Lincoln’s Independence Hall Speech of 1861
Where Biden spoke on Thursday, the president-elect said he was willing to die to prevent the spread of slavery
This essay is a follow-up to “Lessons of Lincoln for Democrats Today.” Read that essay here.
On Thursday President Biden delivered a 24-minute address in front of Independence Hall. More than a century and a half ago, during a stopover on his train journey from Springfield, Illinois, to his inauguration in Washington, D.C., Lincoln stood at the same spot, where he spoke for four minutes.
In a desultory fashion Biden strove to inspire the nation to triumph over the scourge of corruption that Trump and his allies have brought upon the nation.
Lincoln, after saying that he loved the Declaration of Independence more than life itself, promised listerners that as president he would make every sacrifice in order to end the spread of slavery. It was a commitment he would never relinquish.
“I would rather be assassinated on this spot,” Lincoln said, “than surrender it.”
Biden tried to galvanize the nation through words. Lincoln led by sheer force of personality, notably courage of conviction.
Not only did later generations marvel at the depth of this trait in the self-educated, former Mississippi longboat pilot. So did many of his contemporaries.
“To say that Mr. Lincoln was a man who had the courage of his convictions would be rather an under-statement,” wrote Horace White, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune who observed the 6′ 4″ ill-clad candidate for the U.S. Senate up close during his famous debates with Democrat Stephen Douglas. “This was part and parcel of his sense of justice. He wore it as he wore his clothes, except that it fitted him much better than his garments usually did.”
Perhaps more than in any speech he gave during his lifetime, Lincoln revealed his unusual courage of conviction in the short address of Friday, February 22, 1861, in Philadelphia. By that time seven Southern states had seceded from the Union, and civil war seemed imminent.
Lincoln often leaned on the Constitution as the bulwark of his convictions. In this speech, though, he did not mention America’s premier legal document. Rather, he spoke only of his attachment to the Declaration of Independence, the nation’s premier spiritual document.
“I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here, in this place,” he began, “where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live.”
After this, Lincoln intimated that he had been made uncomfortable by the insistence of so many people that in his hands lay “the task of restoring peace to the present distracted condition of the country.”
He saw his job differently. As the nation’s leader, he was going to abide by the “great principle” contained in the Declaration of Independence that “in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”
In 1861 that included African-Americans who wished to move into the western territories of Kansas and Nebraska to live free.
The time had come, at last, to make good on the moral promise spelled out so clearly in the declaration, even unto death.
“Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world, if I can help to save it.”
If not, he continued, “it will be truly awful.” But, as he stood there on the grounds of Independence Hall, there was no other course open to him.
The president-elect declared his willingness to die for the Declaration of Independence not once but twice in the speech.
“I have said nothing,” he explained in his closing line, “but what I am willing to live by and, if it be the pleasure of Almighty God, die by."
Today’s spread of corruption by Republican Party leaders does not compare in its moral dimension to the spread of slavery in the 19th century by Democrats.
But the solution to the wrongs committed is the same: equality and justice delivered with Lincolnian courage of conviction.
Biden should take a page from Lincoln and speak often about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, assuring the nation that he will make every sacrifice to uphold them.
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