Just recently, I spent a few days in D.C. visiting some sights with my Mom who was stopping by Maryland for a visit. Included in the many sights we saw were Ford's Theater, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Arlington Cemetery, and the many memorials and monuments to the greatest figures in American history. We also spent some time visiting the National Archives, where we stopped by to see the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. While standing there, just inches away from these documents, I couldn't help but think of the immense significance these pieces of paper have had on world history. The Declaration of Independence signalled the first time in human history that a nation was founded on the principle of a basic moral equality among men with rights stemming entirely from God. The Constitution was created so as to protect that promise of equality and liberty from the inherent evil and corruption that has befallen nearly every government in history. Of course, while standing there viewing these documents, I couldn't help but think Lincoln and how important these documents were in his understanding of American freedom.
The principles of freedom and liberty which Jefferson enshrined in the Declaration had an enormous impact on our 16th president's political philosophy. Lincoln understood these principles much as our founder's understood them; the Declaration on its own was but an ideal, a flag planted firmly in the soil of liberty for all to see. It took the framework and protection of the United States Constitution and the republican government it established to firmly safeguard those liberties. Certainly, these two documents did not solve all of America's problems, as Lincoln's own presidency reminds us. However, they managed to create a nation with the idea of liberty at its very core, a nation freer and more prosperous than any other in the history of the world. Lincoln understood this, and he spoke of its importance quite often.
Perhaps his most eloquent explanation came during a speaking trip through New England around the time of his famed Cooper Union Address, in the early months of 1860. While no historians can agree on an exact date for this fragment, the general time frame in which it is thought to have emerged is in the immediate prelude to Lincoln's election as president. It is clear that, in 1860, as the nation was bursting at its seams with sectional tensions and debates over slavery, Lincoln clearly understood the ideas that had created the Union in the first place, ideas which needed to be preserved, protected, and defended for generations to come.
All this is without accident. It has a philosophical cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of "Liberty to all"--the principle that clears the path for all--gives hope to all--and, by consequence, enterprise, and industry to all.
The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate. 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.
The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, "fitly spoken" which has proved an "apple of gold" to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple--not the apple for the picture.
So let us act, that neither the picture, or apple, shall ever be blurred, or broken,
That we may so act, we must study, and understand the point of danger.
--Abraham Lincoln, 1860
Our Country's Fiery Ordeal
A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)
Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.
"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)