Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, without question one of the most powerful, eloquent speeches in the American canon, consists of only 272 words and was delivered in less than three minutes.
Compare Lincoln’s far less well known, but nevertheless eloquent address in Peoria, Illinois, on October 16, 1854. The Peoria Address, as it came to be known, consists of over 17,000 words and took Lincoln three hours and ten minutes to deliver.
The Peoria Address was a response to passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which voided a restriction on the extension of slavery that had been part of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The speech marked Lincoln’s reentry into politics and thrust him into the national debate over slavery.
For present purposes, the Peoria Address is relevant to understanding the meaning of Independence Day. Indeed, Lincoln grounded his extended argument against slavery firmly in the philosophy and principles expounded in the Founders’ Declaration of 1776, not the Constitution of 1787.
While Lincoln referred to the Declaration throughout his Peoria Address, not surprisingly, he made the true core of the Declaration the heart of his own argument:
What I do say is, that no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other's consent. I say this is the leading principle---the sheet anchor of American republicanism. Our Declaration of Independence says:
"We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, DERIVING THEIR JUST POWERS FROM THE CONSENT OF THE GOVERNED." [The italics and ALL CAPS are in Lincoln’s original draft of the speech.]
Thus, in his opposition to slavery, Lincoln held fast to the Founders’ appeal to natural rights, or what sometimes is referred to as a “higher law.” When Jefferson invoked the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” and “self-evident” truths at the Declaration’s beginning, this was simply another way of declaring that the right to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” is grounded in natural rights or natural law, not dependent upon grants of positive law conferred by government.
To be sure, it was necessary to form a government to secure those rights through positive law. And that is what the Founders did in 1787 when they drafted our Constitution creating our government with limited, enumerated, and separated powers. And when they ratified the Ninth Amendment in 1791, which provides: “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
Lincoln began the Gettysburg Address in November 1863 with this unforgettable invocation: “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.” It is easy to forget – unless the mathematical calculation is ingrained in memory – that Lincoln’s “four score and seven years” harkens back to 1776, not 1787. To the Declaration, not the Constitution, for the conception of the central ideals embodying the new nation.
In his Peoria Address and many other times, especially in the 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln rested his antislavery arguments on an appeal to the Declaration’s ideals, an appeal to a “higher law” than that embodied in positive law.
Notably, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on the eve of his Inauguration, Lincoln once again invoked 1776, exclaiming that the Revolution was “not a mere matter of separation . . . from the motherland, but that something in the Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”
I do not maintain that the Declaration of Independence itself is law. But I do say that the ideals found in the Declaration - the invocation of those self-evident truths that all men and women are endowed with certain inalienable rights, including the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - were an inspiration in 1776 and should be on this Independence Day in 2017. Indeed, as "We the People" strive for what the Constitution of 1787 calls a "more perfect Union," we should never forget the Declaration's ideals that Lincoln called "the sheet anchor of American republicanism."