On January 27, 1838, Abraham Lincoln gave an address before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, entitled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner, describes the event this way: "we had a society in Springfield, which contained and commanded all the culture and talent of the place. Unlike the other one its meetings were public, and reflected great credit on the community ... The address was published in the Sangamon Journal and created for the young orator a reputation which soon extended beyond the limits of the locality in which he lived."
In his landmark address, Lincoln explores potential dangers to our Republic, and inquires of us:
"But, it may be asked, why suppose danger to our political institutions? Have we not preserved them for more than fifty years? And why may we not for fifty times as long?
“We hope there is no sufficient reason. We hope all dangers may be overcome; but to conclude that no danger may ever arise, would itself be extremely dangerous. There are now, and will hereafter be, many causes, dangerous in their tendency, which have not existed heretofore; and which are not too insignificant to merit attention. …
[T]he history of the world tells us … that men of ambition and talents will … continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?--Never! Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.--It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction ... Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.” (italics in original)
In this election year, it would be wise for us to examine our candidates for public office -- those who seek to represent and to govern us, whether by "a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair" -- by this test suggested by Abraham Lincoln over 170 years ago.
By: J. David Gowdy