In January 1838, when Abraham Lincoln was a member of the Illinois state legislature and two weeks before his 29th birthday, Abraham Lincoln delivered what was probably the most prophetic speech of his political career. It is a speech whose time has come again in 2021.
The Lyceum address is named after the Springfield, Illinois association which, according to Lincoln’s legal partner William Herndon, “contained and ruled the entire culture and talent of the place.” It is about “maintaining our political institutions”. Why should that be so important in the young, ever-expanding American republic?
An obvious answer would be the existence and expansion of slavery. Lincoln’s answer is the rise of the “mobocratic spirit” and the kind of leaders who support it.
In Vicksburg, miss. (“The Sodom of the South”, as it was called at the time), a number of moralists from the respected neighborhoods stormed the waterfront in 1835, confiscated five players and unceremoniously hung them up. In St. Louis, Missouri, the next year a free black man named Francis McIntosh, suspected of murdering a police officer and injuring another, was grabbed by a group of guards, chained to a tree, and slowly burned.
Lincoln chooses his examples well. The motive of the Vicksburg mob, according to Lincoln, is public virtue. The motive of the St. Louis mob is revenge. The haughty longing for moral purification and the humble lust for blood are two sides of the same coin, and the effects are the same. McIntosh’s lynching soon resulted in the eviction and killing of one abolitionist editor. The Vicksburg mob set a precedent for other violent attacks against alleged threats to public order.
The deliberate killing of the (alleged) guilty party quickly leads to the innocent being accidentally killed. “The outlaws in the spirit are encouraged to become lawless in practice.” Usually law-abiding people who lose trust in the government “are not very averse to a change in which they envision nothing to lose.” Men with little scruples and excessive ambition seek their political options.
“Is it then unreasonable to expect,” asks Lincoln, “that at some point a man will appear among us who has the greatest genius coupled with ambition sufficient to take it to the extreme?”
Donald Trump is not a man of “the greatest genius”. He is, as I have already written, a political arsonist who, in his relentless fashion, managed to burn down his own presidency while trying to set everyone and everything else on fire. Neither Josh Hawley nor Ted Cruz are great geniuses. They are ideological grippers who lack the mind to see how easily they can be figured out.
But the three are at least a hazy approximation of what the younger Lincoln fears most – men in the shape of Caesar or Napoleon who would rather tear down than defend Republican institutions to quench the thirst for fame. Before Jefferson Davis tore the federal government apart, John C. Calhoun tried to overturn its power. What rougher beasts do Trump, Cruz, and Hawley introduce? For what kind of Reichstag fire was the Capitol Hill riot just a test run?
These questions are topical in our age of mobocracy. The president, who self-elected by convening a digital mob on Twitter and Facebook, eventually attempted to reverse the election results by calling an actual mob to Washington.
The left is hardly blameless either. The same people who have offered high-profile excuses and justifications for months of demolition of public and private property in the name of social justice might think twice before demanding respect for sacred American symbols, institutions, and traditions. They made more excuses for the Capitol Hill rioters than either side is likely to admit.