By Nancy Spannaus
July 4, 2018—Today we celebrate the Declaration of Independence, which was a watershed in world history, as well as the cornerstone for the founding of the United States. This soaring and revolutionary declaration of principle is the bedrock upon which the subsequent Constitution was created, and which the Constitution was devised to defend. The Declaration’s most radical assertions–that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—inspired all those who have fought for moral and technological progress in this Union, and many abroad.
It is a matter of shame that many Americans today have reduced the Declaration’s meaning to that of protecting individual liberty to do what one chooses. And I recall my shock when reading in the 1990s of a study done where researchers went door to door in a neighborhood showing citizens copies of the Declaration, only to find that many considered it an alien “communist” document! Abraham Lincoln was concerned as early as the 1850s about the danger of Americans losing a connection to the ideals which inspired their revolution. The situation is even more perilous today.
In this blog I have embraced Abraham Lincoln’s view of the Declaration, one which he so eloquently defended at length in his debates with the “democrat” Stephen Douglas in 1858. I quote from his speech in Lewiston, Illinois that summer, when he said that the Declaration of Independence
…was formed by the representatives of American liberty from thirteen States of the confederacy — twelve of which were slaveholding communities. We need not discuss the way or the reason of their becoming slaveholding communities. It is sufficient for our purpose that all of them greatly deplored the evil and that they placed a provision in the Constitution which they supposed would gradually remove the disease by cutting off its source. This was the abolition of the slave trade. So general was conviction — the public determination — to abolish the African slave trade, that the provision which I have referred to as being placed in the Constitution, declared that it should not be abolished prior to the year 1808. A constitutional provision was necessary to prevent the people, through Congress, from putting a stop to the traffic immediately at the close of the war. Now, if slavery had been a good thing, would the Fathers of the Republic have taken a step calculated to diminish its beneficent influences among themselves, and snatch the boon wholly from their posterity?
These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: ‘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.’ This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. [Applause.]
Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows. They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity. The erected a beacon to guide their children and their children’s children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages. Wise statesmen as they were, they knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants, and so they established these great self-evident truths, that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began — so that truth, and justice, and mercy, and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from the land; so that no man would hereafter dare to limit and circumscribe the great principles on which the temple of liberty was being built. [emphasis added]
Building the Nation
It was with these principles in mind that Lincoln shaped his policies to preserve and build the nation, including a clear American System perspective to bind up the wounds of the nation with government-spurred economic progress after the Civil War. Even during the war, Lincoln set those policies in motion, initiating the Transcontinental Railroad, the Agriculture Department and land-grant colleges, the Morrill Tariff, and the national banking system, including Greenbacks.
In my July 4 post last year, I emphasized this connection between the initiation of great infrastructure projects to build the nation, with the celebration of the Independence Day. The pre-eminent example I was aware of at that time was the July 4, 1828 ground breaking for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal by President John Quincy Adams.
Just yesterday, however, I became aware of another example, this one involving the founder of the American System, Alexander Hamilton. Leonard A. Zax, president of the Hamilton Partnership for Paterson, sent out the following email:
We know that July 4, 1776 is the day that America declared its political independence from England. But you might not know that July 4, 1792 was the day Alexander Hamilton launched the battle for economic independence by founding the City of Paterson at the Great Falls. Find out why economic independence matters.
Click that statement about economic independence, and you’ll learn more about what Hamilton’s founding of Paterson, New Jersey actually accomplished in that city over the centuries. For a broader perspective on the fruits of Hamilton’s American System, click here and browse americansystemnow.com.
Happy Fourth of July!
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