Sunday, March 19, 2017

For Lincoln, the country was about a growing, a wider, citizenship

This country has always been built up by "somebody else's babies" as Congressman Steve King asserted with such horror last week.

Abraham Lincoln celebrated that truth in July 1858 when the country was still only a few generations old. In one of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates during his unsuccessful campaign for the Senate, he explained:

... We are now a mighty nation, we are thirty—or about thirty millions of people, and we own and inhabit about one-fifteenth part of the dry land of the whole earth. We run our memory back over the pages of history for about eighty-two years and we discover that we were then a very small people in point of numbers, vastly inferior to what we are now, with a vastly less extent of country,—with vastly less of everything we deem desirable among men,—we look upon the change as exceedingly advantageous to us and to our posterity, and we fix upon something that happened away back, as in some way or other being connected with this rise of prosperity.

We find a race of men living in that day whom we claim as our fathers and grandfathers; they were iron men, they fought for the principle that they were contending for; and we understood that by what they then did it has followed that the degree of prosperity that we now enjoy has come to us. We hold this annual celebration to remind ourselves of all the good done in this process of time of how it was done and who did it, and how we are historically connected with it; and we go from these meetings in better humor with ourselves—we feel more attached the one to the other and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit. In every way we are better men in the age, and race, and country in which we live for these celebrations.

But after we have done all this we have not yet reached the whole. There is something else connected with it. We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors—among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe—German, Irish, French and Scandinavian—men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things.

If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, (loud and long continued applause) and so they are.

It's strange today to read that Lincoln was considered the plain speaker in this oratorical contest; Judge Douglas was the polished orator. Have debates degenerated or merely changed? Is it the spin or the consumers of politics who have changed?

Of course there were a lot people left out of Lincoln's ringing 1858 declaration from a contemporary perspective. Did these voters' sisters count? What about the indigenous people dispossessed in Lincoln's west? But, later, when he had the chance, Lincoln did get around to doing something about the people most excluded from that vision.

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