As we celebrate Independence Day 2007, I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s remarks eulogizing Henry Clay: “He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country.” To my mind, no one before or since has matched Lincoln’s simple eloquence in articulating freedom as the core idea—and ideal-- of America.
At the outset of the Civil War, it is true that preserving the Union, not freeing the slaves, was Lincoln’s principal war aim. But by December 1862, it was clear to Lincoln that the Union could not be preserved without emancipation. In his Second Message to Congress Lincoln declared: “We —even we here— hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free —honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope on earth.”
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was not delivered on Independence Day, of course, but in November 1863, when the fate of the Union was still in doubt. It is difficult to imagine a more beautiful expression of the American idea:
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The world did take note of the words Lincoln uttered at Gettysburg. And they have been long remembered, and should be, especially in troubled times, when American soldiers are fighting and dying abroad.
Within the Free State Foundation’s masthead are the words “Because Ideas Matter.” They do. In my view, the core American idea is not tied to the ethnicity, race, religion, national origin, or language of its people, but rather to a common commitment to the idea of individual liberty and the rule of law.
There is the story, perhaps apocryphal, of a certain Mrs. Powell stopping Benjamin Franklin as he departed the Constitutional Convention in September 1787 to ask: “Well, doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin’s reply: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
To echo Lincoln’s eulogy of Clay: We love America partly because it is our own country, but mostly because she is a free country. As long as we have a constitutional culture that has as its central idea—and ideal, even if not always perfectly realized-- respect for individual liberty and the rule of law, we will preserve our Republic. And Dr. Franklin can rest in peace.
Happy Independence Day!