Tag Archives: Declaration of Independence

Lincoln’s Own Flag Day

By Zachary Klitzman

Let’s face it: Flag Day — which commemorates the official adoption of the Stars and Stripes by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777 — is not the most widely celebrated holiday in America. An informal survey of the staff calendars at President Lincoln’s Cottage revealed that only 50% of the calendars listed the “holiday” (Father’s Day, Hallmark would be happy to know, appeared on all six calendars). In fact, in a 1998 survey, only 27 percent of Americans who participated said they knew when Flag Day is and what it means, whereas 18 percent were unaware of both the meaning and timing of the holiday. (The majority of those polled could name either the date or the meaning of the celebration, but not both.)

The holiday first came to national prominence when 19-year old Wisconsin school teacher Bernard J. Cigrand had his kids celebrate the “flag’s birthday” on June 14, 1885 by writing essays on what the flag meant to them. In subsequent years he traveled around the country promoting a June 14th Flag Day.  On May 30, 1916, Cigrand’s dream became officially recognized, as President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation calling for a nationwide observance of Flag Day June 14th. Subsequently, in 1949 President Truman signed an Act of Congress designating the 14th day of June every year as National Flag Day. (Despite the legislation, Flag Day is not an officially observed U.S. Federal Holiday, and only one state, Pennsylvania, celebrates it as an official State Holiday.)

Though the holiday commemorates an event that took place during the War of Independence, the Civil War played a role in the history of the Flag. Nearly 30 years before Cigrand celebrated the flag’s birthday, Hartford, Connecticut observed Flag Day on June 14, 1861, using the commemoration to pray for the Union army and its goal of saving the country. However, the holiday did not catch on elsewhere in the country nor was it celebrated again in Hartford in subsequent years.

Lincoln himself never celebrated the holiday. Yet he made a very important decision in the Flag’s history as President. As he journeyed to Washington, D.C. for his 1861 inauguration, Lincoln spoke at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on February 22. Inside the historical building, Lincoln talked about how he was determined to uphold the legacy of the Founders and the Declaration, saying “all the political sentiments I entertain have been drawn … from the sentiments which originated, and were given to the world from this hall in which we stand.” He even went so far as to say that if he could not save the Union while adhering to the principles of the Declaration, “I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender” the document.

Abraham Lincoln raising a flag at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, in honor of the admission of Kansas to the Union on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1861. Library of Congress

After giving his patriotic speech, Lincoln participated in a flag-raising ceremony outside the building to honor Kansas’ recent admission to the Union on January 29, 1861. Giving brief remarks before raising the new 34-starred flag (see image), Lincoln started by mentioning that though the flag the Founders originally raised at Independence Hall “had but 13 stars,” “each additional star added to that flag has given additional prosperity and happiness to this country.” Therefore, “cultivating the spirit that animated our fathers, who gave renown and celebrity to this Hall, cherishing that fraternal feeling which has so long characterized us as a nation … I think we may promise ourselves that not only the new star placed upon that flag shall be permitted to remain there to our permanent prosperity for years to come, but additional ones shall from time to time be placed there.” In these few words, Lincoln stated his policy that despite Southern states succeeding from the Union, their symbolic representation on the Flag of the United States would not be removed. Instead, they would continue to adorn the national symbol of unity.

Mr. Klitzman is Executive Assistant at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

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Reflections on Evolving Views

By Erin Carlson Mast

One hundred and fifty years ago, our country was deeply divided over an issue of individual liberty—slavery.  We are currently divided over yet another issue of personal freedom.   What’s more, political analysts and journalists are drawing comparisons between Obama’s recent self-proclaimed evolving views on the issue of gay marriage to  Lincoln’s evolving views and policies regarding slavery. As a place that spends a great deal of time studying the ideas and actions of our 16th President, as well as the political, economic, social, and religious culture of his day, when Lincoln makes national news, President Lincoln’s Cottage feels an obligation to provide non-partisan, thoughtful comment for reflection.

Consider this: Today, many of our visitors want to know why it took Lincoln so long to act on slavery.  The answer is complex.  Many things only seem obvious in retrospect.  Lincoln is, appropriately, most remembered for the Emancipation Proclamation, developed at the Cottage, in which he helped an entire population take a step closer to enjoying their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  But when he issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, while living here, there was strong opposition.  (It is worth noting, Lincoln did not have a spotless record when it came to other issues involving civil liberties.  And let there be no mistake, many other populations, such as women, were still being denied rights in Lincoln’s lifetime that we take for granted today.)

On the other hand, consider this:  Enslaved people were unable to change their status through democratic means—they were denied the right to vote.   Many enslaved persons did not let that deter them—they self-emancipated.  Today, more Americans are empowered to affect change if they choose to engage in the political process.   Granted, people are still disenfranchised in our country, but more people today can participate in the process and let their voice be heard than could in Lincoln’s time. Participating in the process is Lincolnian.

Lincoln pledged an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution.  But Lincoln notably heralded the Declaration of Independence as the purest statement of who we are as a people.  When some of Lincoln’s contemporaries argued that the Founding Fathers didn’t really mean to imply that all men were truly created equal, he challenged them, suggesting that if we walked down that path, there would be no end to who could be denied their rights.

Ms. Mast is the Director of President Lincoln’s Cottage.

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The Wolf and the Sheep

By Niles Anderegg

On the tour of the Cottage, visitors hear of Lincoln’s use of a parable of “the Wolf and the Sheep.”  The point of recounting this story is to explore Lincoln’s views on the institution of slavery, and in particular how his attitude towards slavery and slaveholders had changed over time.  But Lincoln’s story also tells us something about his employment of rhetoric, and especially his use of parable.

The Wolf and the Sheep story, which would have reminded Lincoln’s audience of the parable of the Good Shepherd from the Gospel of John, comes from a brief, little remembered speech Lincoln gave in Baltimore in April of 1864.  The setting itself is important.  Maryland, a border state that had remained in the union, was at this time considering a new constitution that would include a provision ending slavery.  So Lincoln went to Baltimore to support and persuade Marylanders to adopt the new constitution.  The speech marked a rare moment for Lincoln, who seldom left Washington (he lived at the Cottage during the summer months of the war in part because he believed that, as Commander-in-Chief, he needed to remain in the district and in communication with the War Office).  The venue where Lincoln gave his speech was a sanitation fair, which was essentially a fundraiser for the United States Sanitary Commission and the work it did on behalf of wounded and sick soldiers.

The speech itself is interesting for several reasons.  Lincoln begins by reminding his audience that much has changed since the war began and that the people of Baltimore, especially, had seen much of that change.  He alludes to the difficulty Union soldiers had in marching through the city in 1861 when they were faced with riots.   Now, three years later, the citizens of Baltimore are raising money and urging support for those same troops.  Lincoln goes on to explain that Baltimore has not only changed its view of Union soldiers but has changed in its attitude towards slavery as well.

It is in this context of change that Lincoln uses the Wolf and the Sheep parable.  He starts off by explaining that “the world has never had a good definition for the word liberty,” and that in the midst of the Civil War, America is in need of a good definition.  He goes on to say that everyone talks about liberty but that when they use that word they don’t all mean the same thing.  Lincoln’s remark is surprising: “liberty” is one of the defining words of American history. The revolutionary generation called themselves the Sons of Liberty, so they presumably had a definition for liberty.  Jefferson talks about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence, so he too must have had a definition for liberty.  But Lincoln says no: in America, and in the world, liberty means different things to different people.

Lincoln goes on to give us two basic definitions of liberty.  He notes that “with some, the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself and the product of his labor” while with others liberty is where men are free to “do as they please with other men and the product of other men’s labor.”  He goes on to point out that these two definitions are incompatible.  He also points out that each believer in one definition of liberty will call the other definition tyranny.   Then, instead of explaining which definition he believes is the correct one, he presents these two definitions in the form of a parable.

Lincoln dives into his parable almost without warning.  “The shepherd,” he says, “drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one.”  He goes on to explain that his policy of emancipation is viewed the same way as the sheep and the wolf view the shepherd, even in the North.  But he makes clear that it is the sheep’s definition that he believes is the right one. He goes on to say that the people of Maryland were “doing something to define liberty” and that their work has meant that “the Wolf’s dictionary has been repudiated.”

The language of this parable represents an evolution in Lincoln’s thinking.   He clearly defines the controversy over the meaning of liberty by creating a stark contrast which he applies directly to slavery. The wolf symbolizes those men who support a definition of liberty as: meaning to do as they please with other men and the product of other men’s labor.  This is a strongly negative description for Lincoln, given that throughout his pre-presidency political career he went out of his way to not demean slaveholders in particular, and Southerners in general.  Here, for example, is a passage from Lincoln’s debates with Douglas in 1858:

“Before proceeding, let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist among them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses North and South. Doubtless there are individuals on both sides, who would not hold slaves under any circumstances; and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew, if it were out of existence. We know that some Southern men do free their slaves, go North, and become tiptop Abolitionists; while some Northern ones go South, and become most cruel slave-masters.”

The direct challenge to the morality of slaveholders found in the speech in Baltimore is a significant departure from Lincoln’s pre-presidency rhetoric, but it is entirely consistent with the theme of the speech, which is that of change. The Civil War changed the lives of many Americans, and it also changed Abraham Lincoln.  He came to realize that in order to win the war and save the union he needed to end slavery.  He reinforces this view at the end of the Baltimore address when he alludes to news reports of the massacre of “some three hundred colored soldiers and white officers” at Fort Pillow, reminding his audience that there were those who resisted the inclusion of African-American troops in the Union Army who were now calling for retribution on Confederate prisoners.

Lincoln’s remarks on the Fort Pillow massacre connects back to the “black sheep” he refers to in his parable.   In Lincoln’s time (as well as in our own), the term “black sheep” had a negative connotation, describing a disreputable member of a family or group.  Lincoln, however, turns this definition in a new direction.  If the sheep is traditionally the victim of the wolf, how much more in danger is the black sheep, who stands out from the rest of the flock.  In arming the former slave, Lincoln might not be able to save every one of those black sheep, but at least he was giving them a fighting chance against the wolf.  In the gospel parable, we read: “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”  Lincoln’s definition of liberty now included all Americans.

Click here to read the full speech.

Mr. Anderegg is a Historical Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage.


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Remembering the Gettysburg Address

lincoln statue
Lincoln Statue at Gettysburg by Studio EIS
By Niles Anderegg

The Gettysburg Address is perhaps the most famous and often quoted speech in American history, so much so that the original intent behind Lincoln’s words has sometimes been lost or minimized by the transformation of those words from a speech given in the midst of civil war to something near to American scripture.  From time to time, we need to reexamine what Lincoln said and what his goals were when he delivered this famous little speech.

The Gettysburg address is that rare document that speaks to the moment and also to the future.  On that November day 147 years ago, Lincoln used his “few appropriate remarks” to speak to both the sacrifice of the soldiers who fought there and more generally to a nation still struggling with Civil War. What makes the Gettysburg Address the speech we fondly remember today, however, is that Lincoln wanted to talk about something beyond the cemetery he was dedicating or even the war he was defending. Lincoln spoke to what is important about America.  He talked about why this nation is the last best hope on earth, something that speaks to us as much today as it would have then.

Lincoln famously begins his speech with the words “four score and seven years ago.”  This beginning is not only stating a chronological fact, but it is taking the nation back to the founding moment, to the revolution of 1776.  The importance of 1776 is not just the event itself but also what the founders said those 87 years before.  Lincoln, by focusing on the revolution, and more specifically the Declaration of Independence, is making an argument about what America stands for.  In that same first sentence, he simply and directly states his case: “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  By highlighting these words from the Declaration of Independence, he is indirectly speaking to the issue of slavery, and in doing so is trying to expand the cause of the war from just saving the union to redefining the union, or, in Lincoln’s own words, giving the nation “a new birth of freedom.”  As Gary Wills has written, “The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit—as authoritative as the Declaration [of Independence] itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration.”

Today it might seem strange to view the Declaration and the ideas that are found in it as controversial, but in Lincoln’s time they were controversial.  Anti-administration newspapers, both here and abroad, understood what Lincoln was saying at Gettysburg and tried to refute his argument about the importance of the Declaration.  For example, the New York World argued that the country came not from the Declaration but from the Constitution, which, they insisted, “says nothing whatsoever about the equality.”  But the Constitution was written in order to address the practical issues of government and law, and so instead of talking about the ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the Constitution talks about “life, liberty, and property.”  The Declaration, on the other hand, spoke not to practical issues of government but rather to the reasons why this new nation needed to be conceived.  As Ronald C. White notes, “Lincoln, although admiring the Constitution, labored under its constrains for the first years of the war.  At Gettysburg, he chose to emphasize the liberties emblazoned in the Declaration of Independence.”

In the Gettysburg Address, however, Lincoln was not dismissing the Constitution in favor of the Declaration of Independence.  Instead, he was elevating the Declaration to almost equal footing with the Constitution, and claiming that it represented what his Secretary of State, William Seward, had once called “the higher law.”  The Constitution is the law of the United States, but Lincoln saw the Declaration as the spirit of United States, and he realized that in order for that nation to live, the law and the spirit must be one.  As Daniel Webster, one of Lincoln’s political heroes, put it, “liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”

Mr. Anderegg is a Historical Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage

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