By Bret Stephens
In the spring of 1859, Abraham Lincoln was invited by a committee of Boston Republicans to attend a festival in honor of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. He couldn’t make it. Instead, he sent a letter that explains, perhaps better than anything else Lincoln wrote except for the Gettysburg Address, what it is that we celebrate when we celebrate the Fourth of July.
Lincoln began by noting a historical irony: Roughly 70 years earlier, America’s two main political parties had gotten their start. At the time, it was the party of the South, the Democratic-Republicans, that was “formed upon their supposed superior devotion to the personal rights of men,” while it was the party of the North, the Federalists, that was mainly devoted to the rights of property.
Things had changed. By the late 1850s, it was Lincoln’s Republicans who held fast to Jeffersonian principles — that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights — while it was the Democrats who “denied and evaded” them. “One dashingly calls them ‘glittering generalities’; another bluntly calls them ‘self-evident lies’; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only to ‘superior races,’” Lincoln noted, in veiled digs at John C. Calhoun and Stephen Douglas.
The Democrats of his day held “the liberty of one man to be absolutely nothing, when in conflict with another man’s right of property,” Lincoln wrote. “Republicans, on the contrary, are for both the man and the dollar, but in cases of conflict, the man before the dollar.”
One can argue with Lincoln’s sense of history: Jefferson and other leading Democratic-Republicans were mostly slaveholders. Alexander Hamilton, one of the original Federalists, helped found the New York Manumission Society, an early abolitionist group. Lincoln himself almost surely understood this. A line in his letter — “he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave”— comes across as a thinly disguised critique of Jefferson as a man.
But Lincoln’s letter has a larger political and philosophical purpose than pointing out Jefferson’s profound moral shortcomings.
In the years before the Civil War, Lincoln was interested in questions of political change, decay and salvation. That parties switch places ideologically should be familiar to us: Democrats were once the party of lower taxes, free trade and segregation; Republicans were once the party of migrant amnesty, moral virtue and being tough on Russia.
The larger and more worrying question to Lincoln was whether nations, like parties, could also abandon formerly sacred principles. “It is now no child’s play to save the principles of Jefferson from total overthrow in this nation,” Lincoln warned, just two years before Fort Sumter. “The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of a free society” — as self-evident, he believed, as “the simpler propositions of Euclid.”
The lesson Lincoln drew is how easily a republic could deny its own foundational principles if personal or political self-interest dictated otherwise. America, he warned, was forgoing “free government” for the sake of “classification” and “caste.”
Which brought Lincoln to his extraordinary conclusion.
All honor to Jefferson — to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.
What is it, then, that we celebrate on the Fourth of July?
Not the long litany of overwrought and misdirected complaints that makes up the bulk of the Declaration of Independence. Not the glaring hypocrisy of men who held others in bondage from the moment of their birth while insisting that all men are born equal.
And not the example of those for whom the pursuit of happiness was not a universal ideal. As Lincoln wrote in his letter, “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and, under a just God, cannot long retain it.”
What we celebrate, instead, is a decision: one that would outgrow the circumstances of the American Revolution, outstrip its significance as a historical event and outshine the men who waged it, and perhaps, eventually, will outlive the nation for which it was conceived. It was the remarkable decision by Jefferson and his fellow revolutionaries to do something more than revolutionary: to implant a philosophical truth in a foundational document, so that nobody then or in the future could call himself a patriot or a traditionalist without also subscribing to a universal principle that goes beyond patriotism and tradition.
That is why every great champion of freedom looks to our Declaration. That was true of Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke of it as a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” And of the brave protesters in Tiananmen Square, who in 1989 built a 33-foot-tall papier-mâché Goddess of Democracy that recalls the Statue of Liberty before they were gunned down by their own regime. And of Volodymyr Zelensky, who in a Wall Street Journal essay on Sunday compared July 4, 1776, to Feb. 24, 2022, when the Ukrainian people also chose to fight for freedom and independence.
When we celebrate the Fourth of July, we celebrate this, just as we give thanks to those who transcended their own failings and prejudices to give us the language of liberty.
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Bret Stephens has been an Opinion columnist with The Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post. Facebook
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