By Tony Williams
On January 27, 1838, a young Abraham Lincoln addressed a Young Men’s Lyceum debating club in Springfield. The topic of the speech was “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” and addressed the tumult in American society raised by radical abolitionism who were willing to sacrifice the laws to the “higher law” of justice for slaves. The address, however, raised fundamental questions about human nature, the authority of law, and the American founding. Lincoln’s speech raises an interesting counterpoint to Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” which I wrote about on the WJMI recently.
Lincoln begins the speech by expressing reverence for the American political tradition of self-government which was more conducive to “the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us.”[i] The Founders left a legacy that was “hardy, brave, and patriotic” to the present generation. They inherited that gift of republican self-government and had a grace responsibility to transmit it to their posterity: “This task gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.”
The greatest threat to ensuring the survival of that inheritance was not from outside enemies but from the suicide of a nation of free men who lived by license rather than ordered liberty. “I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.”
Lincoln is assuming a classical and Christian position in which man is a rational being who can master his passions and become a self-governing individual. In Book IV of The Republic, Plato has Socrates explain that, “Moderation is surely a kind of order and mastery of certain kinds of pleasures and desires, as men say when they use . . . the phrase ‘stronger than himself.’”[ii] In second book of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tells us that, “Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean . . . this being determined by a rational principle” over irrational passions and desires.[iii] St. Paul tells us in Romans 6:12, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts.” These thinkers agree with Lincoln that rational man can gain self-mastery by controlling his passions through reason.
Many Founders adopted this classical and Christian stance on human nature such as James Madison when he wrote about the danger of factions in The Federalist. In Federalist #10, Madison wrote, “By a faction I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the right of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”[iv]
For Lincoln, moral license leads to vice, violence begets violence, and unpunished acts spawn a lawless spirit among the American people. Soon, both the guilty and innocent “fall victims to the ravages of mob law . . . till all the walls erected for the defence of the persons and property of individuals are trodden down, and disregarded.” The result is ultimately that 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.”
Lincoln’s answer to the destruction of law and liberty in the land is poetic, reasonable, and practical:
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. As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor; - let everyman 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. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation.
Lincoln wants to build laws rooted in reason to frustrate the designs of ambition of a Caesar or Napoleon, and to foil the passions of a mob. He admits near the end of the speech that the passionate mobs of the American Revolution were dedicated to liberty and threw off British rule to advance the “noblest cause – that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty.”
However, the Founders had passed away, and a new generation has been given the reins of self-government. Lincoln finishes with another poetic appeal to reason, law, and the name of Washington:
That temple must fall, unless we, their descendents, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason. Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence, - Let those materials be molded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws: and, that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered his name to the last; that, during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place; shall be that which to learn the last trump shall awaken our WASHINGTON. Upon these let the proud fabric of freedom rest, as the rock of its basis; and as has been said of the only greater institution, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
That same burden to preserve the laws, the Constitution, and American principles of religious and civil liberty binds us. May we do so through well-reasoned, civil discourse rather than partisan demagoguery.
Tony Williams is the Program Director of the WJMI and the author of America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.
[i] All quotes from Lincoln’s speech can be found in Roy P. Basler, ed., Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings (New York: Da Capo, 2001), 76-85.
[ii] Allan Bloom, The Republic of Plato (New York: Basic Books, 1968), 109.
[iii] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 39.
[iv] Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers, ed., Clinton Rossiter (New York: Signet, 1961), 72.