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But Lincoln understood two important ideas, and he brilliantly combined them. If he convened a special session of Congress, he could use democracy to save democracy by increasing spending and public support to save the Union. By calling for that July 4th session, he was able to combine his efforts with the declaration of independence and the memory of a country that began in the most idealistic way.
Lincoln had never had such a brilliant career in Washington as Jefferson Davis. His only electoral office was a single term in the House of Representatives, not very successful, 12 years earlier. But he had a lifelong relationship with the Declaration of Independence, which he had carefully read and reread since meeting it as a teenager in a book of Indiana statutes. He seemed to get bigger as he talked about it, as he did during his debates with Stephen Douglas. He especially loved the second paragraph with its promise of the fundamental rights that all human beings are entitled to. Above all “life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness”. Together, these human rights made a strong argument against human bondage.
There was also a southern reading of the declaration, as a free pass to any disgruntled voter who wanted to found a new country after an unpleasant election result. Davis had voiced the idea six months earlier in his Senate farewell speech in the Capitol. He had also gone out of his way to say that black Americans had no rights.
But Davis never spoke to the nation on July 4, 1861 – neither nation. He had never shown much interest in history. And he may have found the explanation uncomfortable for other reasons. Just when it appeared that Tennessee might join the Confederation, the eastern part of the state issued its own “Declaration of Independence” to stay in the Union. West Virginia also left Virginia in order not to have to leave the United States. Defending the right to secession could make Davis president of a very small country.
Lincoln, on the other hand, had a remarkably thorough understanding of the document. His freedoms belonged to all Americans, including immigrants. In the course of time he expected that these freedoms would grow stronger and reach other peoples who would live in what he called “the great future”. We, in other words.
Lincoln also understood the power of the day itself, and on July 4th, members of Congress returned to the Capitol for the special session. It was a sultry day; a New York diary writer who was in Washington complained of “crowds, heat, poor quarters, poor food, bad smells, mosquitoes and a nuisance of flies”. But by returning to the Capitol non-violently, the Americans were demanding their democracy back.
To conquer the heights, Lincoln spent weeks working on a carefully written message that conveyed the highest truths of the land, as a July 4th speech was supposed to do. He argued that the war was “essentially a people’s competition” and reminded Americans that democracy requires a basic trust in others in order to function. If “dissatisfied individuals” were to attack the government with false “sophisms” and other methods of “drugs of public opinion” every time they lost an election, democracy everywhere would end. If the ballots are “fair and constitutional” there cannot be a “back to the ball” appeal.
When congressmen listened to a scribe, they often burst into applause, stunned that their new president had found such convincing language.
Many others spoke and wrote about the importance of America on that day. Some southern newspapers have tried to argue that they were the real heirs of the revolution; but it was hard to cover the same papers that advertised for a thousand slaves as this New Orleans paper on July 4th, or a recent double-lynch, as this Memphis paper also did on July 4th on the Freedom Cause to argue, hard to argue.
After Congress got Lincoln’s message, it held a series of internal elections for a new spokesman, doorkeeper, sergeant, and chaplain, humble but important positions that will help move the people’s business forward. There were speeches and votes and disagreements, but all disagreements were resolved at the end of a long day. A more fitting homage to the idea of America would have been difficult.
The building also looked better than it had in a while, with new floors, repainted desks, and frescoes cleaned after being defaced by angry vandals. One newspaper wrote: “Everything looks substantial and comfortable again.”
In the afternoon, Lincoln left the White House and climbed the steps to a critic’s booth on Pennsylvania Avenue. There he stood as thousands of New York soldiers marched past them with their flags, and he was hoisting a flag himself at the top of a high flagpole. There were flags everywhere in Washington – one newspaper reported, “We have never seen half of the flags and other patriotic emblems in our city.” The newspapers reported that the declaration was read over and over again in the soldiers’ camps.
One regiment, the Garibaldi Guards, was filled with immigrants; Later that day, Lincoln visited a regiment commanded by a Jewish colonel from Germany. When the soldiers asked for a speech, he made himself laugh by saying that the dignity of his position required saying nothing at all for fear of pretending to be.
But he had already spoken volumes with his message to Congress and his unwavering belief in the Declaration. The real fighting hadn’t started yet, but Lincoln won the war by winning the day. Despite all our divisions, we are celebrating a single country today thanks to a very important July 4th 160 years ago.