On Lincoln and Our Second Founding

As a historian, the Fourth of July can be a difficult holiday. Our founding myths are full of a-historical notions about the “Founding Fathers” and the birth of freedom (while maintaining slavery). These ideas are enshrined in our national anthem. Written in during the War of 1812, its words celebrate “the land of the free” at a time when six million Americans owned one million slaves. It’s tough to take those lines seriously as a declaration of national greatness with that knowledge bouncing in my head.

But there is one “Founding Father” that I absolutely revere. I’ve written about him earlier, so I’ll include those words below. Happy Independence Day, fellow Americans.

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I recently had the opportunity to sing “American the Beautiful.” The lines that most hit me are in the third verse:

Oh, beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!

When I sing these, I don’t think about Washington, Jefferson, Adams, etc. Instead, I usually think of Abraham Lincoln. If you stop to think about it, loving country more than self is a very high standard, perhaps an impossible one. How many, even in our armed forces, enter and serve for totally selfless reasons? What about those running for political office? It may well be that no one has yet achieved that standard in real life over the long term. But if anyone came close, I would guess it was Abraham Lincoln. Of those in government, he is also most responsible for making the Civil War a battle of “liberating strife.” He often angered even allies with his willingness to grant mercy: to soldiers, to civilians, and to former Confederates. He wasn’t perfect in that regard, but he was remarkable among human beings and presidents.

Lincoln is also my favorite “Founding Father.” When the Declaration of Independence declared that “all men are created equal,” it pretty clearly meant “all white men.” The 1787 Constitution (which we rightfully revere) only got the nation through 73 years before engulfing us in a conflagration over the “slave question.” It took the re-founding of the United States during and after the Civil War to established the kind of nation we have today. The Civil War Amendments – 13, 14, & 15 – radically redefined our nation by ending slavery, extending citizenship and rights beyond the boundary of race (and beyond the federal government into the states), and guaranteeing the right to vote. All of those ideals haven’t been perfectly enforced to this day, but the fundamental ideas are now enshrined in our supreme law. Altogether, the nation that Lincoln founded is much better than the one established by the revolutionary generation. Lincoln built that new nation on their foundation – and often claimed that his vision was theirs – but his vision of liberty actually far outstripped the old. For that, I am grateful.

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