But Lincoln understood two important ideas, and he brought them together brilliantly. If he called Congress into a special session, he could use democracy to save democracy, increasing spending and public support for the cause of rescuing the Union. By asking this session to meet on July 4, he could tie his efforts to the declaration of independence and to the memory of a country that began in the most idealistic way.
Lincoln never realized the kind of brilliant career in Washington that Jefferson Davis had. His only elective term was a not very successful single term in the House 12 years earlier. But he had a lifelong relationship with the Declaration of Independence, which he had carefully read and re-read since coming across it as a youth inside an Indiana statute book. He seemed to grow talking about it, as he did throughout his debates with Stephen Douglas. He particularly liked the second paragraph, with its promise of basic rights that belong to all humans. Above all “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Together, these human rights constitute a powerful argument against human servitude.
There was also a southern way to read the Declaration, as a free pass for any disgruntled voter who wanted to found a new country after an unpleasant election result. Davis had floated the idea in his farewell address to the Senate, inside the Capitol, six months earlier. He had also gone out of his way to say that black Americans had no rights whatsoever.
But Davis never spoke to the nation—neither nation—on July 4, 1861. He had never shown much interest in history. And he may have found the Declaration uncomfortable for other reasons. Just when it looked like Tennessee might join the Confederacy, the eastern part of the state issued its own “Declaration of Independence” so it could stay in the Union. Similarly, West Virginia was leaving Virginia so it wouldn’t have to leave the United States. Defending the right to secession could make Davis the president of a tiny country.
Lincoln, on the other hand, had a remarkably extensive understanding of the document. His freedoms belonged to all Americans, including immigrants. Over time, he expected these freedoms to grow stronger and reach other peoples living in what he called “the vast future.” We, in other words.
Lincoln also understood the power of the day itself, and on July 4 members of Congress returned to the Capitol for the special session. It was a wet day; a New York columnist who was in Washington complained of “the crowds, the heat, the bad neighborhoods, the bad food, the bad smells, the mosquitoes and an invasion of flies”. But by returning to the Capitol, in a non-violent way, the Americans were reclaiming their democracy.
To capture the heights, Lincoln labored for weeks on a carefully written message that reaffirmed the nation’s highest truths, as a Fourth of July speech should. He argued that the war was “essentially a popular competition” and reminded Americans that democracy required fundamental trust in others to work. If “disgruntled individuals” attacked the government every time they lost an election, with false “sophisms” and other means of “drugging the public spirit”, it would end democracy everywhere. When the ballots have “fairly and constitutionally decided”, there can be no “back to balls” call.
As members of Congress listened to a clerk read it, they often burst into applause, amazed that their new president had found such compelling language.
Many others spoke and wrote about the meaning of America that day. Some Southern newspapers attempted to argue that they were the true heirs of the Revolution; but it was difficult to champion the cause of freedom in the same newspapers that advertised a thousand slaves, as this New Orleans newspaper did on July 4, or reported on a recent double lynching , as did this Memphis newspaper, also on July 4th.
After Congress received Lincoln’s message, he held a series of internal elections, for a new president, doorman, sergeant-at-arms and chaplain, humble but important positions that help advance the people’s business. There were speeches, votes and disagreements, but all disagreements were resolved at the end of a long day. It would have been difficult to organize a more fitting tribute to the idea of America.
The building also looked better than it had in some time, with new flooring, refinished desks, and frescoes cleaned up after being defaced by angry vandals. One newspaper wrote: “Everything looks substantial and comfortable again.
In the afternoon, Lincoln walked out of the White House and up the steps to a gallery on Pennsylvania Avenue. There he stood as thousands of New York soldiers marched past, carrying their colors, and he himself hoisted a flag atop a tall mast. Flags were everywhere in Washington – one newspaper reported, “never have we seen half the number of flags and other patriotic emblems in our city.” Newspapers reported that the Declaration was read over and over again, in all the soldiers’ camps.
One regiment, the Garibaldi Guards, was filled with immigrants; later that day, Lincoln would visit a regiment commanded by a Jewish colonel from Germany. When the soldiers demanded a speech, he was laughed at by saying that the dignity of his position demanded that he say nothing at all, lest he make a mistake.
But he had already said a lot through his message to Congress and his unwavering faith in the Declaration. The real fighting had yet to begin, but by winning the day Lincoln was beginning to win the war. Even with all our divisions, we celebrate one country today, thanks to a very important 4th of July, 160 years ago.