On this July 4th, I’m looking forward to relaxing and going to an outdoor concert in the evening, a classic way to mark Independence Day. But I’m also thinking about what our country means to me and what’s at stake in these fraught times. So I turned to Abraham Lincoln for some insights.
I share with you here excerpts from his July 4, 1861 Message to Congress, at the outset of the Civil War. He opens with an explanation of his profoundly difficult decision to invoke war powers in response to the Confederate Army’s April 12 assault on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. While much of Lincoln’s message is specific to the details of the war, his thoughts about our republic remain as fresh and insightful as the day he wrote them. Well worth recalling today in our divided nation:
And this issue [the attack on Fort Sumter] embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man the question whether a constitutional republic, or democracy—a government of the people by the same people—can or can not 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 pretenses made in this case, or on any other pretenses, or arbitrarily without any pretense, 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 and 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? . . .
This is essentially a people’s contest. On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life. . . .
Our popular Government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it our people have already settled—the successful establishing and the successful administering of it. One still remains—its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it. It is now for them to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets, and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally [been] decided there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace, teaching men that what they can not take by an election neither can they take it by a war; teaching all the folly of being the beginners of a war. . . .
Image: Abraham Lincoln photographic portrait by Joseph E. Baker, c 1865; Library of Congress