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What Honest Abe honestly thought of the Declaration of Independence

What Honest Abe honestly thought of the Declaration of Independence

Guest Commentary by Christopher Young

Many of us know of Abraham Lincoln, and many of us know of the Declaration of Independence. But how many of us know what our 16th president thought of the Declaration of Independence?

Anyone interested in the political worldview of Abraham Lincoln must begin with the Declaration of Independence. He believed deeply that the Founders had established the principle of equality as the standard for which the burgeoning United States of America ought to strive.

The Declaration of Independence was the single most important document to Abraham Lincoln. From a young budding politician in Springfield to a tried and tired president of the United States in Washington, D.C., the Declaration of Independence informed Lincoln of America's meaning, its purpose, and his role in fulfilling the vision of the Founding Fathers in the face of the leading issues of his day -- namely slavery and territorial expansion.

As Lincoln developed as a politician, the question of extending slavery into the territories became the issue at center stage in American politics. When addressing the issue of slavery, Lincoln maintained it was a moral, social and political evil.

He accused his own generation of turning on the Founders by denying that black Americans were included in the "all men are created equal" assertion in the Declaration of Independence, for the purpose, Lincoln believed, of justifying the extension of slavery into the territories. Lincoln contended that since the territories were in a state of nature (unlike the original states) there was no justification for stripping black Americans of their rights.

Like many of his contemporaries, Lincoln did not advocate social and political equality. He did, however, believe African-Americans were entitled to enjoy the fruit of their own labor.

Using the Declaration of Independence as his starting point, Lincoln argued that the oppression of African-Americans was unjust and wrong. Regardless of color, Lincoln believed everyone had a natural right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

When Lincoln was elected, many Southerners felt threatened by Lincoln's adamant belief in the equality expressed so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence.

In the end, they had good reason to be alarmed. In November 1863, nearly a year after the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln announced in his Gettysburg Address that a "new birth of freedom" was at hand. His own declaration on that fall day was directly connected to the first, which preceded it four score and seven years earlier in 1776.

At last, his own life, his own historical moment, was connected to the document and the past that had shaped his understanding of the America he lived in and led during a contentious and violent time.

Christopher Young is assistant professor of history at Indiana University Northwest. The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's and not necessarily that of The Times.


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