July Fourth is traditionally a day to celebrate not only America’s founding but also the exceptional nature of our great country. Coming this year in the middle of one of the nastiest presidential campaigns in recent memory, it would certainly be refreshing to hear from candidates on American exceptionalism, but somehow I doubt that either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is up to the task. They should take a lesson from one of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, who, even before he became president, understood that we are a unique people, unlike any other in human history.
We think of the 2016 campaign as one of the most contentious ever, but the 1858 campaign for U.S. senator from Illinois makes the current presidential campaign look like a schoolyard tug of war. At the time, senators were elected not in a popular vote as they are today but by the legislatures of their respective states. Nonetheless, Stephen Douglas, the incumbent Democratic senator, and Republican Abraham Lincoln, a former one-term representative from Illinois, appealed directly to the people in the course of the campaign through a series of debates, which became known as the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Lincoln lost his bid to become senator when the Republican Party failed to gain control of the Illinois Legislature, but the debates formed the basis of Lincoln’s national reputation and set the stage for the 1860 presidential race, which was the most consequential in our nation’s history.
The issue of slavery was very much the focal point of the debates in 1858. The immediate issue was not the abolition of slavery or the emancipation of slaves — something that would come later and take the Civil War to accomplish — but whether slavery could be expanded into the new western territories of Nebraska and Kansas. Over and over again, through the course of the debates, Lincoln returned to what he saw as America’s founding principles, the adherence to which binds Americans more strongly than any ties of blood or soil.
Before the formal debates between Lincoln and Douglas began in August, both men gave speeches to respective audiences shortly after the Independence Day holiday. In Lincoln’s speech in Chicago, he noted that the Fourth of July celebrations popular at the time had become almost a form of hero worship. “We run our memory back over the pages of history for about 82 years and we discover … a race of men living in that day whom we claim as our fathers and grandfathers,” he said. “But after we have done all this, we have not yet reached the whole,” he added. And it is what Lincoln said next that should be repeated for today’s voters:
“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. They are men who have come from Europe — German, Irish, French and Scandinavian — men that have come from Europe themselves or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things.”
In Lincoln’s view, what made Americans American was that they could find these words written in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal.” Americans read that, “and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to (the Founding Fathers), 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.”
Unfortunately, we are in danger of losing that principled definition of what it means to be American. The left encourages immigrants to hold on to their past, not adopting a new American identity but retaining their native language and allegiances. The right frets that today’s immigrants cannot or will not become Americans as previous waves did. Neither is right.
A much smaller portion of America’s population now than in Lincoln’s day can claim to be descended from that first group of Americans who broke with King George III. Nor do most immigrants come from Europe now. But all of us, no matter where our ancestors came from or how recently they came, are still bound by the principles of our founding. It is adherence to that American creed that we should celebrate this July Fourth — and we should insist that those who want to lead us pledge allegiance to it.