“The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit — as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration.”– Garry Wills
Americans have always celebrated Independence Day as an important moment in the development of the American character. Still, I wonder if Americans today don’t have a radically different understanding of the Declaration of Independence than earlier generations did. Indeed, the original meaning of the Declaration seems to have been eclipsed by subsequent events. In particular one could argue, as Gary Wills does, that Americans understand July 4, 1776 through the lens of November 19, 1863- the date of Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”
That short speech has become a fixed part of the American psyche and I would argue that we are worse off for it. In those 10 sentences lie not only the foundational elements of Lincoln’s political thought, but also a blueprint for a drastic recasting of the American constitutional order. So, on this Independence Day, I would ask the reader to take a moment to consider exactly which “Declaration of Independence” it is that we are celebrating- is it the “Declaration” of Lincoln or that of the Founders? For the two are wholly incompatible.
Much of what Lincoln says in the Gettysburg Address can be seen as a direct commentary on the Declaration. Notably, it is the Declaration and not the United States Constitution that Lincoln sees as the centerpiece of the American political order. There are three underlying principles of Lincoln’s political thought that can be drawn out through a close examination of the Address, and all have to deal, more or less directly, with his peculiar interpretation of the Declaration:
1) America was founded, as a “nation”, in 1776.
2) America has been, since its inception, established upon universal truths.
3) America is, at its heart, revolutionary.
These propositions deserve individual treatment. Each of them represents not only a misunderstanding of American history, but a deeply flawed political theory. And each of them has been increasingly accepted by each subsequent generation of Americans.
1) America was founded, as a “nation”, in 1776.
The line “four score and seven years ago” points back, from 1863, to the year 1776 and not, as one might expect when talking about the founding of America, to the ratification of the Constitution. Lincoln has two reasons for emphasizing the Declaration over the Constitution: one philosophical, to be discussed in the following section, and one practical, based on Lincoln’s historical understanding of the American founding.
To Lincoln, the issuance of the Declaration of Independence symbolized an era of pre-Constitutional national unity: the American colonies were engaged in a united struggle against British rule and joined together to collectively announce their new identity as a nation. Lincoln saw this moment as the precise beginning of the national American government.
Advancing this theory of the founding was absolutely critical for Lincoln. He was fighting a war against a Southern polity that was premised around an opposite conceptualization of the founding. The Southern states considered themselves to be sovereign nations in their own right and parties to a “compact.” This “Compact Theory” of the Constitution posited that the 13 original states, after they had won their own individual independence from Britain in the Revolutionary War, had then only surrendered a portion of their sovereignty to the national government in ratifying the Constitution. As sovereign states, they had as much a right to withdraw from that compact as the modern US does to leave the United Nations.
Lincoln’s narrative precluded such an argument. If the American nation- starting with the Declaration- was historically prior to the states as political entities, then any efforts to reclaim a state’s residual sovereignty were invalid attempts to get in between the “American people”- considered in the aggregate- and their government. As a rhetorical ploy, Lincoln’s narrative works well; the only problem with it is that it is not supported by the historical record. The Declaration did not symbolize the birth of any pre-constitutional American “nation,” chiefly because, just as the states were engaged in fighting their own wars for independence, they authorized their own declarations for independence as well. By July 4, 1776, delegates to the Continental Congress from 12 of the 13 colonies had already received prior authorization by their state governments to declare independence. The delegates from New York had not been authorized by their state legislature to vote in favor of independence and thus abstained from voting until weeks later. Even though the states collaborated with one another in fighting for, and declaring, their independence, there is absolutely no historical evidence that they saw themselves as comprising a singular “nation” in the sense Lincoln used the word.
2) America was, at its inception, built upon universal truths.
Lincoln’s reliance upon the Declaration of Independence was also due to the fact that the Declaration, unlike the Constitution, easily lends itself to a political theory based on abstract, universal principals. Lincoln wrote in 1859 that the Declaration put forth “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” In the same letter, Lincoln goes on to write that the “principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society.” In the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debates, Lincoln claimed that the writers of the Declaration “meant to get up a standard maxim for free society…. which declares that ‘all men are created equal.’”
To see the Declaration as advancing this kind of timeless principle is perhaps even more common today than in Lincoln’s time, but it is nonetheless a very flawed reading of the text. For one thing, once the reader gets past the first four sentences of the Declaration (if the reader gets past the first four sentences of the Declaration), it becomes very clear that the author is much less interested in the kind of “standard maxim for a free society” that Lincoln is advocating. Rather, the reader finds a laundry list of violations of the traditional British common law. In other words, the Declaration of Independence is very much bound to its own historical setting. The great conservative scholar M.E. Bradford picks up on this, arguing that “to anyone familiar with English letters and the English mind in the 17th and 18thcenturies, the Declaration of Independence is clearly a document produced out of the mores majorum- legal, rhetorical, poetic- and not a piece of reasoning or systematic truth.”
3) America is, at its heart, revolutionary.
So Lincoln’s conception of the Declaration as a work of abstract philosophy is, once again, based on bad history. Yet there is an even more dangerous consequence of Lincoln’s reliance on universal principles. Implicit in basing a political theory on abstract philosophical principles is a belief that society must be constituted upon those principles and that any society that is not must be replaced.
To this effect, Lincoln spoke repeatedly throughout his career about the need for a “new act of founding” which could potentially undo the damage done by the ratification of the Constitution and return the country to the principles embodied in the Declaration. His entire conception of America as being a “new nation” recently “conceived” demonstrates the extent to which he saw 1776 as a radical break from the past. Yet how closely does this conform to the historical record? Exactly how “revolutionary” was the Revolutionary War? It certainly didn’t uproot the social hierarchy or even drastically alter the political and legal institutions that made up colonial America. In other words, the American “Revolution” was not “revolutionary” at all- at least not in comparison to those historical revolutions which have truly been based upon abstract, universal principles.
Nevertheless, in spite of his status as a recent conservative icon, Lincoln’s political theory celebrates radical, truly revolutionary political change. Indeed, this approach of leveling society and then rebuilding it to conform to a set of abstract philosophical principles has always been the foundation of every revolutionary political ideology: from Plato on down through Rousseau and the French Jacobins, and then up to the modern revolutionary crisis with Marx, the story remains the same. Lincoln, however pleasant his “universal principles” might sound to the modern ear, was willing to do incredible things in order to conform America to the abstract vision in his head. Just how far he was willing to go is up for debate. But a hard look at the historical record leaves Lincoln looking more like a revolutionary than a conservative, despite modern attempts by “conservatives” to appropriate him.
Each of these political principles appears as a factual proposition. As a historical matter, each of these propositions proves false. As a matter of political theory, each of the propositions lends itself to very dangerous results. Whatever the Revolutionary War and the original Declaration of Independence might have lacked as “revolutionary” political actions- with the word “revolutionary” understood in its most radical and deadliest sense- has been compensated for tenfold by the revolution that followed directly from Lincoln’s vision of America.
So, once again, my question for the reader: when you celebrate the Declaration of Independence this 4th of July, exactly what are you celebrating? Is it the Declaration of state sovereignty, historical particularity, and continuity with the past? Or is it the Declaration of the American “nation,” universal abstraction, and revolution? I’m afraid I already know the answer.