On a hot, summer afternoon in 1858, Abraham Lincoln stood up and gave a two and a half hour campaign speech in Lewistown, Illinois.
It was his reply to Stephen Douglas’s speech, his opponent for the U.S. Senate, given a few days earlier.
While the entire speech is a very worthy read, it’s at the end of the speech that Lincoln shows his innovative brilliance and his prescience.
Lincoln took the crowd to school – where they stood – and gave them a lesson on the Declaration of Independence!
He recalled the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and he interpreted the meaning and intent of the writers and signers in composing the Declaration. In so doing, Lincoln led his listeners to associate, in their own minds, the document with the issue at hand in 1858 – slavery.
But he wrote the entire part in such a way that it appears relevant today. Let’s break it down and see.
[FYI: The pronouns “they” and “their” refer to the writers/signers of the Declaration of Independence. Any bolding is mine for your attention.]
In the first segment of this lesson, Lincoln uniquely emphasizes the marriage of a higher power (mentioned in the Declaration as ‘…endowed by their Creator…’) with the writers/signers’ philosophy and scope of reach in writing the document.
It was his interpretation that:
…In their 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. They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity.
So, if we are Americans who believe the Declaration of Independence still applies to us, then are we accepting the inherent truth that humans are made in the Divine image?
If we accept that truth, then are we also accepting that ‘nothing stamped in the Divine image was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by it’s fellows?‘
If we don’t accept ‘the Divine image‘ truth, do we still accept the second premise that no person is ‘sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and inbruted by it’s fellows?’
[History refresher note: With those two truths and others, the writers/signers justified our split with England, and posted those truths to the world as key pillars to the philosophy of our new country’s government – rule by the people. Do we still believe this same philosophy today?]
Lincoln used his words to paint a vivid picture of the Declaration as a strong guiding light for us (and here it appears he really means the people today):
They erected a beacon to guide their children and their children’s children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages.
Some day, he goes on to say, if we find ourselves in one of two scenarios, we may need this light. Lincoln explains…
…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…
Do either of those scenarios apply to us today?
If they do, Lincoln reminds us that the writers/signers intended that the Declaration is there to serve as the motivator to again take up the fight to keep certain democratic virtues alive in America.
…their posterity [the signers’ future ancestors] 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…virtues might not be extinguished from the land;
Today, are ‘truth, and justice, and mercy…’ threatened in America?
…so that no man would hereafter dare to limit and circumscribe the great principles on which the temple of liberty was being built.
Does Lincoln’s Lewistown speech hold a lesson or a message for us today?
Maybe or maybe not, but it raises quite a few questions doesn’t it?
Food for thought.
 “Speech at Lewistown, Illinois, on August 17, 1858,” Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. v.II:546.