Abraham Lincoln had a way of capturing, rhetorically, the national ethos. The “house divided.” “Right makes might” at Cooper Union. Gettysburg’s “last full measure of devotion” and the “new birth of freedom.” The “mystic chords of memory” and the “better angels of our nature.” “[M]alice toward none,” “charity for all,” and “firmness in the right.” But Lincoln not only evaluated America’s character; he also understood the fragility of those things upon which the success of the American constitutional experiment depended, and the consequences when the national ethos was in crisis. Perhaps no Lincoln speech better examines the threats to civil order and American constitutional government than his 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois: “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” Indeed, perhaps no speech is better suited to the dangers that American government and politics now face in our time.
The Lyceum speech first critiques mob violence and lawlessness, then addresses threats to institutions and order from political leaders themselves. Lincoln first extols the virtues of American political institutions, but acknowledges that if danger “ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us.” The omen America then faced, Lincoln says, citing mob violence, was the “increasing disregard for law which pervades the country.” He laments “the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions” for the authority of courts, and “the worse than savage mobs” for executive authority. A “mobocratic spirit” takes hold when government is unable, or unwilling, to protect the citizenry from lawlessness and violence—and breaks the attachment of people to their government. These mobs regard “Government as their deadliest bane,” and “make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations; and pray for nothing so much, as its total annihilation.” Lincoln confessed that bad laws exist and that legal remedies for legitimate grievances sometimes do not. But “[t]here is no grievance that is a fit object [for] mob law.”
Lincoln’s answer: to make reverence for the law the Nation’s “political religion,” upon the altars of which Americans should “sacrifice unceasingly.”
Lincoln then asks why this state of affairs would pose a danger now to our political institutions; why is the risk now greater than before? As the American experiment has succeeded, the chase for national success feels concluded: “This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated.” But, he says, “new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field.” New political leaders—tyrants and demagogues, really—will not be satisfied to carry on the political institutions and traditions that the founding generation created. “Towering genius,” he says, “disdains a beaten path.” These new leaders will seek distinction of their own, possessing not only genius but “ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch.” And in doing so, they may seek to tear down those solid institutions and traditions that have been built.