“Four score and seven years ago…” Those are some of the most famous words in American history. Most of us know that President Abraham Lincoln spoke them in what is now known as the Gettysburg Address in 1863, at the official dedication of a cemetery for men who had fallen during the Battle of Gettysburg. And most of us know that Lincoln was referring to 1776 and the Founding Fathers who wrote the Declaration of Independence. But why
did Lincoln mention that year and that event in the very first line of his speech that day?
That is one of the questions that Lucas E. Morel
answers in his short but illuminating book, Lincoln and the American Founding
(SIUP, 2020). In a time when some Americans are vandalizing statues and other artistic representations of the Founding Fathers and even some of Lincoln and going so far as portraying the men of the founding generation as villains, Morel’s book is vital reading. Morel tells us which of the founders Lincoln particularly admired, why the Declaration was of greater import to Lincoln’s political thinking than the Constitution and how Lincoln turned to the Declaration again and again throughout his adult life as ammunition in his argumentation and as a source of personal inspiration and aspiration for the nation as a whole.
Morel also brings into focus long-ago debates such as that over the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 and explains why Lincoln was so reluctant to declare himself an abolitionist but also why he was adamant that as the newly elected president and head of the quite new Republican party, he could not make any concessions to the Secessionists. Morel makes the case for Lincoln as master logician in his debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858 as Lincoln tried to persuade his fellow white Americans that not only was slavery unjust but that it was an unsustainable foundation on which to base governance in any part of the growing nation.
This is a gem of a book by a scholar for a general audience in need of an understanding of how the founders influenced Lincoln and, thereby, all of us.
Give a listen.
Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher.