A declaration of equality
The 150th anniversary of the bloody Battle of Gettysburg comes this week, a somber moment in the midst of happy Independence Day celebrations. What may seem like a disconnection, though, is quite fitting.
Some scholars say the Declaration of Independence as a document received scant notice for several decades after its signing, overshadowed by the war it declared and the Constitution that so eloquently established the government of “We the people.”
Even those who celebrated the historic document in those early years did so in a general way. It was not until President Abraham Lincoln weighed the heavy matters of slavery and liberty that over-arching importance was given to the declaration’s second paragraph. Actually one long sentence, it begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …” Historian Stephen Prothero calls it “the most influential sentence in U.S. history.”
Lincoln gave that sentence broader meaning than the slave-owning founders did and made it his credo. In 1852, former slave Frederick Douglass denounced the country’s failure to live up to the promises of the Declaration of Independence. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” he asked. In 1863, Lincoln began to set that right. Equality figured prominently and fittingly in the address the president gave at the dedication of the nation’s first national cemetery — at Gettysburg.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”