– Abraham Lincoln
Over the years, I’ve gotten into debates with readers who cited passages of the Declaration of Independence as legal justification for their positions.
The problem, I would explain, is that this most famous of American documents is not the law of the land. Our Constitution, which followed 20 years later, is.
Many failed to make the distinction, but were they wrong?
Well, it’s an old debate.
The Declaration is just that, an affirmative statement of those basic rights and principles that supersede kings and tyrants and governments. It is our American Declaration, with its stirring self-evident truth that all are created equal and endowed with the rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that also justifies creating a constitution.
Discussion about the two has gone on for centuries, but the most famous explanation came 150 years ago today with Abraham Lincoln’s eloquent Gettysburg Address.
Here was Lincoln’s problem. He was president of a single nation; the rebellious Southern states had not changed his responsibilities. The rule book for the nation was still the Constitution, and under it, as president, he had to allow slavery, where it was legal.
Lincoln solved his political and ethical dilemma by transforming the debate with what we might consider a revolution of thought. He set up the Declaration as this country’s founding document and used his address at Gettysburg to change the way we read it.
Lincoln did this, in effect jumping over the Constitution and going back to its “source” – the Declaration. The concept of equality was not in the Constitution, but got there in the post-Civil War 14th Amendment, thanks to Lincoln at Gettysburg with his ideas of national citizenship.
Lincoln’s was a short speech, but his remarks did not go unnoticed. The Chicago Tribune, for example, quickly editorialized, “It was to uphold this constitution, and the union created by it, that our soldiers gave their lives. How dare he, then ... misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statement of who founded the government?”
Well, the man whom most consider our greatest president, did it by articulating the deeper truth in America’s founding ideal and deftly changed the debate from what the Civil War was about, to what America was about.
He did this Nov. 19, 1863, at a battlefield cemetery dedication at which he was not even the main speaker.
A man named Edward Everett, a renowned political orator of the day, gave a two-hour speech that drew the most attention.
Lincoln’s audience was posterity.