Whatever I'm Thinking

Lincoln: Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum

During this election year our major political figures make speeches every single day.  As winter caucuses turn to spring primaries these addresses can become small and tedious. They are often filled with jabs at an opponent’s gaffes made yesterday but certainly to be forgotten tomorrow, or delivered solely for the purpose of posturing on some particular issue. Therefore I thought it might be useful at this time to step back and consider a larger view of the health of American politics.

On January 27, 1838, Abraham Lincoln addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois on the subject of “The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions.” The Lyceum was a kind of debating society, a sort of voluntary educational institution of the prairie. Lincoln was 27 at the time he gave this speech. His biographers quote it often. Here I’ve excerpted some passages which I find most poignant these eight score and fourteen years later.

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

…We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them — they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors.  Their’s was the task…to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of…a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ’tis ours only, to transmit these…undecayed by the lapse of time, and untorn by usurpation — to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.

How, then, shall we perform it? At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?…Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!  All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined…with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions…Accounts of outrages committed by mobs, form the every-day news of the times…Whatever, then, their cause may be, it is common to the whole country.

…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?

…That our government should have been maintained in its original form from its establishment until now, is not much to be wondered at. It had many props to support it through that period, which now are decayed, and crumbled away.  Through that period, it was felt by all, to be an undecided experiment; now, it is understood to be a successful one. Then, all that sought celebrity and fame, and distinction, expected to find them in the success of that experiment…Their ambition aspired to display before an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better, than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves…They succeeded.

…But the game is caught; and I believe it is true, that with the catching, end the pleasures of the chase.  This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated.  But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field…And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion…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 aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress…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 Caeser, or a Napoleon?  Never!…Is it not 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.

Distinction will be his paramount object; and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.

Here then, is a probable case, highly dangerous, and such a one as could not have well existed heretofore.

History shows that Lincoln’s ominous warnings were uncomfortably accurate. It is in fact more than reasonable — it is inevitable — that some Caesar or Napoleon will spring up among us; the only uncertainty being that man’s exact description and circumstances. I will look in particular for one who finds satisfaction in “pulling down.”

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