Our Ancient Faith

Last year for America’s birthday I compiled some of my favorite quotations from Abraham Lincoln about the Declaration of Independence. They appear below. Lincoln revered the Declaration and proclaimed it “my ancient faith.” The scholar Garry Wills in his book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America argued that Lincoln placed equality in a central place in our national discourse where it had not been before. This has been exposed in a sense by some conservative scholars but, too late; Will says we understand the Declaration the way Lincoln taught it.

The Declaration is still revealing itself to us and perhaps always will. It is adapted in calls for equality from oppressed groups, as in the Seneca Falls Resolution calling for women’s rights: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” At his “I Have a Dream” speech Dr. Martin Luther King opened with language recalling the Gettysburg Address and stated that “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

That was Lincoln’s creed, and his ancient faith.

I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Abraham Lincoln, Independence Hall, Philadelphia, February 22, 1861

Abraham Lincoln is our greatest teacher about the meaning of the Declaration. So on the day following our national holiday, let us reflect on the Declaration once more, as Lincoln taught us.

I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence. Independence Hall, Philadelphia, February 22, 1861

The Founders meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere. The assertion that “all men are created equal” was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, nor for that, but for future use. The Dred Scott Decision, Speech at Springfield, IL, June 26, 1857

On those who migrated to America after the Founding: when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are. Reply to Douglas, Chicago, July 10, 1858.

All honor to Jefferson–to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression. Letter to H.L. Pierce and Boston Republicans, April 6, 1859

A merely revolutionary document, indeed. Happy Birthday America.


About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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