Saturday, July 4, 2009

Lincoln's 4th of July Message and the Declaration of Independence

Not July 2nd when independence was voted for (probably to the chagrin of John Adams) nor August 2nd when the Declaration was signed, but July 4th (the date the Declaration was approved) is the day that the United States celebrates its independence from Great Britain.

Therefore, in part because of the symbolic importance of the day and the because of the opportunity to have a special session of Congress approve measures already taken after the fact, it was on July 4 of 1861 that Lincoln’s message to Congress occurred. In describing secession as a “farcical pretense,” Lincoln appealed to the Declaration, “the good old one, penned by Jefferson” over the declarations of the Southern “adversaries.” Lincoln asked why the Southerners had not included the words “all men are created equal.” For the answer he needed to look no further than his friend Alexander H. Stephens who had become the Vice President of the Confederacy.

Stephens in his “Cornerstone Speech” on March 21, 1861, said about the Constitution of the Confederate States that it “had put to rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.” Stephens noted that Thomas Jefferson had been right that the question of slavery would unmake the Union but he was wrong in believing “that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.” Any thoughts during the Founding or after it that slavery might somehow pass from existence in the United States were wrong said Stephens because “[t]hey rested on the assumption of the equality of the races.” The Confederate government on the contrary was “founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” According to Stephens this inequality was a “great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”

Stephens had provided Lincoln with as direct a statement as one could wish for to answer his query and yet Lincoln did not make reference to the speech. In fact, as Frederick Douglass rightly notes, the July 4th message of Lincoln does not speak of slavery. Douglas Wilson states that, as Douglass would understand later, a critical reaction to the lack of antislavery language in the message is exactly what Lincoln sought to provoke. Douglass would much more forcefully say the words which Lincoln would reserve for the Second Inaugural, namely, that slavery was the cause of the war. Whereas Lincoln qualified his statement with “somehow”, Douglass in 1861 said “[e]very reflecting man knows, and knows full well, that the real source and centre of the treason, rebellion and bloodshed under which the country is now staggering as if to its fall, is slavery. Every one knows that this is a slaveholder’s rebellion, and nothing else.” This is not to say Douglass needed a Lincoln message to speak out against the “self-deception” that slavery was not to blame for the war. In his Douglass’ Monthly in June Douglass declared that the “very stomach of this rebellion is the Negro in the condition of a slave. Arrest that hoe in the hands of the Negro, and you smith the rebellion in the very seat of its life.”

The Declaration of Independence, like Lincoln’s message, does not mention slavery. The reason for the omission in the Declaration is because Jefferson was overruled by his fellow slave holders in the Congress and the passages against slavery (including the description of slavery as “War against human Nature itself”) were cut. Nevertheless, it was the Declaration without mention of slavery which Lincoln would elevate to Constitutional status in the Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” In closing the Gettysburg Address Lincoln refined words from his July 4th message (“government of the people, by the same people”) into his exhortation “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.” Lincoln also used the Declaration in his message to run a connecting thread through the Union. From 1776 to the present, the Union was perpetual, the states united, said Lincoln. No “sophism” or “drugging the public mind” of the South could change that fact.

Unlike the “same Bible” which was read and “same God” who was prayed to and invoked for aid by the North and the South, July 4th and the Declaration of Independence which is commemorated on that the day was emptied of content for the Confederacy as much as for the Great Republic of Rough and Ready. Happy birthday, USA!

Cheesy Lincoln

Photo copyright of Reuters/Ray Stubblebine

As a patriotic display of one of the United States’ “big cheeses” (sponsored by Cheez-It), Lincoln was sculpted in cheese by cheesecarver Troy Landwehr. This is the second time of three possible years that Lincoln (therefore the biggest cheese?) has been carved out of cheese by Landwehr. In 2007, he sculpted a Mount Rushmore out of a 700 pound block of Land o’ Lakes brand cheddar cheese. That sculpture met its end in Oklahoma as snack cubes.

This years’ Lincoln cheese sculpture (pictured above) doesn’t share the spotlight with any other Presidents. At 6-feet, 8 inches, it is slightly larger than life. However, this sculpture is just another massive block of cheese depicting Lincoln fated for consumption, eventually. In the meantime, the cheese sculpture is on display and consumers of the Lincoln image will have to settle for Cheez-It snack crackers in stores. The Kellogg’s press release (parent company of Cheez-It) shows the unabashed corporate exploitation of the Lincoln memory: Cheez-It crackers bring the big cheese taste baked into each little bite, so it seems fitting for the brand to tip our hat this year to our nation's 'biggest' president during his bicentennial year.”

Corporate use of Lincoln to make a buck is not new. Lincoln log toys were created in 1916 and are still sold today. Lincoln Motors became the company that Presidents from FDR to Bush Sr. turned to for limousines. The Lincoln National Life Insurance Company (now Lincoln Financial Group) opened in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1905 using, with permission from Robert Todd Lincoln, Lincoln’s likeness. The company’s slogan was “Its name indicates its Character.” A young frontiersman Lincoln was depicted in a statue outside the Fort Wayne office. The company did establish a Lincoln museum in Fort Wayne which they closed after 77 years last June citing poor attendance. One can only wonder if Robert Lincoln would be ok with the interactive Subway sandwich ads from last year for their $5 footlong sandwiches featuring “urban” Lincoln asking potential customers to send out “5 dolla hollas” to friends. See below.

This food hawking Lincoln, whether it is coming from Cheez-It or Subway, is devoid of any semblance of seriousness about the 16th President. Barry Schwartz will argue that Lincoln’s presentation in advertising is more proof that Americans do not respect greatness or heroes. However, the use of Lincoln by these companies surely demonstrates that they think Lincoln resonates well enough to sell products. And, perhaps Lincoln’s national stature is so well founded that there’s nothing to worry about from such advertising among those persons serious enough to care about the Lincoln legacy.