Abraham Lincoln On Liberty

Abraham Lincoln On Liberty

How could a nation that sings as its anthem “the land of the free” be so divided politically? You could argue, perhaps, that the divisions are a sign of our freedom—that because we are free, we can debate and divide over policy. Perhaps you could argue that political division is what it looks like when everyone’s voice is heard. But we all know deep down that's not what we actually believe. 

The vision of LIBERATUS is healing through freedom, and this isn’t the first period of American history when we’ve needed healing, and a deeper knowledge of freedom to get us there.

In 1864, and of course the surrounding years, Abraham Lincoln was reasoning through the same question. On page 627 of his book A. Lincoln, Ronald C. White, Jr. recounts a speech the president gave in Baltimore: (You can read the full speech at TeachingAmericanHistory.org.)

In Lincoln’s newfound willingness to speak outside Washington, he welcomed the invitation to address a sanitary fair in Baltimore on April 18, 1864. The Sanitary Commission had become a chief organization among aiding soldiers, and Lincoln decided to lend his presidential hand in raising money for it…

In his speech, Lincoln offered compelling remarks on the meaning of liberty. “The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are in want of one.” Lincoln believed in clear definitions. “We all declare for Liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.” Lincoln explained: “With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleased with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor.” Lincoln underlined the tragic truth that these two “incompatible things” were called by the same name—liberty.”

He drove the point home with a metaphor whose meaning no one could miss. “The shepherd 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 if the sheep was a black one.”

Who could argue that his words don’t still apply today?

For followers of Jesus, the incredible privilege of our time is that we can boldly offer clarity around the ambiguous definitions of liberty at play in our culture. We are called, as R.C. Sproul notes in his book Acts, to demonstrate what life in the Kingdom under true freedom would look like:

Calvin said that it is the task of the visible church to make the invisible kingdom of Christ visible, to manifest to people what it would look like to live in a commonwealth ruled by Jesus. We are called to bear witness to a reign based on righteousness, truth, mercy, and charity. (p. 28).

Truth, and Beauty. It was for freedom that we were set free, and some day we will live in a freedom so deep there isn’t time to think about righting wrongs against each other, because we will have been set free from all of them forever. Freedom, therefore, is the creative pursuit of Truth and Beauty.

Thomas Jefferson hinted at this idea of living in peace with each other in his first inaugural:

Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles, our attachment to union and representative government. Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter -- with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow-citizens -- a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.

The hint he leaves is the mention of “greater happiness”. What he is saying, even if he didn’t quite understand it fully himself (which of us have?) is that there is a deeper freedom. His words reflect a common thread throughout many of our founder’s writings—that there is indeed a way to govern wisely in a world that is broken if we are rooted in ideals like “truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man”.

Now I think it’s because of language like this that we too often get hung up on whether or not America is a “Christian nation”. If we are only trying to go “back to our founding”, then we will never actually get to the root of the ideas that were planted there. We need to understand that the Constitution and our system of government and our view of inalienable rights do not combine to create freedom itself. They are rather only a reference to a deeper freedom. Even though our founders wisely articulated deep implications of freedom, at the outset you could hardly argue that we governed as if all men actually were created equal.  Practically, we failed miserably on that point (and often still do) and you couldn’t, broadly speaking, describe our nation, at the time of our founding, as “Christian”, because it certainly wasn’t reflecting the coming reign of Jesus.

So we can let go of stale arguments about whether or not we have enough Judeo-Christian or religious values in our culture. The presence of them has perhaps given us reason to love America more, but at times that love has turned into something sinister, and instead of offering love and hope to the world we have offered “us vs. them”, afraid of "what will happen to America," even within the ranks of those of us who claim to follow Jesus.

On the idea of love of religion, C.S. Lewis wrote this in The Four Loves:

[The sort of love I have been describing] can also be felt for bodies that claim more than a natural affection: for a Church or (alas) a party in a Church, or for a religious order. This terrible subject would require a book to itself. Here it will be enough to say that the Heavenly Society is also an earthly society. Our (merely natural) patriotism towards the latter can very easily borrow the transcendent claims of the former and use them to justify the most abominable actions. If ever the book which I am not going to write is written it must be the full confession by Christendom of Christendom’s specific contribution to the sum of human cruelty and treachery. (p. 30).

We have to learn to distinguish between America and the Kingdom of Heaven.

Until we do so we will never be able to restore or heal anything within our own country. In fact, even as we talk about making America “great”, if we are confusing the two, we will fall into perpetuating human suffering, because we will think it's our own neighbors who are keeping America from becoming great. We need a deeper understanding of human freedom than a simple glance at America’s founding, because true freedom existed before and apart from us. Seeing it in this way actually frees us to offer healing and hope and freedom with a boldness and confidence we have yet to find! This is what our nation is desperate for, and it’s time we offer it, realizing that it won’t do to fall back into war with our own neighbors.

In the same book on Abraham Lincoln, on the pages just before the story of his speech on the meaning of liberty, the author is walking through Lincoln’s view on the will of God in the Civil War. He notes these words from Lincoln on page 622:

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party—and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose.

We need to recognize that God’s plan for the world is neither Conservative or Liberal, Libertarian or Socialist, and we can debate in pursuit of Truth with anyone. God's plan for the world rips open each of these categories, leaving our eyes wide open to a deeper understanding of freedom, an inner knowing: LIBERATUS—we are set free.


A closing note is needed here to apply some of these ideas to current events. This past year in DC has been one of the most violent ever. Across the nation, we have seen images of body parts of unborn babies ripped to pieces in the name of “research” and “reproductive freedom”. Around the world, we have seen thousands fleeing their homes as refugees. If a creative pursuit of Truth and Beauty is our definition of freedom, and if we are fixated on demonstrating that freedom to the world, we will value human life, born and unborn, fleeing or free.

Abortion is perhaps the slavery of our time, the greatest wrong that needs to be made right within the United States. We don’t need to end it to make America great, we need to end it to bring healing and life and true freedom to both mother and child. There’s much more that could be said on the nature of our current debate of abortion and life; for reference, see Scott Saul’s Reflections Following My Conversation With An Abortion Provider