Less than a month after accepting his Senate nomination by the Illinois Republican Party and on the cusp of the famed Lincoln-Douglas Debates, Abraham Lincoln addressed a Chicago crowd on this day in 1858 primed to hear his rebuttal of Stephen Douglas’s rousing speech from the previous day. The body of Lincoln’s speech held no surprises to those in attendance. A clash of ideologies about slavery was at the forefront of the Illinois Senate race, with issues like popular sovereignty, the Dred Scott case, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act playing the main characters.
As he transitioned into his conclusion, however, Lincoln broke from his and Douglas’s usual rhetoric and implored the crowd to remember the historic event surrounding the occasion: Independence Day. He appealed to a few irrefutable ideas held fast by his listeners to drive home his point. Perhaps these same points still hold weight relative to the issues and divisiveness of today.
Lincoln began by establishing that our nation’s founding was the start of something incredible. The transformation from a few ships of religious refugees into a nation of millions was nothing short of revolutionary, pun intended. This common denominator is what links each and every American citizen together to this day regardless of party, religion, or ideology. We are not defined as a nation divided by slave and free, Republican and Democrat, but rather a nation united under a common history.
He went on to warn his audience of the massive consequences that follow the promotion of slavery. If we neglect to recognize and uphold the “electric cord,” as Lincoln put it, that connects each of us as not only Americans, but as humans, we set the stage for a government that has the power to decide who qualifies as worthy to receive the benefits of a “free” society. Perhaps the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction since Lincoln’s day, replacing blatant oppression with subtle desensitization. While life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness must assuredly be applicable to all people, it must also be ensured to be an individual choice.
Their argument is the same… you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it.
As his coup de gras, Lincoln comments about the role of government, which strike an uncanny resemblance to the same basic struggles we are fighting to this day. While he reproved the government for its lack of civil intervention, the government of today seems to be exposed more and more each day as one of extreme intrusion. Ironically, both roads lead to the same destination: destruction of the individual.
When the government fails to perform its most basic function to defend its people, individuals are directly affected. When government micromanages the lives of individuals, whether by forcibly quartering troops in 1765 or penalizing the refusal of health insurance in 2014, people are directly affected.
If Atlas had Shrugged before Lincoln’s time, perhaps he would have quoted the words of Ayn Rand:
The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.
Rights are not limited to those with the least representation. They are not limited to skin pigment. They are not limited to country of origin. They are not limited to those with a certain Sunday ritual. They are limited to the extent by which individuals allow them to be squandered. In the pursuit of a nation with liberty and justice for all, let us not forget the individual most often overlooked and misrepresented, ourselves.