To a hall filled with young men on a cold Illinois night in January 1838, Abraham Lincoln delivered his earliest recorded public remarks.
For the 50 years prior, the living rooms, parlors, and public offices of our country had been teeming with the brave Americans who’d fought, struggled, and suffered to create these United States. “Nearly every American,” Lincoln recalled, “had been a participator in some of its scenes.”
But now that generation was dying off. What no invading army could, time, he lamented, had itself accomplished: “They were a forest of giant oaks; but the all resistless hurricane had swept over them, and left only, here and there, a lonely trunk… to combat, with its mutilated limbs, a few more ruder storms, then to sink, and be no more.”
Without their life experience, he realized, his was the first generation of Americans tasked with upholding their fathers’ noble experiment simply by the strength of their own virtues. This, he warned, would be very difficult.
As he looked around him, at both slave states and their northern neighbors, he saw and feared the evil of swelling mobs not merely for their unfortunate victims, but for our national tolerance of their violence and misrule — and the effect this shrugging of shoulders and murmuring of approval or disapproval would have on patriotic and unpatriotic men alike.
The incidents weren’t always seemingly connected by cause. A group of gamblers hanged; a mixed-race murderer burned alive; black men suspected of planning insurrection, and then white men suspected of sympathizing, and then simply out-of-state strangers caught in the middle of swelling hate. But beyond their brutality, the young lawyer feared these mobs were connected for the lawlessness they embodied — and the idle familiarity with which his fellow Americans seemed to accept these incidents.
While the 1830s mobs “hang gamblers, or burn murders,” he cautioned, tomorrow’s mobs would hang and burn the innocent — “and thus it goes on, step by step, till all the walls erected for the defense of the persons and property of individuals, are trodden down, and disregarded.”
While after January 2021’s Capitol riot we’ve all seen the ruthless efficiency with which our government is capable of cracking down on lawlessness, we too saw the summer before, when months of attacks on federal officers, politicians, police, private homes, courthouses, and innocent bystanders met calculated indifference and shrugged excuses for “historic racial injustices.”
This too, was well familiar to Lincoln, who knew the mob will go further and spread deeper, warning, “by instances of the perpetrators of such acts going unpunished, the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint, but dread of punishment, they thus become, absolutely unrestrained.”
“On the other hand,” he predicted, “good men, men who love tranquility, who desire to abide by the laws, and enjoy their benefits, who would gladly spill their blood in the defense of their country; seeing their property destroyed; their families insulted, and their lives endangered; their persons injured; and seeing nothing in prospect that forebodes a change for the better; become tired of, and disgusted with, a Government that offers them no protection; and are not much averse to a change in which they imagine they have nothing to lose.”
Combined, he warned, these seemingly opposing feelings come to one terrible conclusion: “the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed — I mean the attachment of the People.”
To ensure that the fading “scenes of the revolution are [not] now or ever will be entirely forgotten,” Lincoln prescribed “in history, we hope, they will be read of, and recounted, so long as the Bible shall be read.”
Yet today at The Washington Post, New York Times, and at the top of our government, the privileged and ignorant children of our country tell Americans our experiment is tainted, our Revolution was for evil, our Civil War was not enough. They demand reparations through re-education, racist quotas, kneeling subservience, and crude offerings of money. Neither the honored dead of the Revolution nor the lives of 300,000 Yankee boys lying stiff in Southern dust will appease them — they want more than the blood of our countrymen.
To “fortify against” the mob, Lincoln also prescribed an American “political religion” rested on law, order, morality, and reason, yet today’s revolutionaries reside at the very height of our government, inclined to rule toward the same terrible ends the newspapers, college professors and street activists demand. While we all agree the mob’s attack on the Capitol was intolerable, many claim that mobs of Black Lives Matter and Antifa members occupying and burning our cities are less wicked, justified by some imaginary historic cause.
Black separatism, the left-wing Southern Poverty Law Center claimed Thursday, is no longer born of hate, but “out of valid anger against very real historical and systemic oppression.” Lincoln, however, knew “there is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.”
Just more than two decades after his remarks, Lincoln was president. His office was characterized by a stunning bravery, as well as the very principles he called for in 1838 — “general intelligence, sound morality and, in particular, a reverence for the Constitution and the laws.”
Treading carefully but boldly between Southern sympathizers and abolitionist radicals, the man who in 1838 lamented the passing of our Founding Fathers would as president write the end of their page in history, uniting once and for all the truths espoused in our Declaration of Independence with the laws laid out in our Constitution.
For a century, Lincoln’s story was derided and dismissed by Southern apologists seeking to strike his place in history for the fantasies they preferred. Today, his story is derided and dismissed by racists and radicals of different politics, working hard to undo the political religion he cemented, and to strike his place in history for their own preferred fantasies.
Today, on Abraham Lincoln’s 212th birthday, Americans must remember his life, his deeds, his sacrifice, and the lives, deeds, and sacrifices of all who came before and after him in the service of these United States. If we cannot quickly return to the vision they fought and died for, heed the warnings of 1838, and remember the lessons of our Revolution and Civil War, we are just as sure to lose our country as ever before.