Abraham Lincoln celebrated the 4th of July much as we do. He enjoyed fireworks, flags, parades, band concerts,and social gatherings with family, friends, and neighbors. The food was more likely to be hams, biscuits, and apples rather than barbecue, hot dogs, and hamburgers, but pies and even ice cream were favorites too. However, the 4th of July was more commemorative than we see today. Although it was not declared a National holiday until 1870 and only became a paid holiday in 1938 for federal employees, in Lincoln’s day the country was only a few generations removed from its beginnings and there was a deep appreciation for the date. Before the Civil War, and even during the war, both North and South celebrated the day and the founding fathers, especially George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
For Lincoln, however, after about 1846, the day also became a time to reflect on the meaning of equality as stated in the Declaration of Independence and the disassociation he saw between that noble document and the constitutionally protected institution of slavery. He wrote letters and articles for newspapers, gave speeches and made statements in the Illinois Legislature and the U.S. Congress condemning slavery, while admitting it was permitted by the Constitution. He proposed plans to gradually eliminate the “ownership of one human being by another” and to compensate slave owners who would voluntarily free the men, women, and children they held in bondage. By 1850 he felt he had to confront a new wave of pro-slavery activism, primarily from Southern states, which attempted to re-enforce slavery and to justify its expansion to other states and territories. He called slavery “this national abomination” and “our national shame.” He thought the country was “losing its way” and called for a return to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence; and he used the 4th of July as a focal time to express his views against any measure that might perpetuate slavery.
On July 4, 1861, his first as President, and at a time when Confederate military forces had given the Union several early defeats, Lincoln gave an impassioned speech against secession with a call for national sovereignty and unity. He stated that “a few Southern leaders had been drugging the public mind in their section for thirty years” to assure that the slave owners, not the larger public, would benefit from secession, which was intended to keep slavery in perpetuity.
Then in 1863, as the President of a country still divided and embroiled in a devastating Civil War, he wrote a 4th of July speech as a message to Congress and the American people; but, he did not deliver the speech until July 7th! A major battle was raging near Gettysburg between large armies of the Union and the Confederacy and the long siege at Vicksburg was ongoing, with the outcome of both of these epic engagements not yet known. So, Lincoln waited several days until it became clear that the Union would prevail in both areas. For the first time since the War began, Lincoln had reason to be optimistic about the eventual outcome; and his speech reflected his belief that the Union would be perpetual, but secession and slavery would not. Also, unknown to any except a few members of his Cabinet, at the same time he was drafting what would become the Emancipation Proclamation.
Unfortunately, Lincoln was murdered in April 1865 so we can only speculate about a speech he might have written for that 4th of July. The Civil War was over and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which abolished slavery had passed the Senate and the House and was in the ratification process by the states; so can you imagine his message? I personally think it would have been astounding!
I hope you have a wonderful, and reflective, 4th of July.
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