Civil and Human Rights

The Gettysburg Address at 150: How Lincoln’s Immortal Words Helped Transform the Constitution

In the Gettysburg Address, in less time than it took Senator Ted Cruz to read Green Eggs and Ham, President Lincoln summed up and redefined the meaning of our constitutional heritage of liberty and equality for all persons.   Many of the changes we have made to the Constitution since that fateful day 150 years ago reflect the power of Lincoln’s stirring remarks.   The Gettysburg Address, in many ways, is the key to understanding the whole Constitution.    

In the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln called on Americans to defend the nation and vindicate the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.  In a speech that was instantly hailed as a “perfect gem,” Lincoln looked back to the Founders, who “brought forth” a “new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” and called for a “new birth of freedom” to keep faith with our highest constitutional principles.  Many of the Amendments that have been added to the Constitution in the last century and a half reflect the principles so powerfully embodied in Lincoln’s Address. 

Tragically, Lincoln would not live to see the Constitution’s transformation.  Lincoln signed the Thirteenth Amendment upon its passage by Congress in January 1865, but was assassinated four months later, before the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were enshrined in the Constitution.  These three Amendments, inspired by the Declaration and Lincoln’s promise of a “new birth of freedom,” revolutionized our constitutional order. 

The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, striking out of our polity and Constitution the repugnant system that had made a mockery of the Declaration and its promise of liberty and equality.   The Fourteenth Amendment wrote into the Constitution the principles of the Declaration, guaranteeing all Americans substantive fundamental freedoms and making equality for all persons a constitutional right.  The Fifteenth Amendment extended the promise of the Fourteenth, forbidding racial discrimination in voting and helping to cement in the Constitution Lincoln’s vision of a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  Since then, we have added Amendments to the Constitution forbidding discrimination in voting on account of gender and age, prohibiting the use of poll taxes in federal elections, and making the structure of our government more democratic, thus creating a United States that is truly a “political edifice of liberty and equal rights.”   

The Gettysburg Address, too, spoke of the fundamental change wrought by the Civil War – the transformation of the United States from a union of states into a nation with broad powers to solve national problems and protect individual rights.  At the start of the war, Lincoln urged Americans to save the Union, but at Gettysburg he spoke only of the “nation,” urging Americans to fight “so that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” 

This national consciousness is directly reflected in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, each of which give to Congress the power to enforce its guarantees, as well as numerous Amendments that followed, which added to the powers of the federal government to protect individual rights and solve national problems.  The arguments of tea-partiers like Senator Ted Cruz, who would shackle the powers of the federal government, run directly counter to Lincoln’s vision at Gettysburg and the thrust of our nation’s history since.   

There is no better time than the present to honor Lincoln’s immortal words.  Unfortunately, conservatives on the Supreme Court have given a crabbed construction to Amendments designed to fulfill Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom.”  Last June, in Shelby County v. Holder, Chief Justice John Roberts and his conservative colleagues gutted the Voting Rights Act, betraying Lincoln’s promise of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and conservative legislators, in places like Texas and North Carolina, have used this ruling as an opening to enact stringent new laws to make it harder for people of color, students, women and low-income persons to exercise their constitutional right to vote.  Tea party legislators who profess to love the Constitution have turned a blind eye to the fact that the right to vote is protected by more provisions of the Constitution than any other right. 

One hundred and fifty, 151, 152 years after Gettysburg and beyond, the Supreme Court will confront issues that implicate the guarantees written into the Constitution in the wake of the Civil War and well into the 20th Century.  As they consider these issues, the Justices should remember how President Lincoln helped transform the Constitution from a slaveholders’ charter to a document that affirms liberty, equality, and democracy as our highest constitutional principles.


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