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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Founded On A Rock

Title:     Founded On A Rock
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

If there is any one who is recognized as a fair exponent of our national principles, it is our martyr-president Abraham Lincoln; whom Lowell calls, in his noble Commemoration Ode at Cambridge,--

"New birth of our new soil, the first American."

What President Lincoln's political principle was, we know. On his journey to Washington for his first inauguration he said, "I have never had a feeling that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence." To find out what was his view of those sentiments, we must go back several years earlier, and consider that remarkable letter of his to the Boston Republicans who had invited him to join them in celebrating Jefferson's birthday, in April, 1859. It was well called by Charles Sumner "a gem in political literature;" and it seems to me almost as admirable, in its way, as the Gettysburg address.

"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 styles them 'self-evident lies.' And others insidiously argue that they apply only to 'superior races.'"

"These expressions, differing in form, are identical in object and effect,--the subverting the principles of free government, and restoring those of classification, caste, and legitimacy. 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."

"All honor to Jefferson.'--the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document _an abstract truth applicable to all men and all times_, and so to embalm it there that to-day and in all coming days it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression."

The special "abstract truth" to which President Lincoln thus attaches a value so great, and which he pronounces "applicable to all men and all times," is evidently the assertion of the Declaration that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, following the assertion that all men are born free and equal; that is, as some one has well interpreted it, equally men. I do not see how any person but a dreamy recluse can deny that the strength of our republic rests on these principles; which are so thoroughly embedded in the average American mind that they take in it, to some extent, the place occupied in the average English mind by the emotion of personal loyalty to a certain reigning family. But it is impossible to defend these principles logically, as Senator Hoar has well pointed out, without recognizing that they are as applicable to women as to men. If this is the case, the claim of women rests on a right,--indeed, upon the same right which is the foundation of all our institutions.

The encouraging fact in the present condition of the whole matter is not that we get more votes here or there for this or that form of woman suffrage--for experience has shown that there are great ups and downs in that respect; and States that at one time seemed nearest to woman suffrage, as Maine and Kansas, now seem quite apathetic. But the real encouragement is that the logical ground is more and more conceded; and the point now usually made is not that the Jeffersonian maxim excludes women, but that "the consent of the governed" is substantially given by the general consent of women. That this argument has a certain plausibility may be conceded; but it is equally clear that the minority of women, those who do wish to vote, includes on the whole the natural leaders,--those who are foremost in activity of mind, in literature, in art, in good works of charity. It is, therefore, pretty sure that they only predict the opinions of the rest, who will follow them in time. And even while waiting it is a fair question whether the "governed" have not the right to give their votes when they wish, even if the majority of them prefer to stay away from the polls. We do not repeal our naturalization laws, although only the minority of our foreign-born inhabitants as yet take the pains to become naturalized.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Founded On A Rock