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Relearning the Declaration by @BloggersRUs

Relearning the Declaration

by Tom Sullivan

The humanitarian crisis the Department of Justice created on the southern border demonstrates with immediacy and urgency just how much America has lost its way. While Democrats and Republicans and progressive and conservative activists point fingers and argue over which faction of political actors have more deeply betrayed America, however defined, it is a mud fight which leaves all of them caked and bloodied.

Conor Friedersdorf's July 4th appreciation in The Atlantic of Abraham Lincoln's thoughts on the essential principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence is not only clarifying, but invigorating. We think of Lincoln as America's greatest president for preserving the union and abolishing slavery. Amidst another period of national peril, the words of the man who guided us through our worst one provide a guidestar.

Ahead of joining the U.S. Senate, Lincoln gave a speech in Lewistown, Illinois on August 17, 1858 in which he referenced the Declaration of Independence as the guiding inspiration behind the American experiment. He issued a warning:

Now, my countrymen, if you have been taught doctrines conflicting with the great landmarks of the Declaration of Independence; if you have listened to suggestions which would take away from its grandeur, and mutilate the fair symmetry of its proportions; if you have been inclined to believe that all men are not created equal in those inalienable rights enumerated by our chart of liberty, let me entreat you to come back. Return to the fountain whose waters spring close by the blood of the Revolution. Think nothing of me - take no thought for the political fate of any man whomsoever - but come back to the truths that are in the Declaration of Independence. You may do anything with me you choose, if you will but heed these sacred principles.
This, Lincoln told his audience, "was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures."

Lincoln continued:

Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.

They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity. The erected a beacon to guide their children and their children's children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages. Wise statesmen as they were, they knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants, and so they established these great self-evident truths, that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began — so that truth, and justice, and mercy, and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from the land; so that no man would hereafter dare to limit and circumscribe the great principles on which the temple of liberty was being built.

Friedersdorf adds his own warning to Lincoln's prescient one:
And the United States is now led by a man––bereft of Christian virtues, his own Twitter account a testament to his dearth of self-mastery or prudence––who extols the supposed strength of the Communists who suppressed lovers of liberty at Tiananmen Square, the authoritarian tyrant who leads Russia, and the thug who leads the Philippines. His political ideals would be a cancer to any body politic. It festers within ours and spreads daily.
The man who now holds the office Lincoln did once embodies and represents the rich, white men of that farthest posterity. His actions demonstrate daily his disdain for all but the ceremonial trappings of democracy and equality before law. He pursues a perverse, anti-American ordering of humanity. The rich above the rest. Men above women. Caucasians above non-whites. Christians above any other faiths. And power above truth and "all the humane and Christian virtues." Especially mercy.

In seeking to reorder America's international trade and strategic alliances, the 45th president of the United States is systematically undermining the United States' leadership in the world and working, for his own ends and perhaps others', to unmake the American century.

Friedersdorf adds:

While debating Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln said he hated slavery and the prospect of its spread not only because of its monstrous injustice, but because “it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites— causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”
The flag-hugger residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is perhaps the greatest patron saint of self-interest since Ayn Rand, but without even her pretension of morality.

What perhaps Lincoln did not foresee was the potential that a rich few might again in a distant future so beguile so many into following them, in pursuit of self-interest, in trodding underfoot and imbruting others "stamped with the Divine image." Ending that in the present, of course, was the political question of Lincoln's day. After imparting that lesson once, it would stay learned. Only it did not.

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