Abraham Lincoln’s Warning

The 16th president of the United States knew what the 45th does not. The Declaration of Independence is at the core of our political inheritance.

This 1887 oil painting is one of four portraits of Abraham Lincoln that George Peter Alexander Healy painted after the president's death.
This 1887 oil painting is one of four portraits of Abraham Lincoln that George Peter Alexander Healy painted after the president's death. (George Peter Alexander Healy / National Portrait Gallery)

An American can always benefit from rereading the Declaration of Independence. But I suspect that this Fourth of July is better spent with that document’s best interpreter, Abraham Lincoln, beginning with words he uttered after worrying that his countrymen were losing touch with the core ideals of their political inheritance.

“Now, my countrymen, if you have been taught doctrines in conflict with the great landmarks of the Declaration of Independence,” he declared in 1858, “if you have listened to suggestions which would take away from its grandeur and mutilate the fair symmetry of its proportions; if you have been inclined to believe that all men are not created equal in those inalienable rights enumerated in our charter of liberty, let me entreat you to come back. Return to the fountain whose waters spring close by the blood of the revolution. Think nothing of me—take no thought for the political fate of any man whomsoever—but come back to the truths that are in the Declaration of Independence. You may do anything with me you choose, if you will but heed these sacred principles.”

You recall the principles as the authors of the Declaration set them forth: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Said Lincoln to the Illinois crowd:

This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures.

Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.

They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity. The erected a beacon to guide their children and their children's children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages. Wise statesmen as they were, they knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants, and so they established these great self-evident truths, that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began — so that truth, and justice, and mercy, and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from the land; so that no man would hereafter dare to limit and circumscribe the great principles on which the temple of liberty was being built.

Today that temple of liberty stands taller and stronger than it did at the Founding, or in 1858, or in 1958 for that matter. But any temple can collapse under the stewardship of a generation that fails to sufficiently conserve its foundations and the pillars set atop them.

And the United States is now led by a man––bereft of Christian virtues, his own Twitter account a testament to his dearth of self-mastery or prudence––who extols the supposed strength of the Communists who suppressed lovers of liberty at Tiananmen Square, the authoritarian tyrant who leads Russia, and the thug who leads the Philippines. His political ideals would be a cancer to any body politic. It festers within ours and spreads daily.

Lincoln campaigned for an antebellum Senate seat by arguing that the authors of the Declaration meant with their noble words “to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all: constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, every where.”

Rather than working to spread, deepen, or augment those ideals, the Trump administration is regressing away from them. This is not because they are reversing the actions of the Obama administration––some reversals are warranted, others not––but because Trump himself values conformity, order, and a perversion of strength more than he values freedom or liberty; and because he values men more than he does women, Anglos more than Hispanics, and Christians more than Muslims, values that manifest respectively in his personal life, his ugliest rhetoric, and the policies he has pursued through executive action.

While debating Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln said he hated slavery and the prospect of its spread not only because of its monstrous injustice, but because “it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites— causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”

Citizen Trump’s entire public life was predicated on the unapologetic pursuit of self-interest, through lust, greed, lies, bankruptcies, and sordid behavior besides. The ethos that he carried into the White House is sufficiently similar as to risk America’s friendships with democratic peoples, whatever remains of its reputation for sincerity, and the moral character of its people in just the ways Lincoln warned, even if the particular injustices before us today are different.

Perhaps a conservative movement that has lost its way can begin to rediscover it if the young idealists who’ve found their way to places like Hillsdale College, the Claremont Institute, and The Heritage Foundation begin to confront the most wayward of their elders with the glaring contradictions between the depraved, iniquitous president they back and the words and ideals of the founding.

Regardless, Americans who believe that this country can be better than what less than half of its voters elevated in 2016 would do well this Fourth of July to plumb the Declaration as Lincoln explained it. Its internal antagonists have always existed in the United States. Their power and influence has waxed and waned across decades and generations. And they’ve never yet prevailed when the Declaration’s moral truths were sufficiently understood and defended by enough of the American people.

May its powerful words stir us to our best anew.