Happy Birthday, Abraham Lincoln, America’s Greatest Champion of the Declaration of Independence

Abraham Lincoln, 16th U.S. President, 1809-1865

Abraham Lincoln occupies a special place not only in American history but in the hearts of the American people. We widely regard him as our greatest president, or second only to George Washington. Washington, the father of our country, left a United States that was one nation, patently divisible, with liberty for some. Lincoln, the savior of the United States, died as one of the last casualties of a war that ensured one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.  His humble origins, hard work, humor, integrity, and dedication to American ideals make him a model citizen. Children once aspired to grow up to be like Lincoln, the embodiment of the idea that even an ordinary man could become president of the United States.  He is one of our greatest, and there is a good reason to remember that today is his 201st birthday.

However, Lincoln possibly possessed more understanding of the significance and the relevance of the Declaration of Independence than any other American president — or even some scholars. His faith in the Declaration was what he called the “ancient faith” of the nation that all men are created equal. He has even been called one of the chief proponents of a “cult of the Declaration” that believed that the document’s promises could not only change the United States for the better, but the whole world.  One of the statements in the Declaration that Lincoln turned to again and again was the most familiar one: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.” Obviously, he applied that belief to the question of human rights and slavery in America, saying that any denial that the phrase applied to blacks was a denial of the plain language that Jefferson wrote.  He even went on to say that denying that truth and its application to black Americans was more than a lie – it was the extinguishing of the moral light that guided the nation. If all men are created equal, they cannot be property. You cannot set a house free or a horse free through a sales transaction. Only humans can be released from slavery, and the Declaration clearly applied to men. Any other interpretation was either ignorant or dishonest.

                In addition, Lincoln believed that statement made America a land where even the poorest citizen could have a better life because he or she could pursue happiness. Real freedom is found when the government of this nation allows its people to win what he called “the race of life” because they have the freedom to run the race as they choose. In Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream, historian Gabor S. Boritt examined Lincoln’s economic vision and determined that economic opportunity was one of the unifying themes of Lincoln’s public career from his first campaigns for the Illinois legislature to his presidency. Remember: Lincoln was a man who had escaped grinding poverty in his youth through self-improvement and opportunity, therefore government had a moral obligation to protect liberty so people (particularly the poor) possessed ample opportunity to rise as far as talent and ambition could take them. Even Lincoln’s moral opposition to slavery had an economic message, for slavery was not only wrong because it stole the God-given right of human freedom, but it made the slave-holder dependent on a government that enforced slavery rather than the noble institution of free labor, which is based on men who governed their own destiny.  Using words that any self-made business owner would understand, Lincoln once said, “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just, and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way to all—gives hope to all, and consequent energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.” – a way that would only remain open only if government was dedicated to maintaining a clear path for opportunity through “the pursuit of happiness.” In fact, Lincoln believed that economic improvement would be one of the chief blessings of freeing enslaved Americans, saying, “So while we do not propose any war upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else. When one starts poor, as most do in the race of life, free society is such that he knows he can better his condition; he knows that there is no fixed condition of labor, for his whole life. I am not ashamed to confess that twenty five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat—just what might happen to any poor man’s son! I want every man to have the chance — and I believe a black man is entitled to it — in which he can better his condition — when he may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him! That is the true system.”  Like the Founding generation, Lincoln believed a government that stifled economic liberty was just as unjust as a government that denied political liberty. There was more to Abraham Lincoln than crass materialism, but the man clearly believed that Jefferson’s promise of equality, manifested in a free government, meant the opportunity to rise in life. “It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations,” Lincoln told a group of Union soldiers in the 166th Ohio Regiment a little more than a month after the Battle of Gettysburg.  Few American since the Revolution have understood the full dimension of the links between liberty, freedom, equality, and opportunity expressed in the Declaration of Independence as Abraham Lincoln, a man who lived its promises with the course of his life, his death, and his leadership of a nation fighting its bloodiest war so there would be a Second American Revolution through a new birth of freedom. “The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate,” Lincoln wrote in 1861. “Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. No oppressed, people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters.”

So, on this anniversary of his birth, let us all hail Abraham Lincoln: Our greatest president, one of our greatest men, and the greatest champion of the Declaration of Independence, a man who once proudly said that all of his political sentiments stemmed directly from that mighty document.

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