Abraham Lincoln’s best known speeches are his two inaugural addresses (including the beautiful phrase: “the better angels of our nature”) and the Gettysburg Address (“a government of the people, for the people, by the people…”)
But, his first submitted speech to Congress was on July 4th, 1861. In the nineteenth century, it was a tradition for Presidents to commemorate Independence Day with lengthy written speech, submitted to Congress and published in newspapers throughout the country. Lincoln had been elected the November previous, but in those days, Presidents didn’t take office until March. So, a little over four months into his first term, with the Southern States seceded and both sides preparing for war, the unknown and unimagined carnage still in the future, the maligned and mocked ‘new’ President had to speak to volatile citizenry and a hostile Congress.
Adam Goodheart in his book “1861—the Civil War Awakening” says Lincoln, in meticulous preparation for weeks in advance, “returned again and again to the idea of ‘the people.’. He was determined to prove that the Union was not fighting against the cause of freedom, as the Confederates maintained, but actively for it… to the secessionists, freedom meant the ability to elude authority. To Lincoln, freedom was in itself a form of authority—indeed, the only legitimate form of authority…”
“It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy – a government of the people, by the same people—can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes. It presents the question, whether discontented individuals, too few in numbers to control administration, according to organic law, in any case, can always, upon the pretences made in this case, or any other pretences, or arbitrarily, without any pretence, break up their Government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth. It forces us to ask: ‘Is there, in all republics, this inherent fatal weakness? Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?’”
The government ‘by the people.’ The Gettysburg speech was more than two years down the road. As Goodheart points out, Lincoln was already forming his ideals, ideas and rhetoric for the long haul. He was maligned and hated his first year in office, but by November of 1863 at a Pennsylvania cemetery, he had sculpted his first July 4th speech, “6,256 words of prose into 246 words of poetry.” And the nation, our country, is still shaped by his words.
I first read these words back in May, when the NATO summit was in Chicago and the protestors were marching against the authority figures of the nation and world – a free speech right guaranteed by our Constitution. Then I re-read them during the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall vote in June, with its divisive rhetoric. I continued to re-visit them during my explorations of history in Virginia: Jamestown, Yorktown battlefield, Antietam, Fort Monroe and Jefferson’s Monticello. I even had them in mind at our Presbyterian Church’s national gathering in Pittsburgh, where one of the ‘hot-button’ issues is the discussion of the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict: who is free in an occupied nation?
I think about these masterful thoughts again tonight, on the eve of what will be their 151st birthday.
We are a fortunate people. We owe the world a proper respect for and protection of freedom itself. Here. Everywhere.
Shalom – Peace. May God bless us and have mercy on us.