By Edward Achorn
I was glad to see the Democratic Party this week quickly delete its tweet about the great fireworks celebration at Mount Rushmore in honor of Independence Day. The reprehensible tweet called the nation’s birthday party “a rally glorifying white supremacy.”
Political passions have become so hot of late that some will not even set aside the hatreds of identity politics on July 4th, a day when we celebrate this great nation and express gratitude for the extraordinary blessings of freedom it has bestowed on all of us, of all skin tones.
Two of the mighty presidents hewn into the rock of Mount Rushmore — there on the left, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — were slaveowners. It is interesting that a third president, over on the right, Abraham Lincoln, was a bitter, lifelong enemy of slavery who, at immense sacrifice, finally presided over its destruction. But he had the highest regard for both, recognizing their crucial role in securing liberty and preparing the way for slavery’s destruction.
All three are under attack in today’s fevered climate — all four, if you count Theodore Roosevelt, whose memory was recently dishonored in New York City. Our nation’s leaders seem to have surrendered to an anti-intellectual mob that argues (falsely, in my opinion) that America is inherently evil and that symbols of its past and national identity thus must be eradicated.
Lincoln, the subject of my new book, Every Drop of Blood, was a brilliant man. Born to desperate poverty, he virtually educated himself. He was not a churchgoer — some thought he was not even a believer — but he read deeply into the King James Bible, the one book that could be found in many pioneers’ cabins. He loved its beautiful language and the hard-won wisdom it conveyed about enduring the catastrophe that is human existence, and living a just, moral, and fulfilling life.
His decency, absence of arrogance, and unwillingness to look down on others reflects a sense of morality and maturity that sets him high above any politician or activist today I can think of. He seemed to take Jesus’ message (which he quoted in his Second Inaugural) to heart: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”
While activists today want to brand every Confederate as evil, and tear down their statues, Lincoln had this to say in 1854 about the Southern people: “They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist among them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up.” Rather than seek to punish the Southern people after the war, he called for “malice toward none” and “charity for all” in his Second Inaugural.
Lincoln especially revered Jefferson for two actions that he believed set slavery on the path of destruction. The first was his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, which argued that “all men are created equal” and endowed with rights no government or tyrant could justly take away. While initially thought to refer to white men, the language helped destroy any moral authority for slavery.
“I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence,” Lincoln said in 1861. The Declaration was not just about separating from Britain but giving “hope to the world for all future time.” The Declaration promised “that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”
Jefferson, Lincoln said, “had the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men at all times . . . that shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.”
That is among the vast blessings we celebrate on July 4.
Jefferson also used his influence to block the spread of slavery into the Northwest Territory, through the Ordinance of 1787. That was proof, in Lincoln’s eyes, that the Founders wished to stop slavery as much as they practically could, hoping it would wither and die.
It is striking how strongly Jefferson denounced slavery. He held throughout his life that it was unjust and immoral. He blasted the slaveholding interest’s “avarice and oppression” and contrasted this with the “sacred side” of emancipation. The great black leader of the Civil War era, Frederick Douglass, quoted Jefferson’s blistering observation that Patriots who had fought the British were willing to inflict “on their fellow man,” through slavery, “a bondage one hour of which is fraught with more misery than ages of that which he rose in rebellion to oppose.”
Although they were unable to eradicate slavery on their own, Jefferson and Washington were among the first people in human history to question the morality of that ubiquitous institution. We owe everything to them.
As for Lincoln, as much as he detested slavery, he argued he would rather quit politics — and let the pro-slavery Democrats win — than join forces with the Know-Nothings, or American Party, which advocated much stricter immigration controls and opposed the election of foreign-born people or Roman Catholics to public office.
“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people?
“Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’
“When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.”
Boston, succumbing to the self-righteous anti-intellectualism of a segment of our society, has decided to remove a monument to this man that was designed by ex-slaves. It seems clear that those hellbent on undermining America have little or no knowledge or appreciation of the past, which involves the complex interactions of human beings. Is it too late to change the way we educate the young?
(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)