Today's rush to mindlessly, and at times lawlessly, tear down statues and deface memorials, including those dedicated even to the memories of Jefferson and Lincoln, is wrong. In seeking to erase or "cancel" from our collective memory those parts of our American story that constitute grievous wrongs, there is a real risk that historical signposts and markers that ought to be engrained in our collective memory as timeless guideposts will be sacrificed as well.
So it is with the Declaration of Independence.
On October 16, 1854, Abraham Lincoln delivered a famous speech in Peoria, Illinois, arguing against the extension of slavery permitted by the Kansas–Nebraska Act passed by Congress earlier in the year. Lincoln was out of politics at the time, but many credit his Peoria anti-slavery speech with the beginning of his preparation for his subsequent presidential campaign.
In Peoria, Lincoln grounded his argument against the extension of slavery, and later in arguing for its abolition, squarely on the words of the Declaration:
"[N]o man is good enough to govern another man, without the other's consent. I say this is the leading principle – the sheet anchor of American republicanism. Our Declaration of Independence says:
'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.'
I have quoted so much at this time merely to show that according to our ancient faith, the just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed. Now the relation of masters and slaves is, PRO TANTO, a total violation of this principle. The master not only governs the slave without his consent; but he governs him by a set of rules altogether different from those which he prescribes for himself. Allow ALL the governed an equal voice in the government, and that, and that only is self-government." [Capitalization in the original]
Invoking the Declaration's equality precept over and over again, Lincoln pleaded: "Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policies, which harmonize with it."
Frederick Douglass was the principal speaker at the dedication on April 14, 1876, of the memorial, now known as the Emancipation Memorial, in Lincoln Park, in Washington, DC. A plaque on the monument, which was funded by donations from emancipated slaves, reads: "Freedom's Memorial in grateful memory of Abraham Lincoln."
In his dedication oration, Douglass readily acknowledged Lincoln's complexities, including many of his statements that displayed a racial bias. But he also acknowledged this about Lincoln: "Though the union was more to him than our freedom or our future, under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves gradually lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood."
And this from Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech delivered on August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, is worth remembering:
"When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
The Fourth of July is a time to celebrate the Declaration of Independence and the self-evident Truths "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 these words were written by a flawed man – and who among us is not? – does not mean that they nevertheless should not inspire us today, as Lincoln put it, to be touched by "the better angels of our nature."
Best wishes for a safe, healthy, joyous, and meaningful Independence Day!