Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence, and continuous improvement

Abraham Lincoln improved the Declaration of Independence.

He didn’t revise a single word of it. He didn’t need to. The words were always correct. The introduction, in particular, is timeless. But he expanded the scope of whom the words applied to.

Abraham Lincoln

The Declaration states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.”

Obviously, when this was written and adopted, the American colonies did not practice what the document preached. It’s easy to point the finger back through history and pass judgment on the glaring hypocrisy of a slaveowner writing these words, as well as on the failure of the Founding Fathers to eradicate slavery as they secured greater freedoms for themselves. And criticism is absolutely deserved.

But we also need to remember the full historical context of the culture the Founding Fathers inherited and the improvements they made within it. They did what they could, and subsequent generations would need to take the next steps. 

Lincoln understood that. When he argued against slavery in the 1850s, he didn’t self-righteously blast the Founders for their failures on the issue. Rather, he noticed the torch they dropped, picked it up, and ran it down the next leg of the relay, even while many didn’t want him to.

Slavery’s defenders and apologists attempted to downplay the importance of the Declaration of Independence. They dismissed the notion that “all men are created equal” as either flat-out wrong or as intended to refer only to white men.

As Ronald C. White Jr. writes in the biography A. Lincoln, “For many Whigs, the Declaration became noteworthy chiefly as a historical signpost. This view, as Lincoln well understood, defused the Declaration as an impetus for reform in mid-nineteenth-century American life.”

So Lincoln, instead, helped reassert the importance of that document, elevating the ideals it espoused and pointing out how broadly they applied.

“The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain,” Lincoln said, as quoted in Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk, “and it was placed in the Declaration, not for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism. They knew the proneness of prosperity to breed tyrants, and they meant when such should re-appear in this fair land and commence their vocation they should find left for them at least one hard nut to crack.”

Lincoln was not as enlightened on racial issues as we would have liked. Though opposed to slavery, he did not believe in full social equality. Still, he was ahead of the curve compared to many of his contemporaries, and that should not be dismissed.

White quotes Lincoln as saying, “I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity.”

But, Lincoln went on to say, the Founders did declare that all men were created equal in terms of the inalienable rights listed in the document: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

“There is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man,” Lincoln said, as quoted in Lincoln’s Melancholy.

According to Shenk, Lincoln said that the Founders were hostile to the principle of slavery and tolerated it only by necessity.

As Shenk writes, “The Founders recognized the evil, Lincoln said, and made accommodations to restrict it, believing that the very experiment in liberty could be spoiled if they acted to end it too quickly.”

Shenk adds, “The spirit of the Declaration, Lincoln said, was meant to be realized — to the greatest extent possible — by each succeeding generation. The Founders cast off despotism and created the framework for a free republic, invoking, as they did, not arguments of mere self-interest but the ideal of natural, universal, God-given rights.”

“They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for … even though never perfectly attained,” Lincoln said.

Lincoln’s focus was not on perfection but on improvement, something he practiced in his own life as he rose from humble origins.

The Founders were not perfect, not by a long shot, but they improved the world around them. The world required further improvement. Lincoln, also far from perfect, achieved significant milestones with the Emancipation Proclamation and his leadership in defeating the Confederacy, and he knew there would be still further improvement needed after his time, and for all time.

“That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent,” Lincoln said during an 1860 debate, identifying the issue as “the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world.”

Lincoln continued, “They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other is the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says: ‘You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it’” (A. Lincoln, White).

The redemption of Chester Arthur

I highly recommend Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. The book details how James A. Garfield was elected to the presidency despite not even wanting the job, and how a deranged office seeker shot him, leading to a slow, agonizing death over the course of two and a half months.

It’s an absolutely fantastic and fascinating book, but here I just want to focus on one thread of the overall story: Chester Arthur’s evolution from reviled political crony to a respected, competent president of the United States.

Chester Arthur is one of those late 19th-century presidents most of us know very little about. And true, he’s not the most remarkable president there ever was. What’s most remarkable about him is how, in defiance of all expectations and his own previous behavior, he managed to rise to the level of decent.

Arthur was nominated as a vice presidential candidate to become a ticket balancer, essentially, and because he would ensure the support of Republican Party boss Roscoe Conkling. Garfield was not consulted on his running mate’s nomination, and indeed, as vice president, Arthur was more loyal to Conkling than to Garfield.

Before becoming VP, Arthur’s only political appointment was as a collector of the New York Customs House. Conkling secured the position, which carried a hefty salary. According to Millard, Arthur seldom arrived at work before noon, and the future President of the United States left the position in the wake of corruption allegations.

Millard quotes an unnamed man, speaking to a reporter, who captured the general sentiment felt toward Arthur: “Gen. Arthur appears as a politician of the most ordinary character, a man whose sole thought is of political patronage, and a man who has for his bosom friends and intimate companions those with whom no gentleman should associate.”

So, after Garfield was shot, people were understandably apprehensive about the increasingly likely prospect of a President Chet Arthur. Arthur himself seemed to be as apprehensive as anyone, and he kept out of sight while doctors were desperately trying to save Garfield’s life. He didn’t want to be seen as usurping the presidency while the president still lived.

Chester Arthur

But eventually he would have to come out of hiding and face reality, and he received his most important encouragement from a total stranger.

Julia Sand, whom Millard describes as a 32-year-old unmarried invalid, reached out to Arthur and appealed to his better nature in a series of letters. Arthur kept 23 of the letters she sent him.

“The hours of Garfield’s life are numbered—before this meets your eye, you may be President. The day the was shot, the thought rose in a thousand minds that you might be the instigator of the foul act. Is not that a humiliation which cuts deeper than any bullet can pierce?” Sand wrote in her first letter.

“Your kindest opponents will say: ‘Arthur will try to do right’—adding gloomily—‘He won’t succeed, though—making a man President cannot change him.’ But making a man President can change him! Great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant half a life. If there is a spark of true nobility in you, now is the occasion to let it shine. Faith in your better nature forces me tow right to you—not to beg you to resign. Do what is more difficult & more brave. Reform!”

Sand also wrote, “It is not the proof of highest goodness never to have done, but it is a proof of it…to recognize the evil, to turn resolutely against it.”

Arthur heeded her advice, and he strove to be the sort of president Garfield would have. While Arthur was never going to be a great man, he succeeded in winning over the critics who were dreading his presidency.

Arthur McClure, a journalist of the era, wrote, “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted, and no one ever retired … more generally respected.”

Even Mark Twain himself commented, “I am but one in 55,000,000; still, in the opinion of this one-fifty-five millionth of the country’s population, it would be hard to better President Arthur’s Administration.”

A stranger’s unsolicited compassion and faith helped save Arthur from himself, and helped save the country from a few years of an inept, shallow president. It’s something to keep in mind whenever we’re tempted to write someone off as irredeemable.

Remembering the horrors of the Soviet gulags

The Gulag Archipelago documents and examines the horrors of the Soviet prison camps. It’s the Russian literature equivalent of historical nonfiction. Comparing it to a traditional history book is like comparing War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov to a traditional novel.

Written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (a survivor of the gulags), even the abridged version is a sprawling, epic work. The author compiles not only his own experiences but those of many others to paint a thorough portrait of the oppressive atmosphere permeating Russia in the early to mid-20th century. He drills into the psyches of prisoners as well as guards, elevating the book into an insightful study of human nature.

I admit, I read only the abridged version, and I had to start and stop a few times to break it up with some lighter fare. The prose isn’t difficult to read at all, but the subject matter is intense. 

Obviously, this book is not entertainment, but it’s worth the effort. And remembering the broader story of 20th-century Russia, a historic tragedy in which millions died and many more suffered, is important. 

Ruled by the nearly 300-year-old Romanov dynasty, Russia began the century behind the times and in serious need of reform. But when revolution finally happened, conditions worsened and atrocities commenced. The Gulag Archipelago is a good starting point for learning how, and it can help us temper our righteous desire for change with the appropriate humility and caution.

The book has tons of excellent quotes. Here’s just a small sampling:

Power is a poison well known for thousands of years. If only no one were ever to acquire material power over others! But to the human being who has faith in some force that holds dominion over all of us, and who is therefore conscious of his own limitations, power is not necessarily fatal. For those, however, who are unaware of any higher sphere, it is a deadly poison. For them there is no antidote.

***

So let the reader who expects this book to be a political expose slam its covers shut right now.

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

***

Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors.

***

Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty.

***

The permanent lie becomes the only safe form of existence, in the same way as betrayal. Every wag of the tongue can be overheard by someone, every facial expression observed by someone. Therefore every word, if it does not have to be a direct lie, is nonetheless obliged not to contradict the general, common lie. There exists a collection of ready-made phrases, of labels, a selection of ready-made lies.

***

Truth, it seems, is always bashful, easily reduced to silence by the too blatant encroachment of falsehood.

The prolonged absence of any free exchange of information within a country opens up a gulf of incomprehension between whole groups of the population, between millions and millions.

We simply cease to be a single people, for we speak, indeed, different languages.

Welcome to my history blog

I’m here to learn about history, and learning is what this website is all about.

I am not a professional historian. I do not have a degree in history. My B.A. is in English and Theatre, and my resume includes such roles as reporter, editor, proofreader, playwright, and novelist, but nothing in the field of history.

However, for many years now, I’ve enjoyed learning about history on my own, primarily U.S. history. I’ve recently branched out into British and Russian history as well, and I intend to continue branching out. I have a lot to learn. I’ll never be finished learning. And that’s what this is all about.

I’m a student, not an expert. I’m here to explore, not preach.

An important part of learning is sharing what we learn, and that’s what I’ll do here. This will help my own retention and hopefully encourage others to embark on their own studies, or help them discover new books.

The topics will vary, and I’ll jump around through history quite a bit, sort of like a series of Doctor Who episodes (minus the episodes set in the future, alas). I’ll talk mostly about books I’ve read, but also interesting articles or videos I’ve come across, and maybe even historical sites I’ve visited (living in Virginia, I’ve got more than a few within range).

Like any student, I’ll almost certainly make mistakes along the way. So, while I will strive for accuracy, take anything I say with a grain of salt and do your own research. Again, I am not a professional.

And I’m realizing that the above disclaimer is in the spirit of the disclaimers George Washington would issue. In accepting command of the Continental Army, Washington said, “I beg it be remember[e]d by every Gent[lema]n in the room that I this day declare, with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I [am] honoured with” (Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow).

Washington typically lowered expectations and apologized for not being perfect, right up through his farewell address, when he wrote, “Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend.”

See? Even a historical figure as phenomenally successful as George Washington can teach us something about humility. The lessons of history are applicable in so many ways.

I will not be a perfect student of history, but I aim to improve.

Feel free to contact me at dontbedoomed@gmail.com with any suggestions or constructive criticism.