“Lincoln’s Vision of Democracy”

Secretary Jack Kemp

November 19, 1990

            On this field of honor 127 years ago, Providence revealed the future of all mankind.  The battle of Gettysburg confirmed that freedom is not just the God-given birthright of Americans, but the ultimate destiny of men and women everywhere.

            Here a great battle was fought to save the Union . . . but the battle and the war itself were incidental to the larger principle set forth 87 years before in our Declaration of Independence.  Liberty itself hung in the balance . . . a principle so vital to the nation that Mr. Lincoln had once said he “would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.”

            It is with special purpose that we return to this sacred site, for we cannot properly commemorate the Gettysburg Address of 1863 without celebrating what President Bush has called the “revolution of 1989.”

            A hymn of freedom is now resounding in an ever-rising chorus from around the globe.  On the eve of a new century and a new millennium, people all over the world bear witness to the revelation of this battlefield . . . and to the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln’s timeless words.

            Were he here today, I believe Mr. Lincoln would remind us that this global surge towards freedom really began in the Revolution of 1776, the revolution whose ultimate promise won’t be fulfilled until all nations embrace the inalienable rights Jefferson inscribed in our Declaration.

            Abraham Lincoln was not the first to link the success of American democracy to the hopes of all mankind.  From our republic’s earliest days, Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Webster, and other great statesmen believed that the American experiment in human freedom and democracy was without precedent.  They knew, as did Mr. Lincoln, that if democracy failed here, it would not succeed anywhere.

            But until the Civil War, the threat to American democracy had come only from foreign powers.  President Lincoln faced America’s supreme crisis:  the nation that embodied mankind’s last best hope seemed hopelessly divided.

            He believed that “as a nation of free men, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

            By a longstanding tradition now forgotten, Presidents rarely gave public addresses after their inauguration.  Gettysburg was one of Lincoln’s few exceptions.  He yearned for this occasion to unfold the profound meaning of these patriot graves and implant it deep in every American heart.

            On the day of dedication, the President led the procession, riding upright on horseback.  Suddenly the cemetery came into view with its thousands of wooden crosses . . . the temporary resting sites of the fallen.  Lincoln’s head bowed in reverence.

            When later he rose to speak after Edward Everett’s grand two-hour oration, the huge crowd, standing so long and restlessly, was hushed.  Men removed their hats . . . 15,000 people leaned forward to catch the President’s opening words.

            Lincoln did not invoke Jefferson’s “self-evident truths.”  In but 268 inspired words, he spoke instead of an American “proposition” dedicated to the future of human equality and liberty.

            Democracy is not a mathematical deduction proven once for all time.  Democracy is a just faith . . . fervently held . . . a commitment to be tested again and again in the fiery furnace of history.

            President Lincoln came to Gettysburg to teach us that our nation was born of an age-old dream and charged with an eternal mission . . . a nation impelled by its faith to protect itself and to be a “light unto the nations.”

            Slavery was the first great test challenging democracy’s central principle of equality.  Lincoln’s moral indignation over slavery was unbounded.  In his Peoria speech replying to Senator Douglas, he said:

“I hate . . . the monstrous injustice of slavery itself.  I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”

            Slavery was an abomination, a hideous stain defiling the nation’s soul; it could only be cleansed by a baptism of fire in civil war.

            Since the day Lincoln was taken from us by an assassin’s hand, American democracy has met other challenges again and again . . . the injustice of segregation . . . the evil of Jim Crow laws . . . the despair of the Great Depression . . . the crises of two world wars . . . the shameful denial of voting rights and others.

            And I believe our democracy is being tested today by levels of poverty, homelessness, and despair unacceptable to a compassionate and affluent nation.  As the world’s example of democracy we must make it work better at home.

            While acknowledging the achievements of the last decade—the restoration of the spirit of entrepreneurial capitalism at home, the collapse of communist totalitarianism abroad, and the beginning of the triumph of democratic ideals throughout the world—we must recognize that our work is not yet done, that there is much left to be accomplished.  Far too many black and minority Americans have yet to share in our national prosperity and the full promise of the American Dream.

            At a time when democracy is capturing the imagination of Eastern Europe, we are challenged at home in those poor communities where democratic opportunity and entrepreneurial capitalism have yet to be extended, or even tried.

            We must build a new national consensus around economic growth and opportunity, greater access to property, homeownership and housing, jobs and entrepreneurship.  For those left out or left behind, we must bring the great promise of democracy to every community, to every city, and to all our people.

            Abraham Lincoln—the only Chief Executive to have presided over a full-scale civil war—was unparalleled as a proponent of economic and political consensus.  No American statesman ever championed the cause of national unity with stronger resolve.

            So opposed was Lincoln to dividing the nation that after the fearsome battle in these very fields, he paid profound tribute to all the “honored dead,” resisting in magnanimous silence any distinction between the slain of the South and the slain of the North.

            In his pleas for unity, we hear an echo of his first inaugural address, when he said, “We are not enemies, but friends.  We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”  And while Lincoln’s plea went unheeded, he insisted that Americans were one people, one nation “conceived in liberty,” one family with a stake in each other’s welfare . . . and civil war itself could not shake his conviction.

            Lincoln helped establish a political party to form a new national consensus around the Declaration of Independence.  Yet he always put country before party and the next generation before the next election.

            His expansive vision of democracy elevated him above any politics of division, envy, and conflict.

            Today we hear much in our body politic about division . . . of rich against poor, black versus white . . . indeed almost of class warfare, disguised as one word—“fairness.”

            In today’s political vocabulary, fairness seems to have become a euphemism for redistribution of wealth.  But any true concept of fairness must recognize the necessity of a link between individual human effort and reward.

            The advocates of egalitarianism and class warfare talk as if there are limits to growth . . . only so much wealth to go around . . . that life is a static condition . . . and that poverty is perpetual.

            Mr. Lincoln ridiculed this theory.  He envisioned an America where freedom is inseparable from economic, political, and social opportunity, and upward mobility.

            As he put it, the “progress by which the poor, honest, industrious, and resolute man raises himself, that he may work on his own account, and hire somebody else . . . is the great principle for which this government was really formed.”

            We were fortunate to have Governor Cuomo of New York here last year to remind us that Lincoln needs to be shared with the world.  Mr. Cuomo deserves our gratitude for organizing a group of scholars to translate Lincoln’s words on democracy for the people of Poland.  This was an act of enormous generosity and wisdom and let’s pray that Lincoln will soon be available to all peoples in every language.

            But wouldn’t it be tragic if Lincoln’s teachings were misinterpreted by politicians?

            At the very moment when liberal democracy, private property, and free enterprise are bringing down the Iron Curtain and tearing down the wall between East and West, we in America are being asked to choose between two opposing ideas—the politics of class warfare on one hand or Lincoln’s all-embracing vision of boundless democratic opportunity on the other.

            According to the politics of division, we are told that America is divided into two . . . two peoples, one rich, one poor . . . two classes, one upper, one under . . . two cities, one glittering, the other despairing.  This division, we are told, is near immutable, and redistribution of wealth is the only way to make peace.

            We are even supposed to conclude that a Lincoln of our day would elevate the poor by redistributing wealth . . . that he would provide for some, but at the expense of others.

            Of course Mr. Lincoln would be deeply concerned about the extent of poverty, but rather than evoke class conflict, I believe he would move to place poverty, homelessness, and despair on the same “course of ultimate extinction” that he proposed for slavery in his own time.

            Let me share Lincoln’s very own words with you:

            “I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich,” he said, “it would do more harm than good . . . I want every man to have the chance—and I believe a black man is entitled to it—in which he can better his condition—when he may look forward and hope to be hired laborer this year and next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him!  That is the true system.”

            Lincoln’s legacy cannot honestly be claimed by those who would diminish one person to elevate another.

            Why struggle to redistribute existing wealth?  Let us commit ourselves to Lincoln’s vision of democracy—creating new wealth, empowering the poor, opening up access to property, expanding homeownership, creating more jobs, encouraging more entrepreneurs, reducing the need for welfare.

            We all know he favored opening public lands as plots for the poor.  He wanted every poor family to have the opportunity to own their own home and have access to property . . . and in return, they would build the home and improve the land.

            It was one of the most popular measures in American history—and today it is the source of inspiration for a new homesteading program in urban America.  We in the Bush Administration will provide any resident of public housing the same kind of opportunity to control, manage, and ultimately own his or her very own home.

            Yet the Homestead Act did not enhance and empower government.  It enhanced and empowered people.  It not only emancipated the economy; it helped emancipate the poor from poverty and government dependency.  Today, turning low-income people into property owners is the next vital step in combating the conditions of poverty and making democracy work.

            Mr. Lincoln would not offer government as the first alternative for dealing with problems.  He would focus government action where it could be used best—to break down barriers to freedom and opportunity . . . to enable every man and woman to fulfill their potential, develop their God-given talent, and pursue their inalienable right to human happiness.

            After all, isn’t that what the terrible battle fought here was really about . . . the noblest effort any people ever made to dismantle the cruelest barrier to human freedom?

            127 years after Gettysburg, Lincoln’s belief that all human beings are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights—the faith upon which liberal democracy is based—is beginning to prevail around the world.

            Because of democracy’s long march from Independence Hall through Gettysburg to the very streets of Moscow, the world knows the simple yet profound truth:  the yearning for freedom cannot be extinguished . . . the struggle for inalienable rights will never end short of victory . . . nothing can deny the transcendence of democracy.

            As Americans, we cannot rest until the blessings we enjoy are shared by all.  Let us fulfill our Nation’s destiny by making Mr. Lincoln’s great proposition of democracy—set forth on this battlefield—into a self-evident truth for every man, woman, and child on this earth.


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