By Jack Kemp
February 3, 2009 for Townhall.com
No matter where we are on Feb. 12, every American from sea to shining sea will celebrate the 200th birthday of our greatest president — Abraham Lincoln. Song, speech, pageant and ceremony will mark the occasion.
The nation’s capital, where Lincoln helped preserve the Union, will offer numerous opportunities to celebrate. The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission hosts the national ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial, a birthday breakfast, and a Webcast teach-in available to students around the world.
Congress pays tribute in the Capitol Rotunda, and the Library of Congress opens its national exhibit.
Exhibits at several Smithsonian museums offer glimpses into the 16th president’s life with photos, documents and artifacts. In celebrating Lincoln and his legacy of freedom, democracy and equality of opportunity, we celebrate the true meaning of America.
Few leaders in history have captured the hearts and minds of so many people in so many nations as Abraham Lincoln. He is so universally revered that he sometimes seems as much a president for the world as for our own country. From Springfield, Ill., to Warsaw, Poland, from Red Square to Tiananmen Square, Lincoln is an inspiration.
There is a very logical global extension of Lincoln’s view of the “American idea” — that the principles enunciated in America’s Declaration of Independence are universal, and that freedom is not just for some people, but for all people, and not just for one time, but for all time.
These ideals were the driving force behind Lincoln’s life and his political career. The Declaration of Independence was so central to his politics, and so close to his heart, that in the bleak winter of 1861, on his journey from Springfield to the inauguration in Washington, he felt he had to stop at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
He knew the American experiment in democracy and freedom was in grave peril, as was his own life. And in the very building where the declaration was signed, Lincoln spoke of that “something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”
And then Lincoln added the words that prophesied his destiny, and that of our nation: “If this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle, I was about to say that I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.”
Lincoln risked both his career and his life to save the Union and defend the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people.
Were he with us today, Lincoln would remind us that the global surge toward freedom really began in the Revolution of 1776, the revolution whose promise won’t be fulfilled until all nations embrace the inalienable rights Thomas Jefferson inscribed in our declaration.
Lincoln was not the first to link the success of American democracy to the hopes of all mankind. From our republic’s earliest days, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and other great statesmen believed that the American experiment in human freedom and democracy was without precedent — and would, if successful, be a precedent for others.
It is interesting to speculate how different our nation might be today had Lincoln been given the chance to guide America through Reconstruction. It is as true now as it was then that so much depends on having the right leadership with the right motives and at the right time in history. Tragically, from the Emancipation Proclamation until this day, the dream of equality of opportunity and freedom for all has yet to be completely achieved.
But Lincoln showed us the way. He believed that the American system of upward mobility was the bedrock of our democracy, that no individual is excluded from the American Dream and that poverty is not a permanent condition. And, like the story of the “Good Shepherd” from Hebrew and Christian scripture, he believed we must move forward, but not leave anyone behind.
Lincoln drew on this classical liberal view of human nature when he introduced the Homestead Act of 1862, which transferred over a million acres of public lands in the West to the immigrant-poor and became the most successful anti-poverty program in American history.
Within a year, nearly 100,000 homesteaders and immigrants eagerly seized the opportunity to own their own land. They built homes and farms on 1.5 million acres, forging better lives for themselves, their families and indeed their country.
His support for the Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862 revolutionized higher education in America and was a blessing to millions of future students — and to the nation that benefited from their cultivated creativity and genius.
For Abraham Lincoln, true welfare meant not dependency, but well-being; not equality of reward, but equality of opportunity; not reliance on the state, but reliance on oneself and one’s family. He wrote, prophetically, “The progress by which the poor, honest, industrious and resolute man raises himself, that he may work on this own account and hire somebody else … is the great principle for which this government was really formed.”
Professor Gabor Boritt, in his great book “Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream,” cited the rest of Lincoln’s argument:
“I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it would do more harm than good. … I want every man to have the chance — and I believe a black man is entitled to it — in which he can better his condition — when he may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him! That is the true system.”
In the most “radical” speech Abraham Lincoln ever gave, he compared America to a house divided against itself, half-slave and half-free. I would submit that today America is once again in danger of being divided — this time, however, into two economies, one rich, the other poor; one affluent, the other in abject poverty; one a springboard to opportunity, the other a trap of despair and dependency.
Lincoln understood that it is impossible to support equality of economic opportunity without also upholding equal civil, human and voting rights for all.
Until the Civil War, the threat to American democracy had come primarily from foreign powers, but Lincoln faced America’s supreme crisis: The nation that embodied mankind’s last, best hope seemed hopelessly divided. He believed that “as a nation of free men, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
Slavery was the first great test challenging the American democracy’s central principle of equality. Lincoln’s moral indignation over slavery was unbounded. In his 1854 Peoria speech replying to the little giant, Sen. Douglas, he said:
“I hate … the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world — enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites — causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty — criticizing the Declaration of Independence and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”
To Lincoln, slavery was an abomination, a hideous stain defiling the nation’s soul; it could only be cleansed by a baptism of fire in civil war.
Since the day Lincoln was taken from us by the assassin’s cowardly hand, American democracy has met great challenges again and again: the injustice of segregation, the evil of “Jim Crow” laws, the despair and economic contraction of the Great Depression, the crises of two world wars, the shameful unconstitutional denial of voting rights, among others.
Our democracy is being tested today not only by our war against terrorism here and abroad, but also by levels of poverty, homelessness and despair unacceptable to a compassionate and affluent nation here at home. As the world’s leading example of democratic capitalism, we must make it work better at home so that all our people are empowered and fully enjoy true equality of opportunity.
On the eve of the bicentennial celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, and 145 years after his Gettysburg speech, Lincoln’s belief that all human beings are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights — the faith upon which liberal democracy is based — is still the last, best hope of people around the world.
Because of democracy’s long march from Independence Hall through Gettysburg to the streets of foreign lands, the world increasingly knows this simple yet profound truth: The yearning for freedom cannot be extinguished, the struggle for inalienable rights will never end, and nothing can deny the transcendence of liberal democratic values.