“Think of your forefathers! Think of your posterity!”–John Quincy Adams
Last time I alluded to one of Abraham Lincoln’s lesser known public speeches, an 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. Boiled down, Lincoln made four main points:
1) The finished work of the Founding Fathers was to establish and order liberty, tasks completed by the American Revolution and the creation and implementation of the Constitution. Their unfinished work, a responsibility that every subsequent generation must shoulder, is to sustain the free institutions that the Founders created and to preserve the political liberty that they bequeathed to us, so that we may convey it undiminished to our children and our children’s children.
2) If we ever fail in this high duty, it will not be because an external enemy has overwhelmed us. The death of liberty will not come from abroad. “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” In Lincoln’s haunting phrase, “As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
3) The “strongest bulwark” of our democratic form of government is “the attachment of the People.” Conversely, free government is never more vulnerable than when the public has concluded it cannot, or will not, protect them and champion their interests. In such an environment, the majority may eventually conclude—recklessly, emotionally—that any change is better than no change since “they imagine they have nothing to lose.”
4) Such a negative environment is fertile ground for tyranny. Ambitious individuals will inevitably arise from time to time, men (or women) who will “thirst for distinction” and who will attain it, if possible, at whatever cost. When such a figure arises, Lincoln maintained, “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.” When these attributes are not in place, the people may actually embrace the future tyrant and become active agents in their own downfall.
So what are we to make of this? Did Lincoln share observations with his audience 178 years ago that we need to hear today? Since beginning this blog three and a half years ago, I have tried hard to avoid partisanship, both religious and political. I have called out evangelical writers who exaggerate our nation’s Christian heritage (as here, for example), just as I have contradicted secular writers who would understate it (as in this post). In the realm of politics, I’ve kept my distance from current debates, even though that is the fastest way to build an online following. When history gets caught up in political conflicts, it can quickly become just another political tool, a rhetorical weapon valued more for its usefulness than its accuracy.
I detest this history-as-ammunition approach to the past. Whenever I further it, I am abusing my responsibility as a historian. But at the same time, when careful study of the past points me toward insights that are relevant to the present and I refuse to share them, I am abdicating my responsibility as a historian and violating the law of love in the process. And so, although I am committed to making political statements as sparingly as possible, in this post and the next one, I am going to do so candidly.
A word of qualification first: Abraham Lincoln was neither politically nor morally infallible. Nor was he an unerring prophet, a nineteenth-century Nostradamus who left us clues concerning our future if we parse his words carefully. But Lincoln did go on to prove himself a statesman of unusual ability, and in so doing he earned our attention. We don’t have to listen to him slavishly—asking “What would Lincoln do?” so we can go and do likewise—but we should listen to him respectfully. If history, at its best, can be a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live,” as David Harlan puts it, Lincoln surely deserves to be a part of that conversation.
So are Lincoln’s warnings of nearly two centuries ago something we should heed today? Absolutely. In particular, pay attention to the third and fourth principles in his address. First, if “attachment to the Government” is crucial to the functioning of a free society, then Americans in 2016 are in a bad way. If it has shown anything, the presidential campaign to date has demonstrated the magnitude of popular disgust with politics as usual. On both extremes of the political continuum, huge segments of the electorate are convinced that our national political institutions are obstacles to social justice and must be “taken back” from the special interests that control them.
Opinion poll data put such views in long-term perspective. According to data collected by the Pew Research Center, the proportion of Americans expressing trust in the national government has fallen to a historical low. As late as 1964, 77 percent of Americans surveyed reported that they trusted the government in Washington “to do what it right” all or most of the time. Can you imagine that? Today that proportion has fallen to 19 percent. Popular trust began to fall off sharply after the Kennedy-Johnson years, thanks largely to Watergate and Vietnam, and although it has fluctuated sharply from time to time, the overall trend since then has been decidedly downward.
By the fall of 2015, distrust of the federal government was rampant across the population. The Pew polling data provides percentages for a broad range of population categories, dissecting the nation by race, ethnicity, age, education, and political affiliation or leaning. At present, there is not a demographic category in the nation in which as much as 30 percent of respondents profess to trust government all or most of the time. As polarized as Americans now are, they do share this much in common: they are profoundly distrustful of their national government. If Lincoln was right, and “the attachment of the people” is the “strongest bulwark” of the government, then we live in a nation in crisis.
“So what else is new?” I can hear you thinking. Aren’t we perpetually bombarded by voices from all sides raising just this alarm? Not exactly. Oh sure, it is impossible to listen to the talking heads on talk radio or cable news or to any of a long list of political candidates without hearing dire warnings about the state of the nation and the logjam in Washington. But the subtext of such jeremiads is almost always that things can be made right again simply by a change of personnel. All that prevents us from restoring hope or promoting social justice or “making America great again” is the victory of the correct candidate or party or movement. The message, in sum, is that popular attachment to the government will be restored just as soon as the officeholders in Washington get their act together and start deserving our trust again.
Perhaps Lincoln would be sympathetic with such a posture if he could survey the political landscape in 2016. We’ll never know. What we can say for sure is that this is not what he had in mind 178 years ago, not remotely. The thrust of Lincoln’s Lyceum Address is that the People themselves can also be responsible for an erosion of trust in the government. Popular attachment to the government is not just something that happens when government does its job. Lincoln believed that attachment to the government was an indispensable political quality that Americans should constantly, consciously cultivate. “How shall we fortify against” the loss of faith in government, Lincoln asked? We do so, he maintained, by promoting respect for the rule of law and by replacing passion in the public square with reason.
“Every lover of liberty” should swear to honor the law, Lincoln lectured his lyceum audience. The people should purpose to make “reverence for the laws . . . the political religion of the nation.” This didn’t mean blind submission to every government edict. Lincoln would not have counseled civilians in Nazi Germany to give unqualified obeisance to the Fuhrer. “Let me not be understood as saying there are no bad laws,” he elaborated, “nor that grievances may arise, for the redress of which, no legal provisions have been made.” Such realities will exist on occasion. (Lincoln certainly believed that such was the case in 1838.) But in the midst of such circumstances, Lincoln called for a public mind that patiently addresses injustice within the rule of law, working to alleviate ills without violating the Constitutional forms necessary for liberty to flourish over the long run.
In addition to inculcating such “reverence,” Lincoln called on his audience to promote rationality. Popular passions may have played a role during the American Revolution, Lincoln admitted, when the patriots of 1776 labored to establish liberty. But passion is actually an obstacle to ordering and sustaining liberty, Lincoln maintained. Repeatedly, Lincoln directed his audience to passion as the “enemy” of those who would live by the rule of law. He speaks of “mob law,” the “mobocratic spirit, “the growing disposition to substitute the cold and furious passions” in the place of “sober judgment.”
Passion “will in future be our enemy,” Lincoln concluded, precisely because, when combined with a loss of “attachment” to the government, it leaves the public ripe for exploitation by the ambitious demagogue who “thirsts for distinction” and will do all within his power to attain it, “whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.”
When such a demagogue arises, remember that Lincoln predicted that three popular qualities will be necessary to “successfully frustrate his designs.” “It will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent [i.e., guided by reason]. Surely Americans in 2016 fall short on all three counts, which is why the Republican Party faces the appalling prospect of a “presumptive nominee” with no appreciable qualifications for the job but a prodigious talent for channeling popular passions, chief among which are fear, resentment, anxiety, and hatred.
Did Abraham Lincoln predict the rise of Donald Trump? No, not specifically. But he absolutely nailed the conditions necessary for such a travesty to occur.
I’ll elaborate in my next post. In the meantime, I’d welcome your thoughts.