At the dawn of the American republic, no one knew what shape its representative democracy should take. The nation’s Founding Fathers laid the foundation for the republic’s future in its Declaration of Independence and its Constitution. However as decades passed, two very different ideals of the republic came to be increasingly prominent in the nation - one federalist, one state based, one north, one south; one free, one slave. Civil war decided which democracy would survive.
Abraham Lincoln was at the center of power during this critical time in our nation’s history. The ideals that guided Lincoln were written in Pennsylvania in 1776 at the birth of the republic. The Declaration’s statement that “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” spoke to Lincoln with clarity and provided him with a vision for the nation’s future.
Abraham Lincoln’s devotion to the ideals of the Founding Fathers profoundly shapes our lives even today. Lincoln believed, as did Thomas Jefferson, that the United States was earth’s last “best hope” for the liberty of man. These were Jefferson’s words in his March 1801 inaugural address and Lincoln’s in his December 1862 message to congress. And Lincoln believed that in order to provide Life, Liberty, and Happiness to its own citizens and to project the ideals of freedom and equality throughout the world, it was paramount that the United States have economic and political power - and that required the strength of union. In his 1852 eulogy in Springfield, Illinois, on the death of Henry Clay, Lincoln said, “Feeling, as he [Clay] did, and as the truth surely is, that the world’s best hope depended on the continued Union of these States, he was ever jealous of, and watchful for, whatever might have the slightest tendency to separate them…. He burned with a zeal for its [the nation’s] advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature. He desired the prosperity of his countrymen partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show the world that freemen could be prosperous.” More than one hundred forty years later, our prosperity, our lives, liberty, and our happiness owe much to Abraham Lincoln’s presidential policies - often predicated on the ideals proclaimed in Pennsylvania at the birth of our nation.
Today, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution lies in Washington Square in downtown Philadelphia, only two blocks southwest of Independence Hall where Lincoln declared that something in the Declaration of Independence gave liberty and hope to all people for all time. The Unknown Soldier’s sarcophagus is inscribed: “Beneath this stone rests a soldier of Washington’s army who died to give you liberty.” Separated by fourscore and seven years, the Unknown Soldier and Abraham Lincoln are bound together by vision and sacrifice. Both lived with the words of Thomas Jefferson ringing in their ears. Both died to give us liberty.