In January 1838, when Abraham Lincoln was a member of the Illinois state legislature and two weeks shy of his 29th birthday, he delivered what was probably the most prophetic speech of his political career. It’s a speech whose time has arrived again in 2021.
The Lyceum Address is named for the Springfield, Illinois, association that, according to Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon, “contained and commanded all the culture and talent of the place.” It concerns “the perpetuation of our political institutions.” Why would that matter in the still-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 sorts of leaders who abet it.
In Vicksburg, Mississippi (“the Sodom of the South,” as it was then known), a mob of moralists from the town’s respectable quarters had, in 1835, stormed the waterfront, seized five gamblers and summarily hanged them. In St. Louis, Missouri, the next year, a free Black man named Francis McIntosh, suspected of killing one police officer and injuring another, was seized by a mob of vigilantes, chained to a tree and slowly burned to death.
Lincoln chooses his examples well. The motive of the Vicksburg mob, in Lincoln’s telling, is public virtue. The motive of the St. Louis mob is revenge. The high-minded yearning for moral purification and the low-minded lust for blood are, in Lincoln’s telling, two sides of the same coin, and the effects are the same. McIntosh’s lynching soon led to the expulsion and killing of an abolitionist editor. The Vicksburg mob set a precedent for other violent attacks against suspected threats to public order.
Willfully killing the (presumed) guilty rapidly descends to accidentally killing the innocent. “The lawless in spirit are encouraged to become lawless in practice.” Normally law-abiding people, losing faith in government, “are not much averse to a change in which they imagine they have nothing to lose.” Men of low scruples and overweening ambitions scout their political opportunities.
“Is it unreasonable then to expect,” Lincoln asks, “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?”
Donald Trump is not a man of “the loftiest genius.” He is, as I’ve written before, a political arsonist who managed, in his inveterately asinine way, to burn down his own presidency while attempting to torch everyone and everything else. Neither is Josh Hawley nor Ted Cruz a lofty genius. They are credential-holding ideological grifters who lack the wit to see how easily they are seen through.
But the three are at least a hazy approximation of what the younger Lincoln most fears — men in the mold of Caesar or Napoleon who would sooner tear down than defend republican institutions in order to slake a thirst for glory. Before Jefferson Davis tore the federal government asunder, John C. Calhoun tried to nullify its power. What rougher beasts do Trump, Cruz and Hawley prefigure? For that matter, for what kind of Reichstag fire was the Capitol Hill insurrection merely a test run?
Those questions are timely in our own age of mobocracy. The president who got himself elected by summoning a digital mob through Twitter and Facebook wound up trying to reverse the results of an election by summoning an actual mob to Washington.
The left is hardly blameless, either. The same people who offered high-toned excuses and justifications for months of destruction of public and private property in the name of social justice might think twice before demanding respect for hallowed American symbols, institutions and traditions. They provided more excuses for the Capitol Hill rioters than either side likely cares to admit.
What’s the solution? Lincoln’s answer in the Lyceum Address is what he calls “political religion,” built on pillars “hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason.” Scholars have noted a tension between Lincoln’s passionate faith in reason and a political faith that must be sustained by passions that reach beyond reason — what he later called “the mystic chords of memory.”
That’s a tension that can’t be resolved but can at least be sustained, in part through an understanding that the space for reasoned debate has to be encased by respect for tradition and reverence for the symbols of government. One of the reasons the images of Jan. 6 were so grotesque is that they exposed how tissue thin and easily torn our sense of tradition and reverence have become in the Anything Goes Trumpian era.
When Joe Biden becomes president Wednesday, he will face a larger job than ending the pandemic and saving the economy. He will have to exorcise the mobocratic spirit that is Trump’s chief contribution to American politics. Summoning the better angels of our nature in his inaugural address would be a fitting tribute to his greatest predecessor.
Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.