In honor of Abraham Lincoln's birthday, let us briefly consider our nation's sixteenth President and one of the Founding Fathers' greatest cheerleaders. Yes, Abraham Lincoln was not a Founding Father, and this site concerns itself mainly with the period in American history that predates Mr. Lincoln's. But Lincoln counted himself as one of the Founders' strongest champions.
In an 1856 speech in Bloomington, Illinois, the future President declared: "Let us revere the Declaration of Independence!" In another speech that same year, he called the Declaration "the immortal emblem of Humanity." That these were not mere rhetorical flourishes is evidenced by Lincoln's numerous tributes to America's Founding Fathers and their founding documents.
It may seem difficult for people in this postmodern age to grasp, but Lincoln's very conception of the United States of America was based on its founding principles.
In The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, historian Richard N. Current wrote: "Lincoln passionately believed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United of the United States. To him, these documents were not merely historical relics; they embodied fundamental ideals, ideals in the process of realization, ideals that formed the basis for his political thinking."
Says writer Lewis Lehrman: "Mr. Lincoln had steeped himself in the history of the Founding. He understood both its politics and its purpose. And he worried that its meaning had been lost on a generation that associated it only with fireworks and celebrations." One wonders what he'd say of today's generation?
Lincoln faces critics today on primarily two fronts. On the one hand, some charge that Lincoln was a racist who never really believed in civil rights or had any real problem with slavery. He was, according to this view, "forced" into emancipating the slaves. This view of Lincoln is frankly both shallow and cynical.
Abraham Lincoln was a man of his times. From within the paradigm of his world (mid-1800s Illinois), he could not conceive of a future America, in which blacks and whites would enjoy racial equality and harmony. That is true, but he was nevertheless deeply troubled by slavery and sincere in his opposition to it. And, given the benefit of his eventual and very real friendship with Frederick Douglass and seeing firsthand the valor of African Americans in the Civil War, Lincoln's views on race evolved to the point that he was remarkably foresighted for a man of his generation.
The other criticism of Lincoln is that he was a tyrant who trampled on the rights of the southern states. Neither time nor space will allow me to get into the aspects of the Civil War, but let me say this. Abraham Lincoln's pro-Union perspective, which led him to forcibly resist southern secession, was consistent with that of former Presidents Andrew Jackson and George Washington. Were Jackson and Washington tyrants?
Abraham Lincoln was not a perfect man. He was, after all, a human being. And all human beings are flawed and imperfect. But Lincoln did aspire to values and principles greater than himself. For Lincoln, the greatness of the American people would come only with a reliance upon the values enshrined in their heritage.
Sure, Lincoln believed in the future. Yes, Lincoln didn't want any society stuck in the past. But Lincoln didn't believe progress required the jettisoning of core beliefs and values deeply embedded in America's founding. On the contrary, he felt that the success of America rested on its ability to carry forward those principles.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln!