“Think of your forefathers! Think of your posterity!”–John Quincy Adams
In his 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, a young Abraham Lincoln told his audience that the most serious threat to America’s political institutions did not come from a foreign invader. “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?” he asked. “If destruction be our lot,” Lincoln warned, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
Lincoln grounded his argument on three main points:
1) The “strongest bulwark” of our democratic form of government is “the attachment of the People.”
2) 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.”
3) Such a negative environment is fertile ground for tyranny. Ambitious individuals will inevitably arise from time to time, individuals who will “thirst for distinction” and who will attain it, if possible, at whatever cost. When such a figure arises, “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 how do we guard against such an outcome? Key to Lincoln’s prescription was his realization that popular attachment to the government is not just something that happens when government does its job. Lincoln insisted instead that attachment to the government is a political quality that the American people must 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, but it did a mindset 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.”
So what would Lincoln think of the 2016 presidential campaign? Who knows. But you don’t have to go too far out on a limb to conclude that he’d think we’re in danger. What did he say is the greatest bulwark of our political institutions? The attachment of the people to the government. What did he conclude is one of the foremost obstacles to liberty? A people guided by passion rather than reason. And what should we look for when a people driven by passion lose faith in their government? Danger.
Americans have no good choices when they go to the polls next Tuesday. Through her own apparent dishonesty and dissembling, Secretary Clinton has done her fair share to engender popular disillusionment with the career politicians in Washington and thus weaken “the attachment of the people.” But what Clinton has accomplished inadvertently, Donald Trump seeks to do intentionally, actively fueling contempt for government while channeling our darkest passions. Fear and resentment, however justified, do not make a sustainable basis for democracy, but they can propel a demagogue to political power.