July 8, 2011
The Emancipation Proclamation is usually put on display only once a year. For just a few days in Januarys pale light, the much-faded document is offered to public view by the National Archives.
When President Lincoln sat down on January 1, 1863, to sign the document, he noted an error in the engrossed copy placed before him. He directed the State Department clerks to take it back and re-copy it. He knew that the document would be examined with a fine-toothed comb by hostile interpreters. These would include, no doubt, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the author of the infamous Dred Scott opinion that would have permitted slavery in the territories.
Lincoln went on with his New Years duties, shaking hands with thousands of Americans who lined up to visit the Executive Mansion every January 1st. (Actor John Wilkes Booth would have had little trouble filing through with other presidential guests that day.) When the corrected copy of the Proclamation was presented, the presidents right arm began vigorously shaking. He exercised his hand and arm.
Noting the perplexed expressions of his witnesses, he explained that he had been shaking hands for three hours. He wanted a strong, firm signature on the fair copy of the Proclamation. He said my whole heart and soul are in it. He wrote out his full name, Abraham Lincoln. Normally, he signed measures as A. Lincoln.
That will do, he said, as he handed the gold pen to Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Today, when we see this vital document, Abraham Lincolns strong, black signature is the only part of the Proclamation we can actually make out.
And thats almost the case with the Declaration of Independence, too. Visiting the National Archives building with some young New Zealand friends this week, I wanted especially to see how the Declaration was faring. John Hancocks larger-than-life signature is still legible. He wanted the King to be able to read his name without putting on his spectacles. I put on mine.
I cannot say Im happy with the way the National Archives displays the Declaration these days. Its been shunted off to the left. Pride of place is given to the Constitution. It occupies center stage. But why?
Without the Declaration of Independence, without its immortal lines about our being Created equal, being endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, would we have become a nation capable of writing a Constitution? Without understanding those fundamental principles, can we even interpret our Constitution?
What is the relationship between the Declaration and the Constitution? In the 1850s, some Americans sneered at the Declaration. Its a self-evident lie, said one Democratic congressman from Indiana. John C. Calhoun, the great U.S. Senator from South Carolina, boldly asserted that Jefferson and the Founders were dead wrong: All men are not created equal, but unequal, wrote this brilliant defender of slavery. Calhoun understood that the Declaration was a stumbling block to all who would deny those inalienable rights endowed by the Creator.
Abraham Lincoln poetically described the relationship of the Declaration to the Constitution. He looked to Holy Scripture for his inspiration. A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver, Lincoln quoted Proverbs 25:11.
Pictures of silver was the King James Versions way of describing what we would call a picture frame. To Lincoln, the Proposition that all men are Created equal, was the apple of gold, meant to be framed by the silver of the Constitution. It is to the Declaration that we should look when we interpret the Constitution.
We have a Supreme Court Justice today who says that the people of the United States can have abortion-on-demand if they want it; they should simply go to their state legislatures to get it and not to the courts.
How can that be? Only by ignoring what the Declaration has to say about why we have government at all. To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men. Which rights? Those inalienable, God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Could it possibly be the purpose of the Founders in framing the Constitution to deny those inalienable rights? Too many Americans believed that the Constitution was intended to protect slavery. Four million black Americans were denied their inalienable right to libertyuntil Lincoln signed that Emancipation Proclamation.
But both Lincoln and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a former slave, recognized that the Founders labored for liberty and toward liberty. Not one word in the original Constitution, said Douglass, would have to be changed to liberate the slaves. He was right.
Fifty-three million unborn children have been denied their right to life by an errant Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade. It matters very much how we see the relationship of the Declaration to the Constitution.
So, I protest against the shunting aside of the Declaration of Independence at our National Archives. It is not a subordinate document. It is foundational. As Lincoln said at Gettysburg: Fourscore and seven years ago, our Fathers brought for upon this continent a new Nation. Eighty-seven years before he spoke those words brings us to 1776, the date on the Declaration of Independence. It is from that time and those words that we date our national existence. And our highest purposes.