Posted by: Harold Knight | 11/25/2012

“…a new birth of freedom…”

The Gettysburg Address

The Gettysburg Address

If any of the ideas here are cogent, interesting, or plausible, they are not mine. They are an amalgam taken freely and synthesized from the sources listed below. For the writings of these scholars I am most grateful, and I suggest they are necessary reading.

Thomas Jefferson’s Presidency was the most important in American history—in my history layman’s opinion. Abraham Lincoln’s was the second most important—but Jefferson’s needed Lincoln’s to be complete. I am not a historian. My opinion is based on feelings and personal reactions, not scholarship or depth of thinking. I like what I know about those two men. (I have not yet, by the way, seen the new movie, Lincoln. Who knows, I might change my mind after I do. And it is possible that the movie-going public will already know or flatly reject the argument I am about to make.)

I dabble in Lincoln and Jefferson studies. Let me repeat my painful awareness that I am not a historian. I am not a scholar. I am not a philosopher. And so on. I am a teacher of first-year college writing who has used the writings of Jefferson and Lincoln as the grist for the mills of his students’ writing for about six years. I have researched just enough about both to be able to discern when a student writes gobble-de-gook and when she writes something based somewhat in historical probability.

Here’s why I use the writings of these two men as the material for “discovery” in my classes.

Putting aside all the complex questions of originality (he copied from Locke and Rousseau and other Enlightenment thinkers) what is the importance of Jefferson’s (or Benjamin Franklin’s or other members of the drafting committee’s) inclusion in the Declaration of Independence of the extraordinarily radical phrase, “All men are created equal?” You and me sister, you and me brother. You and me, Karl Rove. You and me, Alice Walton. You and me, Janette St. John. You and me, Javier Criado.

But I need to back up a step. Before we are equal, we are free. Jefferson’s “Virginia Act to Establish Religious Freedom” begins, “Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free. . .” This “mind free” business is the reason religious equality—the absolute lack of coercion from the state or society on anyone’s conscience—is necessary. From the freedom of conscience flow all other freedoms. Without this freedom of mind, there would be no need for “equality.” We are created free. That is what makes us equal. The latter depends on the former. Jefferson’s “Virginia Act” makes this clear.

We are equal because we are born free. Equality doesn’t mean, of course, that some of us aren’t smarter, or don’t have stronger leg muscles and can dunk a basketball, or have vocal chords that can be trained to make noises more beautiful than the rest of us; or that some of us don’t inherit cancer genes. Equality is not about sameness. It’s about position at the beginning of our lives. Because we are born free, we inherently possess  equal opportunity to make the most of our own personal bag of tricks and tools. That equality gives us a voice in how we all get along with each other in society. I don’t have a mind like David J. Wineland’s, but I have precisely as much say in how the public schools are funded as he does. Take that, all you geniuses. We’re equals. My name won’t be in the annals of anything when I die, and no one outside my circle of friends and family will know I’m gone. But David J. Wineland came and I came from exactly the same place and will end up in exactly the same place. So we have exactly the same say in how things are run around here. It’s the same as Alice Walton and David H. Koch with their billions, regardless how many art museums they endow or how much money they give to Nova on PBS. And this is true no matter what Antonin Scalia, in his misguided and dangerous interpretation of the idea, says. Mr. Justice Scalia does not understand Jefferson. You have to be a personto be equal.

the mind free

the mind free

Corporations, for example, are not born free.

Along comes Abraham Lincoln. It apparently took him awhile, but he finally got it. “. . . a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” For my money, that’s the most important statement any U.S. president ever made. You see, he did not say “dedicated to the fact that all men are created equal.” A proposition is something to be debated. Lincoln rightly understood that, although they said it in their revolutionary document, Jefferson and his cronies dedicated themselves to debating equality, not affirming it when it came to writing the Constitution. They agreed we’re all free, but they could only debate equality. The debate centered mostly on whether or not black people were equal to the people who claimed to “own” them. But it also included (eventually) the question whether or not women were born free and thus equal to the men who subjugated them. And many others, as we well know. Our “fathers” brought forth a nation –the first such nation—where these questions could be debated.

Even before Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated President, the leaders of the states where the debate about equality had been put on hold for economic reasons were afraid that Lincoln was serious about advancing the debate. So they withdrew from it. And it took the bloodiest war in the history of the “nation so conceived and so dedicated” to bring them back to the discussion—back to the serious debate of the proposition.

But Abraham Lincoln, in his uncannily clear-headed understanding of Jefferson’s real meaning in saying “all men are created equal,” announced that what the nation needed was “a new birth of freedom.” Equality is not possible without freedom. For example, if I am not free to reject religion, then my practice of religion is not equal. If I am not free to vote, then my vote is not equal to the vote of someone who is.

Splitting hairs, you say? Playing word games. No. The birth of true freedom in this nation will make fact of our belief that all men are created equal. Only with this new birth of freedom, conceived in liberty, will we finally conclude the debate over the “proposition.” Then we will be able to put to rest the argument of who is truly human and who is not.

a new birth of freedom

a new birth of freedom

This nation, according to Lincoln, was “conceived” in Jefferson’s hope—not the fact, but his hope—that the nation would come to understand that all people are born free—free in conscience, free in imagination, free in body. Therefore, all people are born equal. And when we put aside the argument—when, for example, we stop referring to some persons as “illegal”—over equality, then and only then can we be born into true freedom.

Jefferson, Lincoln. The two together defined the America I want to live in.

  • Basler, Roy P. “Abraham Lincoln’s Rhetoric.” American Literature 11.2 (1939): 167.
  • Field, Peter S. “Abraham Lincoln and the First-Person Plural: A Study in Language and Leadership.” American Nineteenth Century History 12.1 (March 2011), 49-75.
  • Gramm, Kent. November: Lincoln’s Elegy at Gettysburg. Indiana University Press, 2001.
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Responses

  1. I enjoyed your post. I’m mulling it over, but some thoughts come immediately to mind. The freedoms protected in our Constitution, while assumed to be the birthright of all men, are not positive and absolute. The Bill of Rights simply mandates that the government may not infringe on those rights. That’s why my employer may and does limit my speech on, and in the age of the internet, off the job. Additionally, by relying on government and the law to act as the protector of rights, we grant it the authority to restrict those rights. The law that made African Americans slaves is the same law that granted them freedom. The same law that grants corporate personhood, protects the “free speech” rights of the corporate person at the expense of the citizen. Lacking any absolute rights, the citizen becomes a victim of the depredations of the powerful, her freedoms illusory and equality a dream. Government and the law, rather than the supreme guarantor of freedom and equality, becomes in the hands of the powerful a mechanism of oppression. I’m just shooting from the hip here. I’m struggling to articulate a vague feeling. I’ve probably done a shitty job, but I haven’t finished my coffee yet.

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    • I said nothing about government granting freedom. Read Jefferson again: “Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free. . .” Our freedom depends only on the fact that we are created with free minds–free conscience–free thought. The only way government can have any effect on our freedom is to restrict it. And Lincoln says–as Jefferson says–we need a new birth of freedom, that is, a new birth of a people who understand freedom and will allow government to do nothing to restrict freedom.

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  2. […] A new birth of freedom. […]

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  3. […] love to teach my writing course using the Gettysburg Address as the only primary source for research and writing. Abraham Lincoln understood as no other […]

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