Author Topic: Lincoln's Rewrite of the Declaration of Independence  (Read 245 times)

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Offline Cincinnatus

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Lincoln's Rewrite of the Declaration of Independence
« on: November 20, 2013, 09:59:12 PM »
The Gettysburg Address has been receiving a great deal of attention of late, most of it adulatory. But does it deserve the panegyrics which have its 150th anniversary have elicited?

Lincoln is perhaps the most quoted of all American presidents, owing to the pivotal role he played in our nation's history and to his virtually unmatched talent for putting words together in succinct and memorable phrases. At Gettysburg he combined borrowed phrasing from the King James Bible ("Four score" seems somehow a more elevated way of counting years than a mere "eighty") with his own talent for juxtaposing words and syllable in a cadence and rhythm that appeals to the ear as much as, or more than, the mind. As Gary Wills noted in Lincoln at Gettysburg, Lincoln, in composing a phrase like "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here" has virtually guaranteed that the world would long remember and frequently quote what he said there.

But the historical accuracy of Lincoln's address remains open to debate. Was it, after all "Four score and seven years earlier" that "a new nation" was "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal"? Eighty-seven years from 1863 brings us, of course, back to 1776 and the Declaration of Independence. But were the signers of that document really dedicating themselves to the "proposition" of legal equality among men? Many of them, including the Declaration's primary author, Thomas Jefferson, were and would remain slave owners. And the Declaration, not being a legal document, did not bind them to the principles enshrined therein. Its purpose was to proclaim the rectitude of the colonists to a (supposedly) "candid world" in the hope of drawing support from other nations, mainly Great Britain's long-time adversary, France.

In 1776, the colonists were still a long way from achieving the independence they had declared, and further still from having "brought forth" a "new nation." The year, 1781, when the Articles of Confederation were adopted, announcing the formation of a "permanent union" might have a better claim to the starting point of a new nation. Better still would be adoption of the Constitution in 1787.

If the signers of the Declaration had "brought forth a new nation," they appear to have been unaware of it. They announced to the world "That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be Free and Independent States," with all the rights and powers belonging to the same. The use of the plural was quite deliberate. What they "brought forth" was not a new nation, but "Independent States." Indeed in the treaty ending the war, Great Britain agreed to the terms of peace not with one nation, but with each of her former colonies.

Lincoln's conduct during the Civil War included the suspension of habeus corpus and the imprisonment without trial of editors, publishers, and legislators. Lincoln was much influenced in thought and rhetorical style by his favorite literary sources: the King James Bible, Aesop's Fables, Shakespeare's plays, especially Macbeth, and Pilgrim's Progress. The Constitution and its Bill of rights, not so much.

The Declaration, on the other hand, was something Lincoln held up as the American creed, claiming to have never had a political thought or sentiment that didn't spring forth from that noble document. Yet the Declaration of Independence was essentially a secessionist document, declaring the right of a people to free themselves of the political bands that bind them to another and to establish for themselves an independent government that "to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness." When the new Constitution was proposed in 1787, some states attached conditions to their ratification of it, including, in the case of New York and Virginia, the right to leave the Union if they saw fit.

That was the right Jefferson Davis was looking to test when he resigned from the U.S. Senate, after his state, Mississippi, declared its secession. After making his farewell speech in the Senate, Davis remained in Washington, waiting to be arrested and tried for treason. He hoped to have the question of whether states had the right to secede be decided in a court of law rather than on fields of battle. Davis, who became President of the Confederate States of America, was captured and imprisoned for a time after the war, but authorities of the United States never did charge and try him for treason. Perhaps they were afraid he would be found not guilty. It would have been, to say the least, embarrassing, if after a war costing the lives of some 600,000 on both sides, had been fought against secession, should be followed by a verdict declaring secession to be no crime.

A new nation was in fact created by the Civil War, but it was a nation at variance with the principles of independence espoused in the Declaration. It was a union, not "conceived in liberty" but imposed by blood and conquest, rather than a by voluntary association based on shared principles and aspirations.

The revisionist view that Lincoln changed the direction of this nation I first ran across while in college when I read the excellent work, The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition by William F Buckley's mentor Dr Willmoore Kendall.

Kendall starts with the Mayflower Compact of (1620), and then examines the General Orders of Connecticut(1638), the Body of Liberties of Massachusetts Bay(1641), the Virginia Declaration of Rights(1776), our own Declaration of Independence(1776), the Constitution(1787-1789) and finally the Bill of Rights(1789). Kendall slowly teases out a common thread--our tradition--that runs its course, unfolds, and develops over this stretch of time and through these early experiences and experiments in self-government on this side of the Atlantic. Basic Symbols also tackles in this time span, and in the history of America since, a problem common to all political traditions: derailment.

Basic Symbols identifies the Gettysburg address as a watershed in the political tradition of America, made possible by a partial derailment in the years preceding the Civil War. Today, the two incompatible traditions are still with us and their friction is at the root of much of our present day political discord; so much so that to ask and seek the answer to the question, "What is the tradition amongst us?" is the very reason why Basic Symbols was written.

Rather than the rights-speak and emphasis upon rights that has grown out of the elevation of the Bill of Rights, and the tortured understanding of 'equality' that has sprung from the Declaration, Basic Symbols instead proffers a formidable, and well supported, alternative; the true tradition amongst us holds (or held) the supremacy of the general political will of the community; the legislature through which this is expressed in a very slow, careful, and deliberative fashion; a virtuous people from which these governing bodies are elected, and the concomitant conviction of a virtuous people in a higher law than that of any secular government.

Basic Symbols notes that any mention of rights, any ethos of equality, etc., are nowhere to be found in our tradition as founding symbols; they were understood as only the possible concerns for the deliberations of a political community after the establishment of its aims and purposes. Thus, they are not the starting points from which the uniquely American order and tradition is defined. This explains why all forms of variants on "the common good," "better ordering...and preservation," were the starting points for, and of paramount importance to, the drafters of everything from the Mayflower Compact to our own Constitution. Kendall does well to further point out why the Bill of Rights was opposed to a man by the framers of the Constitution, lending only more support to his thesis. His analysis of the Declaration and the true meaning of "...all men are created equal..." places the Declaration and the Founding in a whole new light: the light of the American political tradition he identifies which provides a better explication and understanding of these documents, much like a better fitting solution to a puzzle. And this is just to name a few of the most important points. Kendall does well to document and explain the meaning, significance, and importance of all the symbols he identifies as having a place in the American political tradition.

Consider if you will the irony of Lincoln alluding to the political principles he believed were contained in the Declaration of Independence, a document which specifically states,
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness

A number of posters on here have pointed to the "Progressive" Era as the beginning of the decline of the American Republic. I demur. As much damage as that period caused the roots of progressivism and expanding federal power reach back to Abraham Lincoln and his misinterpretation of our history and purpose.
We shall never be abandoned by Heaven while we act worthy of its aid ~~ Samuel Adams

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