Lincoln conspiracy for 2006
Okay, so I promise I'll publish two extended blog posts about how we can use the Net to subordinate politicians like big bidness does, and another on how campaigns might be adapted to become something more than promise-laden beauty contests. I've got notes and months of thinking on both, and I want to lay them out. But after this one, which is, to put it lightly, a half-baked conspiracy theory about Abraham Lincoln. I've had it in my pocket for years, and I don't believe it, but man is it good.
It started way back in the summer of 2000 when I was studying at Berkeley. A graduate student who I got to know told me about this speech that a young Abraham Lincoln gave in 1838 to the Boy's Lyceum of Springfield, Ill. titled "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions." The grad student told me with a fiendish grin on his face that this speech was in fact a grim warning to the world from Lincoln that he would inflict bloodshed and tyranny on this country -- a morbid promisory note from a freakish political genius who managed to divine his own political destiny and saw that he would oversee a gory presidency, decades before it was on the cards.
What can I say? I read the speech, and I liked it a lot. But I didn't see anything in it at all like what the grad student told me. The first part addresses the big issue of the day: mob riots and unlawful lynchings. Lincoln told the boys of the Springfield Lyceum that the rule of law is to be obeyed in all circumstances, and done in cherishing love-of-country fashion. No surprise there; fairly banal stuff. Then the second half of the speech I thought was certainly pretty gripping. In it, Lincoln warns that while the nation's democratic institutions were relatively stable, the biggest threat to the established republic was that of a genius seeking distinction. Here's the part that raised my eyebrows:
"Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! Think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon? -- Never! Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. -- It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. 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. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, 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." [emphasis mine]
I thought about that turn of phrase for a while, about the idea that some "towering genius" might either go for "emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen" depending on the context, especially since that was the very topic that gave Lincoln his historical "distinction." But I rejected it, of course.