As our national political discourse has coarsened in recent years, some have felt emboldened to make racist, homophobic and sexist comments. Our president regularly attacks a free press, questions judicial independence and cozies up to dictators with little respect for civil rights. It seems the most fundamental concepts upon which our nation was founded are under attack.
Nearly 160 years ago this week, Abraham Lincoln warned us that this could happen.
In 1858, he was running for the U.S. Senate against Stephen A. Douglas. On the morning of Aug. 17, a crowd of “one hundred horsemen” from Lewistown, Ill., rode out to meet Lincoln, who was coming to the town to give a campaign speech. It’s said that a brass band escorted the candidate into town.
At two o’clock in the afternoon on the hot summer day, Lincoln started to address a large crowd in front of the old courthouse. He spoke for two and a half hours. Yet, as a reporter for the Chicago Press and Tribune noted, there were “more listeners at the conclusion than at the beginning.”
The newspaper published long excerpts of what the reporter called “the most powerful argument ever heard in Old Fulton,” the county that includes Lewistown.
In the speech, Lincoln criticized Douglas for refusing to take a clear position on the morality of slavery. Lincoln argued that the Declaration of Independence’s claim that “all men are created equal” did, in fact, refer to all people, not just whites. He said: “In [the founding fathers’] 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.”
“Wise statesmen as they were,” Lincoln continued, “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 the 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.”
The crowd erupted into loud cheers.
Lincoln went on: “Now, my countrymen, if you have been taught doctrines in conflict with the great landmarks of the Declaration of Independence; if you have listened to suggestions which would take away from its grandeur and mutilate the fair symmetry of its proportions; if you have been inclined to believe that all men are not created equal in those inalienable rights enumerated in our charter of liberty, let me entreat you to come back. Return to the fountain whose waters spring close by the blood of the revolution. Think nothing of me – take no thought for the political fate of any man whomsoever – but come back to the truths that are in the Declaration of Independence. You may do anything with me you choose, if you will but heed these sacred principles.”
If only all our presidents could be as eloquent.
Last week, almost 160 years to the day after Lincoln’s defense of our country’s ideals, a news photographer took a picture of two men at a Trump rally in Ohio wearing T-shirts that said: “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat.”
Although Lincoln was talking about slavery in his speech, the racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-press, pro-rich, pro-despot rhetoric we hear from Trump and many of his supporters (like the two men in the T-shirts) would have troubled Lincoln.
Our nation was not built on fear, prejudice or greed. We all have to rededicate ourselves to the noble principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution – equality, trust, justice, and mercy. That’s what Abraham Lincoln told us to do when faced with someone like Trump. Now if we can just figure out exactly how to do that.