Abraham Lincoln to the Rescue. Again.

I have been thinking, especially during the Trump era, about our democratic political institutions.  Trump and “Trumpism” put a great deal of pressure on these institutions.  Trump offered an alternative model: the authoritarian leader.  To followers of such a leader, he is “our guy” and everything else is negotiable.  Democracy, for instance, is negotiable.

It’s hard to feel strongly about democracy.  It is a set of means; it is not an end.  It is a way of consulting “the people” on matters that affect them as citizens.  You can feel strongly about the people—things like allowing them to vote and counting the votes fairly—or you can feel strongly about some particular outcome.  When you feel strongly about both, there is a conflict.  If you resolve the conflict by supporting the institutions that make democracy possible, you are one of those people who make democracy possible in the U. S.

That’s why I have been thinking about our political institutions.  Will they stand up to the strain?

In the middle of all this, I ran across Abraham Lincoln’s first public speech, which he introduces this way.

As a subject for the remarks of the evening, the perpetuation of our political institutions, is selected.

This introduces Lincoln’s famous “Lyceum Speech,” delivered in 1838 [1] to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.  In it, Lincoln takes the position that now that the glories and passions of the revolutionary era have passed, we are going to have to rely on something else to sustain us.  He chooses “obeying the law.”  That is what his generation can contribute to the republic.

Lincoln is worried that there is coming to be a spirit of mob rule in his time.  In the reference to “mobocracy” in the quotation below, he is providing a jab at the popular support for President Andrew Jackson.  Lincoln was a Whig and Jackson was a Democrat—the other party in the partisan configuration of the time.  “Mobocracy” is just another form of “democracy” (demos = the people) and Jackson was accused at the time of stirring up the common folk.  So Lincoln is getting a two-fer here.  He is arguing against the violence of mobs and also getting a jab in at the leader of the other party. [2]  Here is what he said.

Thus, then, by the operation of this mobocractic spirit, which all must admit, is now abroad in the land, the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed–I mean the attachment of the People. Whenever this effect shall be produced among us; whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision-stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this Government cannot last.

As I write today, it is impossible for me not to note the irony of these remarks by the first Republican president.  I have, still vivid in my memory, the scenes of a Trumpist mob storming the Capitol to interrupt the certification of the Electoral College votes from the 2020 election.

Lincoln refers to “the mobocratic spirit.”  In 1838, that was a jab at Democrats, but now it is the Republicans who are wielding the mob.  The mobocratic spirit is, as Lincoln said, “abroad in the land”

The strongest bulwark of a government constituted like ours—a government based on free and fair elections, he means—is the attachment of the People and that attachment can be “broken down and destroyed.” by this mobocratic spirit.

Whenever “the vicious portion of the population” Lincoln says, shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands [3] and destroy with impunity, “depend on it, that government cannot last.”

That makes sense to me.  There must be legal consequences for that “vicious portion of the population.”  I, myself, would include President Trump in that vicious portion of the population.  Winding them up and aiming them at the Capitol while the votes are being certified seems too close to the destruction and the deaths to be reasonably denied.

But that isn’t really where Lincoln goes from his point about the accountability that the mob must face.  He goes somewhere much more useful.  This is his next point.

And not only so; the innocent, those who have ever set their faces against violations of law in every shape, alike with the guilty, fall victims to the ravages of mob law; and thus it goes on, step by step, till all the walls erected for the defense of the persons and property of individuals, are trodden down, and disregarded.

Mobs are not that good at discriminating those they consider guilty from those they consider innocent.  At one point on January 6, the mob was only a few feet away from Senators, whose offense on that day was to fairly certify the results of the election.  What would the guy with the plastic twist-tie handcuffs have done had the two groups met?

And finally, Lincoln solution to the problem—and remember, the problem he has chosen is how to “secure the perpetuation of our political institutions”—is for the citizens of his time to be as passionate about obeying the laws as their forbears were about attaining their independence.

Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. 

There is more, but let’s pause to look at those two.  “Be law-abiding” doesn’t sound too bad.  “Never tolerate [the violation of the laws of the country] by others is a good deal more daunting.  First, it sets us up as judges of the behavior of our neighbors.  People hate to be criticized and especially in the absence of a common and popularly supported moral code, the criticisms seem idiosyncratic and picky.  “Different strokes for different folks” we say, making room for behavior that we, otherwise, would not tolerate.

But the real problem is that attachment to a populist leader like Donald Trump makes “whatever he wants” seem the immediate good and “what democracy requires,” by contrast, thin and remote.  Following the tenets of Trumpism, one may do, out of the demands of conscience, what the Constitution forbids and what the laws punish.

Lincoln’s solution to that problem is grandiloquent, which makes it hard to take seriously, but I am going to quote nearly all the paragraph anyway.  Look at these five specifics.

  • let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children’s liberty. 
  • Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap—
  • let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; 
  • let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;—
  • let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice.

That’s Lincoln’s solution.  The particulars are not phrased to make them seem appealing in our time, but they could, perhaps, be abbreviated to this:  Let us revere the procedures that underlie the system we call democracy.  They may seem remote, but they are in fact crucial to “securing the perpetuation of our political institutions.”

“Democracy isn’t easy,” says President Andrew Shepherd, in Aaron Sorkin’s classic, The American President.  “You have to want it bad.”  And in that, Democratic President Shepherd is on the same page as Republican President Lincoln.  Maybe we should take time to notice and enjoy that.

[1]  Nine score and 3 years ago, just to save you from having to count it out yourself.

[2]  He does not mention at all the recent murder of abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy at Alton, Illinois just 80 miles down the road from where Lincoln was speaking.  In the opinion of Professor David Zarefsky, who offers a series of lectures in the Great Courses program (Abraham Lincoln: In His Own Words), this was Lincoln’s way of making Lovejoy’s murder “the elephant in the room.”  Zarefsky reasons that by keeping this recent nearby murder quiet, Lincoln caused the crowd to keep wondering, “When is he going to mention Lovejoy’s murder by a mob?”

[3]  I’ve seen an estimate that 10,000 people made up the “vicious portion of the population” who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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