Abraham Lincoln regarded Thomas Jefferson as a shining exemplar because of his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. As we honor our 16th president tomorrow on his 185th birthday, we should recognize his skillful articulation of the high principles enunciated by Jefferson.
Lincoln characterized Thomas Jefferson as "the most distinguished politician of our history" and noted that, "The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of society."
Jefferson, wrote Lincoln, "had the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men at all times . . . that shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression."
Lincoln's own political ideas stemmed from the principles enunciated by the respected Virginian in 1776. In fact, it was not the Constitution but the Declaration of Independence that Lincoln regarded as the fundamental American document. To it he repeatedly dated the beginning of the American nation. The opening words of his Gettysburg Address harked back "four score and seven years ago" -- 87 years before 1863 to 1776.
Many Americans seem to regard the Declaration of Independence as simply a sanctioning of Richard Henry Lee's proposition of June 7, 1776: "Resolved, that these United colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent States . . . and that all political connections between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved." (This was officially approved on July 2.)
To others, the Declaration is seen primarily as an "Explanation of Independence."
These views are not inaccurate. Lincoln agreed with them, but saw the Declaration as much more. To him, it had "contemplated the progressive improvement in the condition of all men everywhere."
At Philadelphia in 1861, he explained it in this fashion: "I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea . . . kept this confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the motherland; but something in that Declaration giving the liberty not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time."
As early as 1838 in his address to the Young Men's Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln employed the concluding words of the Declaration of Independence as he exhorted his audience:
"Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well-wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate . . . the laws of the country. . . . As the patriots of '76 did to the support of the Declaration of Independence . . . let every American pledge his life, his property and his sacred honor."
Lincoln always insisted that the belief that "all men are created equal" was "the great fundamental principle upon which our free institutions rest."
In Chicago, in 1858, after quoting the Founding Fathers: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," he noted that these words act as a bond, connecting the past and the present.
It is, he said, "the electric cord in the Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link these patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world."
A Lincoln scholar, James G. Randall, observed: "The Declaration of Independence was his platform, his confession of faith."
"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. . . ."
Lincoln believed emphatically that these were the highest political truths in history. His statement in Springfield was typical. Extolling "those apostles of liberty," the Founding Fathers, he asserted doggedly: "This they said, and this they meant."
In Peoria he described the concept of equality described in the Declaration as the "sheet anchor of American republicanism."
In Philadelphia, the birthplace of the document he so cherished, Lincoln expressed his deep personal reverence: "I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence."
Perhaps his most powerful articulation of his beliefs was delivered at Lewiston, Illinois, during the senatorial race of 1858.
"The representatives of American liberty," he said, produced the Declaration to act as a beacon, "to guide their children and their children's children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages." The Declaration, he said, was "the fountain whose waters spring close to the blood of the Revolution."
Closing on a deeply emotional note, Lincoln declared: "You may do anything with me you choose, if you will but heed these sacred principles. You may not only defeat me for the Senate, but you may take me and put me to death. It is nothing, I am nothing; Judge Douglas is nothing. But do not destroy that immortal emblem of humanity -- the Declaration of American Independence!"
Lincoln's adherence to and articulation of the principles of this venerated document have helped earn for him the premier position in America's pantheon of heroes.
Martin D. Tullai is chairman of the History Department at St. Paul's School.