Abraham Lincoln on Thomas Jefferson

In April 1859, the recently formed Massachusetts Republican Party celebrated the birthday of Thomas Jefferson, a founder of what had become the Democratic Party. For the occasion, Abraham Lincoln sent a letter to the Massachusetts Republicans. Lincoln explained away the irony of Republicans celebrating Jefferson, and then captured the essence of Jefferson’s contribution to our Founding and to our freedom.

Here are key excerpts:

Bearing in mind that about 70 years ago two great political parties were first formed in this country, that Jefferson was the head of one of them, and Boston the headquarters of the other, it is both curious and interesting that those supposed to descend politically from the party opposed to Jefferson should now be celebrating his birthday in their own original seat of empire, while those claiming political descent from him have nearly ceased to breathe his name everywhere.

But soberly, it is now no child’s play to save the principles of Jefferson from total overthrow of this nation.

One would state with great confidence that he could convince any sane child that the simpler propositions of Euclid are true. But nevertheless he would fail, utterly, with one who should deny the definitions and axioms.

The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society. And yet they are denied and evaded with no small show of success.

One dashingly calls them ‘glittering generalities.’ Another bluntly calls them ‘evident lies.’ And others insidiously argue that they apply only to ‘superior races.’

These expressions, differing in form, are identical in object and effect — supplanting the principles of free government, and restoring those of classification and caste. They would delight a convocation of crowned heads plotting against the people.

They are the vanguard — the sappers and miners of returning despotism. We must repulse them or they will subjugate us.

This is a world of compensation; and he would be no slave must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and under a just God cannot long retain it.

All honor to Jefferson — to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth, applicable to all men at all times, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it should be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.

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