On Monday, I recalled that March 4 is the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address. The speech is easily one of the greatest and most important ever given by any American president. No president in the history of the United States faced a more difficult or dangerous beginning to his administration. Lincoln’s presidency is full of examples of how he met the task before him with wisdom and skill. Yet in 1861, this was not the president we remember, the Abraham Lincoln whose memorial is on the scale of the Parthenon and who occupies all our pockets on something as small as the U.S. one-cent piece. In a four-way race, nearly 60 percent of the electorate in a contest where 83 percent of the eligible voters cast ballots voted for three other candidates. Seven states had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America — in fact, on the same day as Lincoln gave his inaugural address the Confederacy unfurled the Stars and Bars for the very first time. Lincoln was the plurality president of a nation committing suicide, and he could hardly claim that he had a mandate of the people to help him keep the nation alive.
Somehow, Lincoln still found a way to celebrate the shared bond both North and South had in a common origin called the American Revolution. Historians such as James McPherson note that both sides thought they were fighting a second American Revolution that would complete the work of the “old boys back in ’76,” whether it be a nation that finally fulfilled the Jeffersonian edict of the political equality of humankind or an independent nation free from the tyranny of a government that did not respect their rights. For Lincoln, a life-long student of the Declaration of Independence, one revolution was enough reason to the hold the nation together in perpetual union:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Philanthropist and Lincoln scholar Lewis Lehrman comments that Lincoln’s reverence for the Declaration were the watchwords of his political life. In an excellent summary on how the Declaration influenced Lincoln, he points out that the promises of rights, equality, and consent of the governed produced the norms Lincoln accepted for a civil society called the United States of America. Nothing could end that except a willful effort to deny the truth of what was the foundation of the nation.
Again, I am confronted with one of the most important facts of American history: Abraham Lincoln was perhaps our greatest interpreter of the Declaration, a man who understood its importance, meaning, and message better than any other American president, perhaps better than any other American who has lived. As we continue to move through the years that will be dedicated to celebrating the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War, it is worth pausing to recollect that nearly two-and-a-half years before Mr. Lincoln declared the war would be about “a new birth of freedom” he tried to stop a country bent on suicide with a reminder about our first birth of freedom.