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Lincoln's First Principle

10:15 PM, Jan 19, 2009 • By KEVIN VANCE
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Over the weekend, Barack Obama embarked on a train trip from Philadelphia to Washington reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln's train journey from Springfield prior to his inauguration. As the New York Times says, Obama's pre-inaugural journey "is another nod to history, kicking off a week when the parallels between the 16th and 44th presidents will be plentiful." While Obama's train slowed down to accommodate throngs of cheering supporters along the way, the Philadelphia to Washington leg of Lincoln's journey was conducted under the cover of darkness because of a potential assassination plot. While Lincoln delivered his inaugural address, Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens had already been installed as leaders of an open rebellion, and Confederate agents likely plotted the destruction of the United States within the capital city.

Perhaps Obama's fascination with Lincoln in this bicentennial year of his birth will cause Americans to take a look beyond Lincoln's clothing, favorite foods, and circumstances of birth, to the natural rights philosophy that governed every aspect of the man's political thought.

Before Lincoln left Philadelphia for Washington on the aforementioned train trip, he gave a speech at the site of the founding of the first government to be grounded on the proposition that all men are created equal:

I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here in the place where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live. You have kindly suggested to me that in my hands is the task of restoring peace to our distracted country. I can say in return, sir, that all the political sentiments I entertain have been drawn, so far as I have been able to draw them, from the sentiments which originated, and were given to the world from this hall in which we stand. I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.

Lincoln's affirmation of the principles of the Declaration of Independence recognize the self-evident truth that there is no distinction between any two men that is as great as the difference between men and beasts or men and God. Lincoln shared this view, along with the corresponding principle that slavery is a moral and political evil, with many in the Founding generation.In the past, Barack Obama has avoided saying that the "natural rights" found in the Declaration of Independence were true and binding on governments today. As Obama left Philadelphia by train over the weekend, he said:

And yet, [the Founding Fathers] were willing to put all they were and all they had on the line - their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor - for a set of ideals that continue to light the world. That we are equal. That our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness come not from our laws, but from our maker. And that a government of, by, and for the people can endure. It was these ideals that led us to declare independence, and craft our constitution, producing documents that were imperfect but had within them, like our nation itself, the capacity to be made more perfect.

Obama sounds like he's affirming the Founders' belief in natural rights rather than simply talking about the philosophy behind their "ideals." But the last sentence of this passage is bizarre. He has made it clear that he views the Constitution as a "living" document that must be perfected, but he says that there are "documents" that had "the capacity to be made more perfect." He's not talking only about the Constitution, and he's not talking about the capacity of the nation to become "more perfect" by fulfilling its creedal commitments in the Declaration of Independence since he draws a distinction between the "documents" and the "nation itself." If he is indeed referring to the Declaration of Independence, what part of the Declaration does he think has the capacity to be made more perfect by subsequent generations? The list of grievances against the British crown, or something more fundamental in the philosophical argument for the United States that is presented in the Declaration? As far as I know, Lincoln never talked about improving the Declaration of Independence since it was fundamental to all of his political thought.