In commemoration, New Jersey Star-Ledger deputy editor Jim Miller has a nice column on the address. Miller notes that when Lincoln opened his speech with "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," Lincoln was not engaging in mere "political posturing." Lincoln's words were drawn from his deep and long-held convictions. Miller writes in what I think is the most important passages in his article:
The speeches that brought Lincoln to national attention in the 1850s leave no doubt of his commitment to the declaration’s claim that “all men are created equal.” When other politicians were shying away from the declaration and calling it “self-evident lies,” Lincoln took the opposite tack, urging that equality was the “central idea” in American politics. This was why slavery was the key problem.
“If the negro is a man,” Lincoln said in 1854, “why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal;’ and there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.” He then went on to argue that slavery was incompatible with self-government, which was the basic principle of American democracy. “Allow ALL the governed an equal voice in the government, and that, and that only is self-government.” To the objection that this was too idealistic and too remote from the prevailing circumstances, Lincoln argued that the “constant working” of American public opinion “has been a steady progress toward the practical equality of all men.”
The Founders understood equality to mean equality before the law, and that only. Lincoln undoubtedly understood that as well.
The lesson to take away from The Gettysburg Address is this: Lincoln, like the Founders, understood the indispensable connection between the inalienable rights of the individual and a workable system of self-government. Either every person's rights are recognized and protected, or there can be no self-government. How long can self-government last if the voting majority can vote away the rights of the minority, including voting them into slavery?
And it almost didn't last. The contradiction between the legalized Southern slavery and the Declaration of Independence could not hold. Either slavery had to go, or the great American achievement exalting the sovereignty and sanctity of the individual had to go.
Self-government only works when the power of the majority, and thus the government's law-making powers, is limited. Limited by what? The inalienable rights of man. As the Declaration of Independence states, rights are liberties to pursue one's own happiness, derived from the right to life; note—the pursuit, not a government guarantee, of happiness. Philosopher Ayn Rand identified the principle most clearly: "Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law."
There is a lesson applicable to today's world as well. The ancient evils of statism and collectivism are on the rise in America, once again threatening and undermining the Declaration of Independence. As with the Southern slavery of old, modern American statism/collectivism is a contradiction that can not hold. Either collectivism must go, or the Declaration's promise of Individualism must go. The two cannot coexist.
It is fashionable to believe that the principles on which America was founded, and which Lincoln reaffirmed, are no longer relevant to the modern world. They are outdated, this thinking goes. Those principles were useful at the time of the rebellion against Britain, but the world has changed and moved on.
At the same time, people lament the growing dysfunction and polarization in politics and in society at large. But the dysfunction and polarization are a direct consequence of the fact that the founding ideals are applicable, but ignored. The ideals laid out in the Declaration of Independence, America's philosophic blueprint, have been largely abandoned.
The Declaration's basic message—the message conveyed in the expression "American Exceptionalism"—is that all people have inalienable individual rights, rights which a government is created for the sole purpose of protecting equally and at all times. Today, the government has become the hired gun for the most powerful political factions of the moment to impose its values on and/or to forbid the pursuit of values of any minority, including of the smallest and only morally relevant minority—the individual. Is it any wonder that our political and economic culture is slowly but steadily breaking down into what Ayn Rand called a "cold civil war" of pressure groups?
President Lincoln reaffirmed the principles of political equality, self-government, and, by implication, of inalienable individual rights. He implored Americans to re-dedicate themselves to those ideals—"that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Americans today should do no less.
General McChrystal's Un-American Call for Universal National Service
Textbook of Americanism—Ayn Rand
Individualism vs. Collectivism: Our Future, Our Choice—Craig Biddle