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Opinion: Lincoln’s unity can protect us from eroding trust and a ‘Second Civil War’

Americans are divided right now, but Abraham Lincoln’s ‘electric cord’ — or the universal principals in the Declaration of Independence — is exactly what we need to stabilize.

SHARE Opinion: Lincoln’s unity can protect us from eroding trust and a ‘Second Civil War’

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Abraham Lincoln helped unify the country during the Civil War. We can use his advice now.

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One hundred and sixty-four years ago in a Senate campaign speech against Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln reminded his listeners that only two generations earlier, the nation’s “iron men” had fought for our founding principles. These concepts had brought great prosperity to members of the United States, he noted, and we celebrate these principles and this prosperity each year “sometime about the 4th of July, for some reason or another.” (A politician with a corny sense of humor? We’ll take it.) 

But then Lincoln posed a problem.

Due to immigration, already half the young country had no biological connection to the founding generation. When the immigrants and descendants of immigrants “look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none.” 

Unable through biology to “carry themselves back into that glorious epoch,” were these immigrants unable to “feel that they are part of us”? 

Lincoln answered his own question with a resounding no.

First, Lincoln maintained, these immigrants “fin(d) themselves our equals in all things.” This is an important reminder of how to regard those who have recently come to our country. 

Second, Lincoln noted that when the new arrivals to America look to the Declaration of Independence, they find the self-evident truth that all are created equal. “That,” Lincoln said, “is the father of all moral principle” for our country. Every American, Lincoln expounded, has a right to claim those ideals “as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration.”

In this way, the Declaration of Independence becomes for us an “electric cord,” argued Lincoln. A cord to plug in one’s laptop would be anachronistic. But electric telegraph wires were already changing America, “making the large and diverse nation an ‘organic whole.’” As well, Lincoln had studied both Euclid and modern technology, and could have had in mind the electricity of the human central nervous system transmitted through the spinal cord. Whichever sense Lincoln meant, the “electric cord” metaphor recognized that “American political unity requires a basis in what is universal.”

The universal principles of the Declaration of Independence — that “electric cord,” “the father of all moral principle” for our country — can, said Lincoln, link all “patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of (people) throughout the world.”

How strong is our “electric cord” today?

In many ways, the problem Lincoln posited so many years ago afflicts us now, though not necessarily among our newest residents. Too many in the United States — whether members of the Daughters of the Revolution or daughters of an immigrant on a green card — have an eroding trust in our institutions, an eroding connection to their fellow Americans

There is talk of secession. There is talk of scrapping our system and starting anew. There is talk of a “Second Civil War.” And there is an inability to talk civilly to those of different political perspectives. There is partisan distrust today at levels we have not seen in decades.  

Each of us can stand against such disunion. We must not allow bad actors to “pre(y) on (our) patriotism, ... on (our) sense of justice.” Our love of country must only be a tool to defend the “electric cord,” not a weapon against our institutions, our constitution or our neighbors. 

Utah’s Civic Season has been an effort to defend our “electric cord.” As it wraps up and we reflect on our own civic engagement, hopefully we find reasons to celebrate that cord that unites and enlivens us as Americans. Hopefully we recommit ourselves to the self-evident truths that everyone is created equal. And hopefully we recognize the love of freedom in the minds and hearts of others, even those unlike ourselves, those new to our country, those who have political positions different from our own. 

Lisa R. Halverson is a civics education fellow at Utah Valley University’s Center for Constitutional Studies.