington, D.C.