146 Years after Gettysburg: The New Birth of Freedom and the Constitution

by David Gans, Director of the Constitutional Accountability Center’s Human Rights, Civil Rights, and Citizenship Program

146 years ago today, in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln promised the nation “a new birth of freedom,” and called on Americans to defend the Union and vindicate the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. At the heart of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address were the twin ideals of the Declaration – that “all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, . . . Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Here, for Lincoln, was a “maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for . . . .”

Just as Lincoln looked to the grand ideals of the Declaration, today we look to and revere Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Indeed, next year, the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, we are celebrating Lincoln’s famous words; they form the theme for the inauguration of Barack Obama, our nation’s first African American President. But the story should not end on January 20th, nor with a mere reminder of Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg. Lincoln promised a “new birth of freedom” at Gettysburg, but it took three constitutional amendments – the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments – before this freedom was secured by our Nation’s foundational document. In the coming year, we should celebrate not only Lincoln’s words, but also the men and women who made these constitutional changes a reality – those who translated Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” into constitutional mandates.

These three Reconstruction amendments revolutionized our constitutional order. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, striking out of our polity and Constitution the oppressive system that made a mockery of the Declaration of Independence. The Fourteenth Amendment wrote into the Constitution the principles of the Declaration, guaranteeing all Americans substantive fundamental freedoms and making equality a constitutional right. The Fifteenth Amendment extended the promise of the Fourteenth, securing the right to vote to the former slaves. All three gave Congress a leading role in enforcing the constitutional rights they secured.

Of the Reconstruction Amendments, the Fourteenth Amendment most closely matches Lincoln’s vision at Gettysburg. Reflecting Lincoln’s observation that our nation was “conceived in Liberty,” the Fourteenth Amendment begins by guaranteeing citizenship as the birthright of all Americans, and with it the protection of all substantive fundamental rights. The Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was written to guarantee to all Americans the “unalienable rights” to which the Declaration of Independence referred. And while the Privileges or Immunities Clause secured the Declaration’s promise of liberty, the Equal Protection Clause wrote the Declaration’s idea of equality into the Constitution. For the first time, equality had a clear home in that document. In fact, those who wrote the Fourteenth Amendment celebrated it as the realization of the Declaration of Independence. In an 1866 speech, Schuyler Colfax, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, called the Fourteenth Amendment “the gem of the Constitution . . . because it is the Declaration of Independence placed immutably and forever in our Constitution.”

Lincoln, of course, never lived to see the Fourteenth Amendment become a part of our Constitution. But the Amendment captures Lincoln’s legacy, writing Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” into the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment, in many ways, lies at the core of Lincoln’s Constitution. Today, 146 years after Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, we are fortunate to have not only his inspiring words as part of our national heritage, but also their realization in the Constitution’s text. That’s something we should be sure to celebrate as part of the inaugural festivities.