In a recent response to folks commenting on my blog post I explained that I have used the phrase "We hold these truths to be self-evident" in a number of titles of posts over the years. When I started to seek out an appropriate thought for this Memorial Day or perhaps the Fourth of July, I realized that I had my hook for an awesome connection to an historic reference that might explain in more detail just exactly what I was talking about and why it is critically important at this time in our history. So I will take note of a little history until I get to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
My title quote, of course, is from the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the preamble to the Declaration in 1776 that "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. -- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."
The representatives of the people of the American Colonies who gathered in 1776 (and later in 1787 when many of them gathered again to replace the Articles of Confederation with a document which was to become the US Constitution) were well-read in texts of political philosophy which sold as well in America as in Europe. They were familiar with concepts of democracy from ancient Athens, the Magna Carta (England 1215) and the Virginia Declaration of Rights which slightly predated our Declaration and served as a model for the Bill of Rights of our Constitution.
But the Declaration of Independence was a stunning document. In a world of hereditary monarchs, the concept of governments deriving their powers from the consent of the governed was unique. And the concept that our basic human rights as men and women devolved from our Creator rather than from the King or from government, would change the world. Our Constitution, adopted in 1789 is the oldest written constitution of its type on the planet.
But our Constitution recognized the institution of slavery and the war between the States nearly tore the country and our Constitution apart. This was the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. (1861-1865)
Lincoln, I believe, did not initially enter into the Civil War to abolish slavery. Lincoln stated in his first inaugural address upon his election as 16th President of the United States, "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." But to permit the Southern states to secede without legal authority was another matter. Arguably, Lincoln was not prepared for war -- nor was he ready when it came within a month of his inauguration with the shelling of Ft Sumter, South Carolina. Lincoln was self-taught as a lawyer and proceeded to learn military strategy from books, as well. Interestingly the technology of the telegraph may have assisted the President in his efforts to directly control his troops in the field. Lincoln would go daily to the War Department to communicate with his generals and to get updates from the field. The South, basically unplugged, did not have the network infrastructure to match the North's adapted military and civilian networks.
Although not a committed abolitionist, Lincoln quickly saw the potential of doing away with slavery in the South. By 1862, Lincoln saw the advantages of crushing the South's slave base -- to injure the economy of the South and to draft freed Blacks into the Northern army. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September 1862, to take effect on January 1 of the following year.
But President Lincoln was losing support for the war and seemed unable to turn the tide of the war. 1863 was a dark time for the President. In the summer of 1863, General Lee decided to invade the North and destroy as many Forts and military depots as possible. General Lee wanted to show the Europeans that the South was still in the driver's seat to gain support particularly from England. He moved up Maryland and planned to attack military installations in Pennsylvania. Inadvertent contact by Southern forces with Northern cavalry on the outskirts of Gettysburg caused an unintended conflict. With the Northern forces holding a good defensive position along Cemetery Ridge until reinforcements could arrive, a rather peaceful community became the site of the worst and most significant battle of the war. After three days of fighting, more than 50,000 casualties (total from both sides) defined as killed, maimed or missing, marked the costly Northern victory. On the same day (06/04/1863) General Grant also won a victory in Vicksburg. But General Lee was able to withdraw from the field with the remnants of his army still intact to fight another day. And General Lee had more victories in him.
On November 19, 1863, President Lincoln was a speaker at the dedication of the newly created National Cemetery at Gettysburg, where so many soldiers died. The outcome of the war was still in doubt as was the reelection of the President. So where does the President turn for his inspiration? What message does he give to the nation and the world to convey his hope for the future? He does not turn to the Constitution -- masterfully crafted though it may be. Because the Constitution is in dispute at this time. The president knows that all the votes were not in where the Constitution is concerned. No -- he turns to Declaration of Independence -- four score and seven years ago takes us back to 1776 -- to the greatest definition of the American Spirit that exists, to the most basic definitions of freedom and liberty.
The President, in a brief three-minute presentation, a mere ten sentences containing only 272 words, gives us the greatest sound bite of them all. In 272 words he sums up his pain and his dedication to the Union and the idea of America and the high cost in blood and treasure that so many Americans on both sides of the conflict had given so that we may enjoy the continued blessings of liberty and the enjoyment of this grand experiment that our forefathers had given into our care. The brevity of the President's message enabled the entirety of his presentation to be published in every newspaper of the day and to be read by every head of state as well as every citizen in our country and others and to be remembered.
There were several copies of the speech in Lincoln's handwriting, some of which contained slight variations in the text. I will quote from the text kept in the White House (on display in the Lincoln Bedroom). It is the only copy signed and dated by President Lincoln and it is the text carved on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial.
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
I hope you and your families had a safe and relaxing memorial day weekend. Give thought to Mr. Lincoln and the indelible message that he gave us in the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. By the way, the Civil war was concluded, Mr Lincoln was reelected -- but he died from an assassin's bullet while attending a play at Ford's Theater approximately one month into his second term as President (April 15, 1865). He is one of four Presidents to be immortalized on the face of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. ( G Washington, T Jefferson, T Roosevelt, A Lincoln)