Lincoln didn’t hold Thomas Jefferson in high regard as a person or politician. Nevertheless, he praised the former president for seeing beyond the needs of the moment in 1776. “All honor to Jefferson,” he wrote in 1859—“to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times (emphasis added).”
Jefferson knew America hadn’t yet realized its ideals.
Mr. Biden is right. This is the basis on which Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president, defended the Union and abolished slavery, and it is the only basis on which we can hope to build an enduring multiracial, multiethnic democracy.
Also offering an interpretation of America on Independence Day was Missouri Rep. Cori Bush, who wrote on Twitter : “When they say that the 4th of July is about American freedom, remember this: the freedom they’re referring to is for white people.” She is partly right. America’s fight for separation from Great Britain didn’t free the slaves, nor did the ensuing seven decades of our national independence—a failure that Frederick Douglass denounced in his magnificent 1852 oration, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
But Douglass didn’t reject the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. He embraced them because, he argued, they embraced him. In Douglass’s view, the problem wasn’t our principles or our institutions, but the practices that contradicted and undermined them. The equality described in the Declaration wasn’t only for white people; it was for everyone. The struggle was to make this principle a reality—for everyone. It still is.
This proposition marks, I believe, the essential dividing line between liberals and radicals today. Today’s liberals believe that we can use our founding creed, as have previous generations, to dismantle the remaining obstacles to equality, while radicals believe that we must revise what they see as the flawed and obsolete principles of our founding documents.
Lincoln was our greatest president because, like Douglass, he understood that the Declaration lies at the heart of our national identity and that we must not reject it, but rely on it. Speaking at Springfield, Ill., in the wake of the infamous Dred Scott decision, Lincoln insisted that the authors of the Declaration weren’t hypocrites but realists who knew that many Americans weren’t enjoying the freedoms to which they were entitled and didn’t have the power to right this wrong. Rather, the Founding Fathers meant to establish “a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”
The principle of human equality, Lincoln observed, “was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain.” The rebellious colonists could have confined themselves to denouncing King George III as a tyrant. Instead, they made a conscious decision to embed their cause in a larger claim about the rights of equal individuals and free peoples.
Lincoln didn’t hold Thomas Jefferson in high regard as a person or politician. Nevertheless, he praised the former president for seeing beyond the needs of the moment in 1776. “All honor to Jefferson,” he wrote in 1859—“to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.”
Mr. Biden drew on this tradition in his speech. And by placing the preservation and promotion of democracy at the center of his foreign policy, he demonstrates his fidelity to Lincoln’s insistence that our founding principles apply beyond our times and shores.