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Perspective: The principle or the law?

David Peterson

I’m deep into at least my 10th book on Abraham Lincoln. This latest one is Jon Meacham’s, And There Was Light. What has struck me hard with Meacham’s book are two dates, July 4, 1776 and November 8, 1864.

Lincoln, who was deeply unpopular at the time, was beset by enormous political pressure in the summer of 1864 to end the war with a compromised peace with the Confederacy, meaning slavery would likely have stayed intact as it was protected by the Constitution. The forces working against him were powerful enough that Lincoln believed he would not be re-elected come that November 8th.

Lincoln’s moral touchstone was the Declaration of Independence, specifically that all people were created equally and were entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” While Lincoln was the consummate politician, he refused to compromise with the Confederates, best captured in a letter dated April 4, 1864, where he wrote, “If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.”

Lincoln easily defeated his Democratic opponent, former Union General George McClellan, who ran on an anti-war platform. The Union had decided it was worth continuing executing a horrific war to end an even more horrific institution. The time had come that the framework of the Constitution caught up with the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.

Which brings me to a few questions on this July 4th. Does part of your patriotism include fighting for equal access to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all citizens? Or just those who look like you and think like you?

Andrew Nelson has been involved in public education in northern Illinois for more than three decades.