“Think of your forefathers! Think of your posterity!”–John Quincy Adams
“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 be expected to come from abroad. . . . as a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
So spoke Abraham Lincoln 178 years ago. His audience was the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. The lyceum was a cross between a debating society and the Toastmasters’ Club, a forum for aspiring public figures in the community to practice their oratory. It was Lincoln’s turn to speak on a January night in 1838, and the topic for his prepared remarks was “the perpetuation of our political institutions.”
Those institutions are impregnable, Lincoln told his audience, as long as the American people are unified, attached to their government, and guided by reason rather than emotion. But if those qualities should gradually erode, the day might come when a man of genius and ambition would prey upon the people in the name of the people. And the people, so disgusted with the government that they would foolishly “imagine that they have nothing to lose” by yielding to a powerful leader, would actually embrace the man they should fear most.
In my last post I confessed that I read Lincoln’s Lyceum Speech as an uncanny description of our own times. Surely, the American people are not united. They have less trust in government than in any time since the eve of the Civil War. And as I read things, anyway, emotion—anger, resentment, fear, anxiety—has all but vanquished reason from the public square. This is exactly the combination that Lincoln warned us about, and I think it perfectly explains the most frightening political development of my lifetime—the rise of Donald Trump. As a lifelong Republican, I view Trump’s ascendancy within the Republican Party with shock and sadness. As a historian, I see his rise as dripping with irony: 178 years later, the demagogue Lincoln warned about is now the leader of Lincoln’s party. This is both travesty and tragedy.
What, specifically, did Lincoln expect the dark figure of genius and ambition to accomplish? How might such a one ultimately end up by “pulling down” rather than building up the edifice of Americans’ free institutions? He doesn’t say. In the 1838 Lyceum Address, we are listening in as the young Lincoln, fresh from two terms in the Illinois state legislature, is practicing his public speaking before a sympathetic audience. He speaks in generalities about figures who will stop at nothing to achieve distinction, about the prospect of Americans dying by suicide, These are evocative rhetorical flourishes, dark and alarming, but hardly a detailed argument.
To understand what Lincoln may have had in mind, one fruitful approach will be to go back and situate the Lyceum Address in its immediate historical context. When Lincoln cautioned about the possibility that the public might lose its attachment to the government, he alluded explicitly to instances of mob violence that had occurred within the past year. When he referred to an ambitious genius who might manipulate popular emotions, on the other hand, he gave no concrete examples. Was such a figure simply an abstraction in his mind, a hypothetical, stereotypical figure employed as a rhetorical device?
Possibly. Lincoln’s biographers generally agree that he did not read widely, but all agree that he was a huge fan of Shakespeare—often committing huge portions of his plays to memory—so perhaps Lincoln had in mind a Julius Caesar or Richard III when he imagined an ambitious genius “thirsting for distinction.”
The vulnerability of a free people to the blandishments of a demagogue was also a standard axiom of classical political philosophy. Alexander Hamilton was merely repeating conventional wisdom when he observed in Federalist I that “the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people” is often a prelude “to the introduction of despotism.” As Hamilton cautioned, “of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.” Perhaps Lincoln was simply recycling a conventional axiom with no particular reference to recent or current events. As I’ve already noted, there’s no way to know for sure.
But when we take that historical context of the Lyceum Address seriously, it seems more likely that Lincoln had a specific historical figure in mind. Specifically, I would be stunned if, somewhere in the back of his mind, Lincoln was not thinking of the previous president, Andrew Jackson, as he was warning his audience of the danger to be feared. Less than a year had passed since Jackson had left office, and his presence and impact was still palpable.
The evidence that Lincoln was likely thinking of Jackson is circumstantial but compelling. In 1838 Lincoln was a Whig in every fiber of his being. From his earliest foray into politics, he had been wholly devoted to the party. He embraced its vision of government as a vehicle for promoting economic development, and he counted its leaders, Kentuckian Henry Clay especially, among his primary role models. On more than one occasion, in fact, Lincoln would refer to the Whig leader as his “beau ideal of a statesman.”
But where did the Whig Party come from? The answer is simple: it was conceived in strident opposition to Democrat Andrew Jackson. The organization came into being in the early 1830s as a coalition bent on thwarting Jackson’s re-election. Even the inchoate party’s choice of a name was a calculated slam at the Democratic president. Incensed by what they viewed as Jackson’s abuse of his executive powers during his first term, they castigated Jackson as “King Andrew I” and took to calling themselves “Whigs.”
In British politics, men of “whiggish” principles had championed Parliamentary supremacy over the divine right of kings. During the run-up to the American Revolution, colonial critics of King George III had assumed the same label. In calling themselves Whigs a half-century later, the party that Lincoln whole-heartedly embraced at its birth was simply announcing to the world that there was a tyrant in the White House and that they were out to depose him.
What is more, Lincoln’s hero Clay had famously spoken of Jackson in terms that foreshadowed Lincoln’s address to the Springfield Lyceum. When the contentious presidential election of 1824 had ended in a run-off in the House of Representatives, Clay had used his position as Speaker of the House to lobby successfully for Jackson’s defeat. Identifying himself “as a friend of liberty, & to the permanence of our institutions,” Clay explained in a much-publicized letter that he could not support Jackson, fearing that a Jackson presidency would lead the country down “the fatal road which had conducted every other republic to ruin.”
If it was Andrew Jackson that Lincoln had in mind—and I admit this is only an educated guess—how might this help us in making sense of Lincoln’s warning? More to the point, can a look back at Jackson’s presidency shed light on our own turbulent political context?
I think that it can, and in my next post I’ll tell you why.