Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln

ABRAHAM LINCOLN ON NEW YEAR’S EVE

Lincoln in 1860

Actually, I have no idea how Abraham Lincoln observed New Year’s Eve, but I do have a strong suspicion about what passed through his mind as one year gave way to the next.

I spent this morning in a coffee shop with a book titled Herndon’s Informants.  The “Herndon” in the title refers to William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s long-time law partner in Springfield, Illinois.  In the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, Herndon became convinced that the country was transforming the late president into a mythical figure bearing no resemblance to the man he had worked alongside for nearly two decades.  To prevent this crime against history, he set out to write a biography of his friend and partner that would set the record straight.  He spent much of the next two years tracking down individuals who had known Lincoln personally.  Herndon’s Informants embodies the fruit of that labor.  Compiled and edited by scholars almost a century and a half later, it is a collection of more than eight hundred pages of written and oral reminiscences from more than two hundred and fifty friends, relatives, neighbors, and associates who claimed to know Lincoln well.

I’ve been working my way through this hefty volume for some time now, but two things especially struck me as I read this New Year’s Eve.  First, countless informants independently testified that, although Lincoln was fond of well-known poets such as Robert Burns and Lord Byron, his favorite poem was by the little-known Scottish poet William Knox (1789-1825).  The poem, “Mortality,” is a dreary litany of human hopelessness in fourteen ever-more gloomy verses.   Knox’s main goal seemed to have been to remind his readers of the certainty of death and the vanity of life.  Here is his first verse:

Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud
A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave
He passeth from life to his rest in the grave.

Like the author of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, Knox stressed repeatedly that death is no respecter of persons.  In Ecclesiastes chapter 2, the Preacher observes that although “wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness . . . the same event happens to them all.”  Hear Knox’s echo:

The saint, who enjoyed the communion of Heaven,
The sinner, who dared to remain unforgiven,
The wise and the foolish, the guilty and just,
Have quietly mingled their bones in the dust.

“Mortality” begins and ends with futility.  The world it describes is a closed universe with scarcely a hint of a divine Author.  Life is short and then you die.  Here is the poem’s last verse, which Lincoln, reportedly, viewed as particularly eloquent:

‘Tis the wink of an eye — ’tis the draught of a breath–
From the blossom of health to the paleness of death,
From the gilded saloon to the bier and the shroud:–
Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?

Lincoln learned “Mortality” by heart and recited it often.  A storekeeper who knew Lincoln in the 1820s remembered him relating it.  So did a lawyer who traveled the circuit with Lincoln in the 1850s.  The latter recalled Lincoln saying that to him “it sounded as much like true poetry as any thing he had ever heard.”

In my reading this morning I also learned that, as a teenager, Lincoln had transcribed some ostensibly similar verses into his copybook.  Reproduced exactly, they read as follows: “Time What an emty vaper tis and days how swift they are swift as an indian arrow fly on like a shooting star.”

Here again we’re confronted with the brevity of life, albeit from a very different writer, and for a very different purpose.  If you don’t recognize these lines–as I did not–they come from the prolific English hymn writer Isaac Watts (1674-1748).  Lincoln clearly wasn’t copying them directly from a hymnal–the misspellings testify to that–so it seems likely that he had heard the words sung and was doing his semi-literate best to preserve them from memory.  They come from Watts’s hymn, written before 1707, “The Shortness of Life and the Goodness of God.”  Here are all seven verses as recorded in an 1821 edition of the hymn-writer’s works:

Time! what an empty vapour ’tis!
And days how swift they are!
Swift as an Indian arrow flies,
Or like a shooting star.

The present moments just appear,
Then slide away in haste,
That we can never say, “They’re here,”
But only say, “They’re past.”

Our life is ever on the wing,
And death is ever nigh;
The moment when our lives begin
We all begin to die.

Yet, mighty God, our fleeting days
Thy lasting favours share,
Yet with the bounties of thy grace
Thou load’st the rolling year.

‘Tis sovereign mercy finds us food,
And we are cloth d with love;
While grace stands pointing out the road
That leads our souls above.

His goodness runs an endless round;
All glory to the Lord:
His mercy never knows a bound,
And be his Name ador’d!

Thus we begin the lasting song,
And when we close our eyes,
Let the next age thy praise prolong
Till time and nature dies.

Significantly, the young Lincoln did his best to record the first two verses but then he stopped, even though the full hymn continues for another five verses.  I found myself wondering why:  Did his memory fail him?  Did the unfamiliar labor of writing grow tiresome? Or did the poor youngster in Indiana find it hard to relate to the latter part of Watts’s hymn?

Although Watts’s hymn starts similarly to Knox’s poem, it eventually transitions to words of comfort and hope.  As the hymn’s title suggests, Watts would have us understand the shortness of life in light of the goodness of God.

Yes, Watts agrees, our days “slide away in haste” and “death is ever nigh.”  Yet that’s far from the whole story.  God showers our brief sojourns with the hallmarks of His favor: mercy, love, and grace.  And death–though inescapable–is not the end.  We “close our eyes” to awake in a new age with a song on our lips for eternity.

One of the most repetitive observations of Scripture is the simple truth that our lives are short.  We read that our days on earth are akin to a “breath” (Job 7:7), a “passing shadow” (Psalm 14:4), a “puff of smoke” (James 4:14).  I think it’s good to dwell on this truth as the year comes to a close, but as Isaac Watts reminds us, we mustn’t stop there.

May God bless you all in 2017.

 

NOT A BAD EXAMPLE A CENTURY AND A HALF LATER

I continue to make my way through the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, and just this week made it to the eighth and final volume in the series.  Volume Eight begins in September 1864, in the midst of the presidential campaign of that year.  Abraham Lincoln was seeking re-election to the presidency, but the human costs of the war had exceeded the darkest predictions, and that combined with divisions within his own party, widespread war weariness, and the passionate opposition of northern Democrats made his re-election far from certain.

At the end of August, the outlook for the Union was so grim that Lincoln himself had come to expect defeat.  Although William Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in early September initiated a decisive shift in military momentum and boosted popular support for the Lincoln Administration, the presidential campaign was still one of the ugliest of the century.  Northern Democrats lampooned Lincoln as “Abe the Widow-maker” and held him personally responsible for the deaths of the Union slain.  With a crudity that almost defies description, they hailed him as King “Abraham Africanus the First” and accused him of being a “negro-lover” who advocated miscegenation and the rule of blacks over whites.  In their platform they denounced the war as a “failure” and called for an immediate cease-fire to be followed by negotiations with the South.

Lincoln sat for this photograph less than a month before his Second Inaugural Address.

Lincoln sat for this photograph about three months after his re-election to the presidency.

Here is how Lincoln responded publicly after news arrived of his re-election.  Presidents did not hold news conferences in those days, and Lincoln scheduled no public speeches of any kind in the weeks following his electoral victory.  But on November 10th, 1864, the day after Lincoln learned beyond doubt that he had been re-elected to a second term, a torchlight parade of supporters proceeded to the White where they “serenaded” the victor, prompting Lincoln to deliver a short speech from his balcony.  Here is a portion of what he had to say:

 . . . now that the election is over, may not all, having a common interest, re-unite in a common effort, to save our common country?  For my own part, I have striven, and shall strive to avoid placing any obstacle in the way.  So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.

While I am deeply sensible to the high compliment of a re-election; and duly grateful, as I trust, to Almighty God for having directed my countrymen to a right conclusion, as I think, for their own good, it adds nothing to my satisfaction that any other man may be disappointed or pained by the result.

May I ask those who have not differed with me, to join with me, in this same spirit towards those who have?

A remarkable example, don’t you think?  Lincoln told his private secretary afterward that his comments were “not very graceful,” but they revealed a largeness of heart and magnanimity of spirit in short supply a century and a half later.

 

REMEMBERING THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS

A week ago this morning I was seated on a folding chair on the grounds of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery adjacent to Gettysburg National Military Park.  I had come to Gettysburg thanks to an invitation from Gettysburg Presbyterian Church to deliver their annual “Gettysburg Addresses Lincoln” lecture, but I had most of the day to kill before my 4:00 p.m. talk, and I took advantage of the free time to join the audience of two thousand or so who attended a commemorative program observing the 153rd anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  It was an absolutely glorious morning—the sky was a bright clear blue, the thermometer registered sixty degrees, and a smattering of autumn color still decorated the cemetery.  I soaked up the sun and took notes on how Americans remember their past and draw hope for the future.  For a U. S. historian interested in popular memory, this was better than a day at the beach.

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Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, November 19, 2016

Gettysburg has been commemorating the anniversary of Lincoln’s most famous speech since 1938.  It would be interesting to research how the ritual has changed over time.  By definition, historical commemoration exists at the intersection of past and present.  We gather, in theory, to remember the past as it actually was, but because we look backward through contemporary lenses, what we see and how we respond to it says a lot about our own day. This was surely true of last Saturday’s ceremony, although the specific ways that it was true would be clearer if I could compare it with previous celebrations.

At any rate, I am doubtful that the crowd who gathered in 1938 was full of Civil-War reenactors—men and women, boys and girls decked out for the occasion in elaborate period costumes.  The whole town was crawling with them.  Gettysburg has become a mecca for reenactors, and thousands make the pilgrimage every November 19th.  They crowded the sidewalks, filled the restaurants, and added considerably to the waiting lines at the public restrooms.  As I found an empty folding chair near the back at the cemetery commemoration, I found myself next to a near eighty-year-old Union private.  He left halfway through the program and was replaced by two senior citizens in hoopskirts and bonnets.  (Note, one of the many ways in which Civil War reenactment is historically inaccurate is in the age distribution of participants.  One half of the American population was under twenty years old when the Civil War erupted, and half of Civil War soldiers were twenty-five or younger.  The audience in the cemetery was considerably more “experienced,” and the gathering had a bit of a 19th-century AARP feel to it.)

"Abraham Lincoln" working the crowd before the program began.

“Abraham Lincoln” working the crowd before the program began.

I also doubt that the 1938 celebration opened with a Buddhist prayer, as last Saturday’s did.  As our society becomes more and more religiously diverse, it becomes increasingly difficult to acknowledge our religious pluralism without trivializing our religious differences.  If you believe that all religious belief systems lead to God, then there is no problem.  But if you think that the substance of our faith convictions matters—as the adherents of most of the major world religions have always insisted—then it can be hard to make sense of a program framed by a Buddhist “invocation” and a Presbyterian benediction.  I’m not sure what I would have done had I been in the organizers’ shoes, but I think I would have recommending dropping the prayers altogether.  When the military cemetery was dedicated 153 years ago, the program opened with a prayer by the Reverend T. H. Stockton (four times longer than Lincoln’s remarks), but almost no one remembers that today.

Even in the absence of formal prayers, there would still have been a religious feel to the gathering.  One of the things that struck me most was the number of times that the various speakers on the platform used religious language in describing the final resting place of those who fell at Gettysburg.  “We are gathered together in a holy place,” observed the Buddhist sensei.  Welcome to “these hallowed grounds,” said the military park superintendent.  This is a “sacred place,” intoned the president of the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania.  The language of civil religion—equal parts inspirational and blasphemous—was ubiquitous.

Then came the keynote speaker.  It is one of the hallmarks of contemporary America that we conflate celebrity with authority and expertise.  The featured speaker in 1863 had not been Abraham Lincoln but Harvard professor Edward Everett, one of the foremost scholars of his day.  The featured speaker 153 years later was actor Levar Burton, known for his roles in Roots, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and PBS’s Reading Rainbow.  In fairness to Burton, I thought his address was the highlight of the 90-minute program.  Burton began by warning the audience that his heart was heavy, and that he had come to Gettysburg “to share the discomfort of my soul.”  “The promise of America has yet to be delivered to too many” Americans, he lamented.  “We are indeed a house divided,” confronting a “crisis with the power to rend us asunder.”  The actor then went on to speak with great feeling about his mother’s heroic sacrifices on his behalf, and her tireless efforts to prepare him for life as a black male in America.  “What part of ‘all men are created equal’ have we failed to understand?” he asked the audience.

Burton was followed on the stage by George Buss, a.k.a. Abraham Lincoln, who gave a far too rapid rendition of Lincoln’s 272-word Gettysburg Address.  (“Speak very slowly” was Lincoln’s main advice to public speakers.)  Once “President Lincoln” had taken his seat, a bass soloist bellowed out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and then, in one of the most impressive moments of the morning, fourteen candidates for U. S. citizenship took part in a naturalization ceremony.  After taped remarks from President Obama, the Gettysburg High School band played “God Bless America,” a Protestant pastor offered a closing prayer, and a lone bugler played “Taps.”

As is often the case with historical commemorations, the program was better at inspiring the audience than at making us think.  The exception to this rule was Levar Burton, although he still pulled his punches, and the loudest ovation he received came with his concluding “God bless America.”  Once the last strain of “Taps” had faded, the crowd rushed to grab lunch before a 1:00 parade featuring thousands of Civil-War reenactors.

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I have shared already my misgivings (here and here) about the whole reenactment phenomenon.  My day in Gettysburg mostly reinforced them.  For much of the morning, the audience had listened as Levar Burton talked about the persistence of racial injustice in America, heard again Abraham Lincoln’s call for a “new birth of freedom,” and listened to a popular anthem—penned by the wife of an ardent abolitionist—imploring Union soldiers to give their lives to make others free.  The audience listened politely, clapped heartily, and adjourned to watch a parade of thousands of almost exclusively white reenactors who have little place for race in their memory of the Civil War they are supposedly recreating.

SEVEN SCORE AND THIRTEEN YEARS AGO: LINCOLN AT GETTYSBURG

One hundred fifty-three years ago today, on November 19th, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln shared “brief remarks” at the dedication of a national military cemetery on the site of the recent battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  Today we remember those 272 words–Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address–as one of the defining statements in our nation’s history.  We rightly remember Lincoln’s speech for its eloquence, but how deeply do we think about it? I may offend some in saying this, but to think Christianly about it is to see it as deeply flawed. Like the book of Ecclesiastes, whose author contemplated life “under the sun,” its perspective is relentlessly earthbound, and at least one of its claims is vaguely blasphemous.

gettysburg-address

Probably the Address’s best known passage is its opening sentence: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation: conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” We live in a talk-show culture in which contemporary political rhetoric is relentlessly parsed and dissected and critiqued unmercifully, but let a few generations pass and chisel the rhetoric in granite on the mall in Washington, and it becomes sacrosanct in our eyes. It might free us up to re-examine the Address afresh if we remember that it was roundly denounced when it was delivered.

As in our own day, much of the criticism was politically motivated. We forget that, like so many other politicians before and since, Lincoln used a public appearance before a large crowd as an opportunity to make a political statement. In November, 1863, the North was badly divided over the president’s recent Emancipation Proclamation. The Republican Party supported it, while the Democratic Party unanimously denounced it. And so the Republican leader wasted no time in defending his administration when he helped to dedicate the new military cemetery in Gettysburg, even though he never once referred to emancipation explicitly.

His argument was essentially historical. At worst misleading, at best debatable, it rested on a highly selective reading of the country’s founding. For years Lincoln had been insisting that his desire to end slavery was in keeping with the original vision of the Founding Fathers. “The fathers of the government expected and intended the institution of slavery to come to an end,” he proclaimed repeatedly during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. In advocating the restriction of slavery and its ultimate demise, Lincoln informed the audience that “I have proposed nothing more than a return to the policy of the fathers.” Lincoln’s view was a libel on the Founders, Democrat Douglas rejoined. Offering his own reading of American history, Douglas informed cheering Democrats that “our fathers made this government divided into Free and Slave States, recognizing the right of each to decide all its local questions for itself.”

And so when Lincoln began by telling the assembled throng at Gettysburg that our fathers had been “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” the politically savvy among them immediately recognized a familiar refrain in a long-standing partisan debate. And when, a couple of minutes later, Lincoln concluded his brief remarks by implying that the Union dead at Gettysburg had died so that the nation might have “a new birth of freedom,” the crowd understood that he was enlisting the fallen at Gettysburg in the controversial cause of emancipation.

Republicans saw nothing exceptional in this. Democrats were livid. Nearby in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the Democratic Patriot and Union condemned the president’s “silly remarks” and the entire event as a partisan spectacle.  The chief players in the drama, the newspaper remarked, “stood there, upon that ground, not with hearts stricken with grief or elated by ideas of true glory, but coldly calculating the political advantages which might be derived from the solemn ceremonies of the dedication.”  The editorial concluded by appealing to the Republican Party to “renounce partisanship for patriotism, and to save the country from the misery and desolation which, under their present policy, is inevitable.”

Further out my way, the democratic Chicago Times assured its readers that it was to uphold the Constitution “and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg.” What the president had done at Gettysburg was simply despicable. “How dare he,” thundered the Times editor, “standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”

As a historian, I see northern Democrats’ response to the Address as understandable (although their reading of history was just as one-sided as Lincoln’s). As a Christian historian, I am more disappointed by the way that Republican evangelicals across the North embraced Lincoln’s speech, for it contained elements that they should have found troubling.

For one thing, the Address is a classic example of rhetoric that conflates sacred and secular. Read broadly, Lincoln’s address is a masterful effort to situate the tragedy of the American Civil War in a larger story of redemption. The thing being redeemed, however, is not God’s Church but the United States. The author of redemption is not the Lord but “the people.”

The story Lincoln tells begins with its own creation account. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” the opening verse of Genesis declares. In the beginning “our fathers brought forth” the United States, Lincoln proclaims. Their values now bind us. Their vision–as interpreted by Lincoln–obliges us. Ever since Lincoln’s death there have been countless efforts to “baptize him posthumously,” as Christian scholar Allen Guelzo notes in his marvelous biography, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Guezlo argues persuasively, however, that although Lincoln was biblically literate and far from an atheist, he nevertheless died unconvinced of the gospel. What is more, although he employed biblical rhetoric and adopted biblical cadences in his speeches, he rarely if ever referred to the Bible as authoritative. As late as 1863, at least, the bedrock of his argument against slavery was not scripture but the Declaration of Independence and its assertion–penned by an apostle of the Enlightenment who owned 150 slaves–that “all men are created equal.”

Lincoln goes on to make two other assertions that ought to have troubled the thinking Christians in his audience. The first is his statement that “the brave men who struggled” at Gettysburg–presumably he meant the Union men–had “consecrated” the ground. To consecrate is to “set apart as sacred to God.” Something that has been consecrated is now “holy.” When the great “I AM” spoke to Moses from the burning bush, He informed the trembling herdsman that he was standing on holy ground. Lincoln told his audience the same thing. In what possible sense could that be true? It makes little difference whether you believe that Lincoln was speaking literally or figuratively. In his choice of words the president was draping the state with religious imagery and eternal significance, and that, however well-intended, is a form of what Christian scholar Steven Woodworth aptly labels “patriotic heresy.”

Second, Lincoln suggested that the blood of the Union dead justified the Union cause. He urged his audience to renew their commitment to the struggle precisely because others had given “the last full measure of devotion” on its behalf. My grandfather served in WWI, my father in WWII, and my son is currently in the Marine Corps, so I want to be very careful in choosing my words here. We can rightly respect, admire, and appreciate those who, through suffering and great danger have risked their lives in our defense. But that is a different thing from maintaining that the spilling of blood necessarily ennobles the cause for which it is shed.

We would not accept that view with regard to the storm troopers who died in the service of Adolph Hitler, nor the Islamic terrorists who knowingly went to their deaths on 9/11. And as American Christians we ought not to swallow the argument as applied to our own soldiers. If we accept the view that death in war automatically justifies the perpetuation of that war–so that the “dead shall not have died in vain,” as Lincoln put it–we abdicate our calling to live as salt and light. When we do so, the church forfeits its prophetic voice and becomes merely an extension of the state.

TALKING ABOUT THANKSGIVING

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit down with my friend Wayne Shepherd to discuss how we remember the Pilgrims and the “First Thanksgiving.”  If you don’t know him, Wayne is the host of a wonderful radio/podcast interview program.  “First Person” is carried by nearly three hundred stations across the country, and I heartily recommend it.

If you’d care to listen in, our conversation will be airing this weekend on radio, and is available online even now, here.

 

LINCOLN AND TRUMP ON “BINDING OUR WOUNDS”

“Let us . . . bind up the nation’s wounds,” the founder of the party of Lincoln exhorted his fellow countrymen in his brief second inaugural address in March 1865.  “It is time for America to bind the wounds of division,” the current standard-bearer of Lincoln’s party told the nation in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

I don’t know if Donald Trump was consciously echoing Abraham Lincoln in his victory speech, but it strikes me as possible, perhaps even likely, given how much the president-elect admires Lincoln.  Trump’s aides have noted that “Abraham Lincoln is going to be an important figure in terms of Mr. Trump’s vision for the Republican Party,” while Trump himself has paid eloquent tribute to his predecessor.  As he explained to columnist Bob Woodward, Lincoln was

 . . .  a man that did something that was a very vital thing to do at that time. Ten years before or 20 years before, what he was doing would never have even been thought possible. So he did something that was a very important thing to do, and especially at that time.

Did you follow that?

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I’d consider it a personal favor if Mr. Trump never referred to Lincoln again or repeated his words.  As a historian and a lifelong Republican, anything that intentionally juxtaposes Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump is just too painful. But beyond the personal discomfort that it causes, Mr. Trump needs to understand that quoting a past president doesn’t make him “presidential.”

Context matters.

When Abraham Lincoln spoke of binding the nation’s wounds, he was referring to a rending in the national fabric that he saw as wholly unnecessary and which grieved him deeply.  As a polarized nation careened toward war at the close of the 1850s, the antislavery Lincoln repeatedly told antislavery audiences that they were not morally superior to slaveholding white southerners.

“I have constantly declared, as I really believed,” Lincoln told an Illinois audience in October 1858, that “the only difference between them [the white South] and us, is the difference of circumstances.”  In an 1859 speech in Dayton, Ohio, Lincoln figuratively addressed the South with this promise: “We mean to remember that you [Southerners] are as good as we; that there is no difference between us other than the difference of circumstances.  We mean to recognize and bear in mind always that you have as good hearts in your bosoms as other people, or as we claim to have.”

In the process, Lincoln was indirectly admonishing his own followers to avoid self-righteousness and to treat their opponents charitably.   Addressing members of his own party, Lincoln imparted this advice:

It is exceedingly desirable that all parts of this great Confederacy shall be at peace, and in harmony, with one another.  Let us Republicans do our part to have it so.  Even though much provoked, let us do nothing through passion and ill temper.  Even though the southern people will not so much as listen to us, let us calmly consider their demands, and yield to them if, in our deliberate view of our duty, we possibly can.

Even as Union men were dying on the battlefields of Virginia and Tennessee, Lincoln resisted efforts to portray his southern enemies as either stupid or evil, and when northern clergymen would advise him to assure the North that the Lord was on their side, Lincoln consistently demurred.

In sum, when Lincoln famously called for reconciliation in his second inaugural–“with malice toward none, with charity to all”–his plea represented the logical culmination of a humble, gracious, charitable civility that had characterized his public rhetoric for years past.  Mr. Trump, in contrast, has for years sought intentionally to divide the nation as a conscious political strategy.   His language has been caustic, defamatory, reckless, unthinking, bombastic, anti-intellectual, and relentless self-aggrandizing.

Historically, it would be accurate to call him the anti-Lincoln.  Pretty soon, we’ll just call him “Mr. President.”

ABRAHAM LINCOLN ON THE CHOICES BEFORE US

“Think of your forefathers!  Think of your posterity!”–John Quincy Adams

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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.

This is the earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken in 1846, eight years after he addressed the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

This is the earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken in 1846, eight years after he addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

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.

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