In 1850, the leftwing Unitarian and firebrand of abolition, Theodore Parker, gave a major speech on the antislavery cause, laying out the principles of what came to be known as “The American Idea,” the roots of which lay in the Declaration of Independence. It has three components: All people are created equal, all are endowed with inalienable rights, and all should have the opportunity to enjoy and develop those rights. Parker went on to say that a government that promotes the American Idea must be a government “of all the people, by all the people, for all the people.”
In the audience was a lawyer, William Herndon, who was deeply impressed by Parker’s speech. Herndon secured a copy of Parker’s speech and brought it to his law partner back in Illinois. That partner was Abraham Lincoln, and the words of Theodore Parker became immortalized
Myth often has it that Lincoln penned the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope in a flash of momentary inspiration. The truth is that he thought about its composition long and hard. In that address, Lincoln aimed to complete the as-yet-unfulfilled promise of the Declaration of Independence.
It is this founding idea that has inspired Americans to embrace democracy, defend fundamental rights, and strive to live out their dreams in accordance with their gifts and personalities. But the American Idea has spread far beyond our boundaries to be an inspiration to the world of what an enlightened society in principle ought to be.
In these times, there is a great upsurge in both apathy and discontent with the Idea, which is the mainstay of liberal democracy. We see it in an upsurge of nationalism. We see it in the attraction of the Chinese model, which many foreign nations now look to, and not to us. And we see it in public opinion polls that indicate that among large sectors of the young democracy, the American Idea is a matter of indifference.
Distressing indeed; distressing and in need of understanding and a response.
Shared charity: Hispanic Federation
Presider: Joe Fashing