Drifting away from our roots

Abraham Lincoln, in his 1863 Gettysburg Address, referred to America as “a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  

His statement reaffirmed the words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  

Lincoln regarded this document as “the immortal emblem for humanity.” 

Lincoln’s politics were solidly anchored in philosophy. When he employed the term “proposition,” he was referring to something that was self-evident.  

He had staunch enemies who were less philosophical and more pragmatic.  

John C. Calhoun was willing to deconstruct the Declaration of Independence, arguing that the principle of equality is “contrary to human observation.” He demanded that the South be recognized for its differences, especially its “inequality of condition.”  

Stephen A. Douglas held that “our government was formed on the principle of diversity ... and not that of uniformity.” 

Lincoln
President Abraham Lincoln is pictured in a portrait by Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. CNS photo/Library of Congress

Lincoln had a broader perspective and he knew how to clothe his logic in appropriate metaphors: “The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act, as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one.” 

He understood that liberty must be tempered by equality if slavery were to be avoided: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”  

For Lincoln, the question of slavery “must be settled on some philosophical basis. No policy that does not rest on some philosophical public opinion can be permanently maintained.”  

After the Dred Scott decision, which permitted slavery, the Constitution was at variance with the Declaration of Independence.  

It took a Civil War and a constitutional amendment to bring these two founding principles back into harmony with each other.  

Lincoln’s language could convey the enviable combination of insight, wit and sparkling prose: “As a nation we began by declaring that ‘All men are created equal.’ We now practically read it: ‘All men are created equal except Negroes.’ Soon it will read, ‘All men are created equal except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’  

When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty, to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” 

In our own present age, Roe v. Wade has re-established a contradiction between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  

Dred Scott denied human equality to the black and set free men against slaves. Roe v. Wade denied equality to the unborn.  

America could profit from another Abraham Lincoln. 

America was not founded on liberty (or “choice”) alone.  

It established laws and people were encouraged to be law-abiding citizens and respectful of each other.  

Liberty was to be tempered and made meaningful by its marriage to a regard for the fundamental humanity of all its citizens. 

America has drifted away from the spirit of its Founding Fathers. The proposition that this “new nation” was established on the marriage between liberty and equality is still in travail. 

Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International, a professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, Conn.