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Making Sense Of The Fourth Of July
The DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE is not what Thomas Jefferson thought it was when he wrote it—and that is why we celebrate it
July/August 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 4
THE DECLARATION Lincoln left was not Jefferson’s Declaration, although Jefferson and other revolutionaries shared the values Lincoln stressed.
Again like Cooke, Lincoln claimed that the authors of the Declaration understood its second paragraph as setting a standard for free men whose principles should be realized “as fast as circumstances … permit.” They wanted that standard to be “familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, and 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.” And if, as Calhoun said, American independence could have been declared without any assertion of human equality and inalienable rights, that made its inclusion all the more wonderful. “All honor to Jefferson,” Lincoln said in a letter of 1859, “to the man who … had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and to embalm it there,” where it would remain “a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”
Jefferson and the members of the second continental Congress did not understand what they were doing in quite that way on July 4, 1776. For them, it was enough for the Declaration to be “merely revolutionary.” But if Douglas’s history was more accurate, Lincoln’s reading of the Declaration was better suited to the needs of the Republic in the mid-nineteenth century, when the standard of revolution had passed to Southern secessionists and to radical abolitionists who also called for disunion. In his hands the Declaration became first and foremost a living document for an established society, a set of goals to be realized over time, the dream of “something better, than a mere change of masters” that explained why “our fathers” fought and endured until they won the Revolutionary War. In the Civil War, too, Lincoln told Congress on July 4, 1861, the North fought not only to save the Union but to preserve a form 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.” The rebellion it opposed was at base an effort “to overthrow the principle that all men were created equal.” And so the Union victory at Gettysburg in 1863 became for him a vindication of that proposition, to which the nation’s fathers had committed it in 1776, and a challenge to complete the “unfinished work” of the Union dead and bring to “this nation, under God, a new birth of freedom.”
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address stated briefly and eloquently convictions he had developed over the previous decade, convictions that on point after point echoed earlier Americans: Republicans of the 1790s, the eulogists Peleg Sprague and John Sergeant in 1826, John Cooke in the Virginia convention a few years later, Benjamin Wade in 1853. Some of those men he knew; others were unfamiliar to him, but they had also struggled to understand the practical implications of their revolutionary heritage and followed the same logic to the same conclusions. The Declaration of Independence Lincoln left was not Jefferson’s Declaration, although Jefferson and other revolutionaries shared the values Lincoln and others stressed: equality, human rights, government by consent. Nor was Lincoln’s Declaration of Independence solely his creation. It remained an “expression of the American mind,” not, of course, what all Americans thought but what many had come to accept. And its implications continued to evolve after Lincoln’s death. In 1858 he had written a correspondent that the language of the Declaration of Independence was at odds with slavery but did not require political and social equality for free black Americans. Few disagreed then. How many would agree today?
The Declaration of Independence is in fact a curious document. After the Civil War members of Lincoln’s party tried to write its principles into the Constitution by enacting the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, which is why issues of racial or age or gender equality are now so often fought out in the courts. But the Declaration of Independence itself is not and has never been legally binding. Its power comes from its capacity to inspire and move the hearts of living Americans, and its meaning lies in what they choose to make of it. It has been at once a cause of controversy, pushing as it does against established habits and conventions, and a unifying national icon, a legacy and a new creation that binds the revolutionaries to descendants who confronted and continue to confront issues the Founders did not know or failed to resolve. On Independence Day, then, Americans celebrate not simply the birth of their nation or the legacy of a few great men. They also commemorate a Declaration of Independence that is their own collective work now and through time. And that, finally, makes sense of the Fourth of July.