When Lincoln Warned Against Trump
The following excerpt is adapted from A Self-Made Man 1809-1849: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, 2016), the first of a four-volume biography. The excerpt describes Lincoln’s first formal speech, delivered in 1838, when he was nearly 28 years old and a member of the Illinois state legislature.
Elijah J. Lovejoy was a pure distillation of high-minded, right-thinking, and stiff-necked New England attitudes transplanted to the borderlands of the frontier and slavery. Feeling the call of religion, he attended Princeton Theological Seminary, and ordained as a Presbyterian minister, came to St. Louis to edit the local Presbyterian newspaper, the St. Louis Observer. At once Lovejoy courted trouble, publishing an article in 1834 condemning “the curse of slavery” and sermonizing that it was contrary to Christianity.
A committee of prominent St. Louis men signed a proclamation insisting on the suppression of any antislavery expression. Fierce opposition only inspired in Lovejoy a fiercer resistance. “We have slaves, it is true, but I am not one,” he replied. “Is this the land of Freedom or Despotism?” Threatened with vigilante violence if he did not relent, he declared, “I can die at my post, but I cannot desert it.” He refused to veer from his stations of the cross, the way of the martyr. “And let me entreat my brothers and sisters to pray for me, that I may pass through this ‘fiery trial,’ without denying my Lord and Master,” he wrote his brother, Owen, on November 2, 1835.
In April 1836, a free black worker on the docks of St. Louis, Francis McIntosh, obstructed the arrest of two fighting boatmen, stabbing a policeman to death and wounding another. A mob led by a city alderman invaded the jail, brushed aside the sheriff, seized McIntosh, chained him to a tree, and set him on fire. “We may all see (and be warned in time), the legitimate result of the spirit of mobism,” Lovejoy editorialized.
An organized gang destroyed his printing press.
Lovejoy moved across the Mississippi River to Alton, Illinois, where he began publishing a newspaper and wrote occasional antislavery articles. On July 6, 1837, Lovejoy issued the call for the formation of the Illinois Anti-Slavery Society. Within days a committee of town notables signed a statement calling for “the suppression of abolitionism,” and visited Lovejoy, demanding that he cease publishing antislavery articles at once and smashed his press. On September 21, a new press arrived, was stored in a warehouse, which was invaded that night by the mob, breaking it and throwing the pieces into the Mississippi.
The new press for the Observer arrived on November 6 at a warehouse. About 30 men waited with Lovejoy to guard it. The next night, the mob surrounded the warehouse. Both sides were armed with muskets and pistols. The mob stoned the defenders and attempted to storm their fortress. Shots were fired, a member of the mob killed. “Burn them out!” the crowd shouted. A ladder was leaned against the building and a man climbed to the roof to set it on fire. Lovejoy and several others stepped out of the main door to shoot at the arsonist. He was met with a hail of bullets hitting him the chest. “I am shot!” he exclaimed, and died.
In Illinois, the common opinion was to blame Lovejoy’s killing on Lovejoy: he had brought his assassination on himself. A trial acquitting the mob leaders at Alton concluded on January 19. Eight days later, on the 27th, Abraham Lincoln mounted the podium to address the Springfield Young Men’s Lyceum.
Lincoln awkwardly titled his talk “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” and began by clearing his throat seemingly endlessly. He rambled on about “the lapse of time” and “duty to posterity." Then he snapped to attention, posing his main question and beginning to provide an answer:
“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years. 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 come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
Insisting that the source of conflict was internal—“it must spring up amongst us”—Lincoln rejected out of hand the popular conservative argument that foreign ideas imported from French revolutionaries and English emancipationists had infected fanatical American abolitionists, whose disturbance was the root of all trouble.
Lincoln decried “mob law.” Lawlessness, he argued, inspired contempt for government. “Having ever regarded Government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations; and pray for nothing so much, as its total annihilation....Thus, then, by the operation of this mobocractic spirit, which all must admit, is now abroad in the land, the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed.”
He drew the curtain back on the ultimate scene of depravity, “the full extent of the evil.” “Whenever this effect shall be produced among us; whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision-stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this Government cannot last.”
Lincoln turned his admonition for law and order into a kind of secular prayer.
“Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap—let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs—let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation.”
But his solemnity in adopting the literary form of prayer was not, of course, a summons from heaven. His point was not about religion—neither attaching religious faith to civic republicanism nor anything to do with his understanding of the separation of church and state. At the Lyceum, he demanded respect for the rule of law, cast scorn on the mob and those justifying and exploiting those mobs for their own purposes. He had specific instances in mind, especially the recent murder of Lovejoy—and though these went unmentioned by name, he had specific demagogues in mind.
Lincoln’s commentary did not refer to the Madisonian system of checks and balances, but focused instead on the potential emergence of a great man consumed with “celebrity and fame, and distinction.” The old generation of the Revolution had passed. “This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated.” An unscrupulous figure might seek to stamp his imprint over their legacy for his own glory.
“But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot… 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. Distinction will be his paramount object, and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.”
Lincoln’s forewarning against the will to power joined to the exploitation of “celebrity and fame” was his most modern caution.