Lincoln: What Makes a True American

By Bonnie James

July 22, 2019–Abraham Lincoln gave the speech excerpted here, which came to be known as the “Electric Cord Speech,” as celebrations of the nation’s 82nd Independence Day were underway in 1858. Lincoln was then anticipating his Senate campaign against the “Little Giant,” Stephen A. Douglas. The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates , seven in all, began a few weeks later, spanning two months between August 21 and October 15. Although Lincoln did not win the Senate seat, the campaign established him as the undisputed leader of the newly founded Republican Party and propelled him to the Presidency in 1860.

Abraham Lincoln in 1858.

In the speech, the future President and victorious Commander-in-Chief of the Civil War, set out his view of what defined an American, based on the principles of the Declaration of Independence . The relevance of this for today need not be elaborated here.

They Are Our Equals in All Things

…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 … men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things.

Lincoln: What Makes a True American

From a poster at the Lincoln Cottage, the President’s summer home in Washington, D.C.

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, and so they are. (emphasis added)

That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.