Tag Archives: Young Men’s Lyceum Address

PRESIDENT TRUMP AND THE CAUSE OF THE CIVIL WAR

Had Trump been President in 1860, Would He have Prevented the Civil War, or Caused It?

Although I’ve been doing my best to take a break from this blog (as much as I enjoy it) while on sabbatical at Wheaton, the headlines announcing that President Trump had speculated about the causes of the Civil War in a recent interview were too much to ignore.  If you missed it, here is what Trump had to say in an interview with the Washington Examiner released just this morning:

“I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart.  He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War.  He said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’  People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why?  People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War?  Why could that one not have been worked out?”

The president’s liberal critics have been quick to jump on his remarks, extracting his rhetorical question about why the Civil War occurred as evidence that he is utterly clueless about it.  (You can read a sampling here.)  There have been countless condescending tweets suggesting that the president should read up on something called slavery and figure out what the rest of the world already knows.

I’m convinced that President Trump is largely clueless about U. S. history (ask Frederick Douglass, if you don’t believe me), but these particular jibes are unfair.  In context, what the president was really getting at was the question not of the causes of the Civil War but of its inevitability.  Might the war have been avoided?  Could more effective political leadership have addressed the national blight of slavery while avoiding the bloodiest war in the nation’s history?  This is a much harder question to answer, and one that academic experts on the conflict continue to debate to this day.  It’s not a stupid question.

Having defended President Trump on this point, I have to say that his observations about Andrew Jackson’s concern for “what was happening with regard to the Civil War” are just ridiculous.  As others have pointed out, Jackson died sixteen years before the war erupted.  Less patently absurd is the president’s speculation that, had Jackson served as president some years later, he might have successfully averted the war during his administration, at least.

“Counterfactual” History

This is what historians call a counterfactual hypothesis–speculation about the likely consequences of a set of historical circumstances that never existed.  By definition, a counterfactual hypothesis cannot be proved correct, so academic historians almost always avoid them, but they can be intriguing, and they sometimes can lead to fruitful insight.

Not in this case, however.

While southern politicians were convinced that Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 posed a direct threat to the preservation of slavery–and so responded by advocating disunion–slaveholders had nothing to fear from a Jackson presidency.  While Lincoln’s Republican Party denounced slavery as a moral wrong and called for its eventual demise, Jackson’s party took the position that it was no business of the federal government to interfere with slavery.  While Lincoln denounced slavery as a “moral, social, and political wrong,” the slaveholding Jackson was outspoken in his condemnation of northern abolitionists and, as president, even allowed southern postmasters to confiscate and destroy abolitionist literature.  In sum, it seems highly unlikely that the South would  have attempted to secede under Andrew Jackson’s watch, but not because of Jackson’s strong leadership or skill at negotiation.

But as long as we’re playing the counterfactual game, let’s not stop here.  President Trump has repeatedly compared himself with Andrew Jackson (whose portrait he had installed in the Oval Office), and his suggestion that Jackson could have avoided the Civil War is, in this sense, a backhanded self-compliment, i.e., “the president who most resembles me is the one who could have saved the nation’s from its bloodiest war.”  Is there any reason to think that the nation might have fared better in 1861 with Donald Trump, and not Abraham Lincoln, in the White House?

Lincoln Would have Seen Donald Trump as Part of the Problem

Although it is inconceivable to imagine the Civil War occurring had the institution of slavery not existed on American soil, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Civil War was inevitable or that, even if it was inevitable, that it had to break out at the time and in the manner that it did.  The Civil War, if it signified anything, was a blaring testimony to the failure of the American political system.  Historians believe that the system failed, in large part, because of a massive crisis of popular confidence in the nation’s political institutions.

One of the great ironies of the Civil War is that both the North and the South believed that they were under attack by the other.  As I stress to students when we wrestle with the coming of the Civil War, by the close of the 1850s common folk in both regions could ironically agree on two things: 1) the other region was committed to an agenda that would undermine their way of life, and 2) the political process was powerless to protect them from the threat.  The moral controversy over slavery had something to do with this, but so did politicians on both sides who regularly exaggerated the threat posed by the other region because of the partisan benefits that resulted when their constituents were afraid.

Nearly a quarter-century before the first cannon boomed at Fort Sumter, a young Abraham Lincoln had warned about precisely this kind of political danger.  In his 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln, then an Illinois state congressman, 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.”

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

Lincoln went on to make three key points: First, the “strongest bulwark” of our democratic form of government is “the attachment of the People.”  Second, 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.”  And third, what should we look for when a people driven by passion lose faith in their government?  Danger.

What is the solution?  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.

How would a President Trump have acted during the run-up to the American Civil War?  We’ll never know, of course, but anyone who listened to his speech in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania just two days ago heard a president who excels in doing precisely what Lincoln warned against: fueling popular contempt for government while channeling our darkest passions.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN ON THE RISE OF DONALD TRUMP

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

constitution

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.”

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.

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.

Trump1

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.

“AT WHAT POINT SHALL WE EXPECT THE APPROACH OF DANGER?” LINCOLN ON THE SUICIDE OF A FREE PEOPLE

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

constitution

Once again, it’s been forever since I last wrote to you.  Life keeps getting in the way—commencement, end-of-year reports, and two serious family illnesses have conspired to keep me away.  Since I last wrote, there have been a couple of on-line conversations about Americans’ declining interest in history that I would like to weigh in on, but for now I just want to pass on a couple of intriguing quotes from my summertime reading, which is only now really getting under way.

I’ve already told you that one of my goals for the summer is to work through the eight volumes of the papers of Abraham Lincoln.  I am not really going through them word by word, but reading with a particular eye to what Lincoln had to say about democracy, patriotism, and faith.  I get to speak at a church in Gettysburg this November, on the 153rd anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, and I’m searching for inspiration.  My goal is to find something to say about Lincoln that is not only worthwhile but also wholly original, and since there’s been so little written about Lincoln, I don’t think this should be too hard.  Wouldn’t you agree?

At any rate, I’ve been taking notes on the first volume, and I wanted to share a few passages from one of Lincoln’s earlier public addresses, his 1838 speech before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.  Lincoln was not quite twenty-nine when he spoke to this local civic organization.  He had recently begun the practice of law and had already completed two terms in the state legislature, so he already had a fair amount of “stump speaking” under his belt, but on this January evening he was clearly trying to deliver something more formal and polished than the norm.  His audience was non-partisan, and Lincoln’s goal was less to promote a political agenda than to articulate widely held beliefs and, more than likely, practice his elocution.

I’ve noted previously that I tend to think about the engagement with the past in terms of metaphors.  History can serve as a kind of mirror in which to see ourselves more clearly, or as a kind of story in which we situate our lives and make sense of who we are and where we are headed.  The study of history can also become a conversation, in historian’s David Harlan’s memorable phrase, “a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”  This was the metaphor uppermost in my mind as I read through Lincoln’s Lyceum speech.  I tried carefully to listen, asking myself what in Lincoln’s observations I especially needed to listen to or wrestle with.  You can find Lincoln’s speech easily online (here, among several places), so I encourage you to read it for yourself with the same question in mind.  In the meantime, here are a few thoughts that I had as I tried to listen to young Mr. Lincoln.

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.

First, Lincoln was articulating a common view among thinking Americans in the late 1830s.  There was a palpable sense among Americans that the United States had passed from its infancy into a more mature stage of national existence.  Most of the best known Founding Fathers had long since passed from the scene, and the rank and file of Americans who had taken part in the Revolution were mostly gone as well.  What would this mean for the next generation of Americans?  What role would they play in the nation’s life?  The Founding generation had bequeathed a land to posterity, Lincoln observed, as well as a set of political principles and institutions designed to promote liberty and equal rights.  The work of the current generation, he noted, was not to establish but to perpetuate—to preserve the land from the foot of the invader, and to transmit the political edifice to the succeeding generations “undecayed by the lapse of time, and untorn by usurpation.”

The country’s republican experiment, though successful so far, would always require the people’s vigilant care.  The main threat, Lincoln told his audience, would not come from a foreign invader, however.  “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?”  The answer was sobering: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be our author and finisher.  As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Subsequent writers have long been captivated by Lincoln’s wording here.  The sentence became the springboard for Oz Guinness’s fine book, A Free People’s Suicide.  (You can read my review here.)  At bottom, Lincoln’s point (as Guinness aptly observes), is that the twin works of establishing and ordering liberty were the finished accomplishments of the Founding generation.  The work of sustaining liberty, the third great challenge of a free people, is a never-ending task that each generation must take up in turn.

Surveying the national landscape in 1838, Lincoln identified several alarming trends that might ultimately endanger the people’s liberty.  One was an increase in incidents of popular violence: episodes of vigilante justice that Lincoln equated with “mob law.”  (Among other incidents, he was surely thinking about recent lynchings of southern slaves suspected of conspiring against their masters, as well as attacks on abolitionists much closer to home.)  The real danger of such episodes, he commented, was that they gradually contributed to a mindset that the government was not a reliable protector of the lives and property of the people.  When this happened, Lincoln noted ominously, “the strongest bulwark of any Government . . . may effectually be broken down and destroyed—I mean the attachment of the People.”

I am very much struck by Lincoln’s axiom.  How important is the “attachment of the people” to the government essential to the sustaining of our liberty?  None of the Founders would have advocated an unquestioning submission to government in all things.  The United States was born in resistance to government, after all.  The colonists’ belief that George III and Parliament were systematically subverting their liberties is the fuel that propelled the American Revolution.  And it was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, who voiced the foundational principle that free government is grounded not in trust but in suspicion.  As Jefferson wrote in 1798, “Free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence . . . In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief with the chains of the Constitution.”

And yet the Founders also believed that a degree of popular faith in the government was essential to its survival.  This was because popular disgust with the government could, itself, endanger the people’s liberty.  The Founders’ views on this were complicated, and we need to understand that they simultaneously held two different truths in tension with one another.  On the one hand, when government becomes too powerful it may eventually exercise tyranny over the populace.  On the other hand, when the citizens of a free society conclude that government can no longer protect their interests, that also becomes a breeding ground for tyranny.

It was this latter axiom that Lincoln had in mind when he shared with the Lyceum audience what was at stake if “the attachment of the People” to the government should be broken down.  From time to time individuals of genius and ambition would spring up with an unsatisfied thirst for power or celebrity or acclaim, Lincoln observed.  In broad strokes, he sketched the distinguishing features of such ambition:

“It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief.  It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious.  It thirsts and burns for distinction; and if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.”

Individuals of such ambition will arise, Lincoln insisted.  And they will prosper, he predicted, in historical moments when the people are widely disgusted with the government.  In such settings, emotion will drown out reason, and the majority will be “not much averse to a change in which they imagine they have nothing to lose.”

Is this a timely warning?  Tell me what you think, and then I’ll weigh in with some thoughts of my own.