‘Lift the weight from all:’ How Lincoln viewed July 4

On February 11, 1861, Abraham Lincoln began his trip from Illinois to the nation’s capital for his inauguration as the country’s’ 16th President. When he left Illinois, seven southern states had already seceded from the Union, with four more to follow.

Lincoln took a somewhat circuitous route, first going through Indiana, Ohio and western Pennsylvania, before turning north, going to Buffalo, Albany and New York City. Ten days later, on February 21st, he arrived in Philadelphia, home of Independence Hall—where both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were ratified.

The following morning, Lincoln left his hotel very early in the morning and rode by carriage to deliver two speeches. The second speech was to honor the raising of a new flag, with 34 stars, the new star marking the inclusion of Kansas into the Union.

Lincoln’s first speech was made at the request of Theodore L. Cuyler, president of the Select Council of Philadelphia at Independence Hall. In his speech, Lincoln reflected on the Founders of ´76, who courageously declared their independence, and asserted the “self-evident truths” upon which our nation was founded.

Just as with the Gettysburg address, Lincoln’s remarks were brief yet timeless. In an earlier speech, he famously stated that everything had a “central idea” from which all else emanates. For Lincoln, the “central idea” of America was the Declaration of Independence. In his February 22, 1861 speech, he returns to this theme of the centrality of the Declaration, both for the nation and for himself.

It is fitting that we reflect on Lincoln’s words again this Independence Day. The following is a transcript of his speech as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer:

I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here, in this 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 the present distracted condition of the 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.

I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here, and framed and adopted that Declaration of Independence. I have pondered over the toils that were endured by the officers and soldiers of the army who achieved that Independence. I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland; but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men.

This is a sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world, if I can help to save it. If it cannot be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle, I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.

Now, in my view of the present aspect of affairs, there need be no bloodshed and war. There is no necessity for it. I am not in favor of such a course, and I may say, in advance, that there will be no bloodshed unless it be forced upon the Government, and then it will be compelled to act in self-defence.

My friends, this is wholly an unexpected speech, and I did not expect to be called upon to say a word when I came here. I supposed it was merely to do something toward raising the flag. I may, therefore, have said something indiscreet. (Cries of “No, no”) I have said nothing but what I am willing to live by and, if it be the pleasure of Almighty God, die by.

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