Conor Friedersdorf: Abraham Lincoln’s warning
“He was concerned for the people that had seen their property destroyed,” or even lost their lives, and were “disgusted with a government that offered them no protection. Sound familiar?” Noem referred to protests against police violence, assailing “violent mobs” in “Democrat-run cities.” Her rhetoric supported the president’s “law and order” theme.
Lincoln’s 1838 speech does indeed speak to the present—just not in the way that Noem suggested. Lincoln was not a Republican then—the party did not yet exist—but was a rising politician who won office despite having no money and almost no formal education. Not quite 29, he was invited to talk to a young men’s forum in Springfield about “the perpetuation of our political institutions.” He began by saying his young country was “in peaceful possession of the fairest portion of the Earth.”
A popular work of the era, Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, began with a similar line: Gibbon wrote that the Roman empire “comprehended the fairest part of the earth” before it slowly came apart. Lincoln asked what might cause the American empire to come apart. He said foreign armies “could not, by force, take a drink from the Ohio,” but the republic could destroy itself. Then he spoke against lawless violence.
The astute historian Eric Foner notes that Lincoln could have chosen a variety of examples. The 1830s were a time of partisan passion, labor unrest, and attacks on foreigners. But Lincoln chose two examples involving slavery and race.
Mississippi, he said, had an epidemic of lynching. Vigilantes hanged gamblers, then moved on to lynching enslaved people suspected of plotting an uprising. “Dead men were seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees on every roadside.” Lincoln also mentioned a vigilante attack in St. Louis. A mob seized a mixed-race man accused of murder, who was “chained to a tree and actually burned to death.”
What did these crimes matter? Lincoln acknowledged they seemed like local incidents. The murder suspect might have been legally executed anyway. But vigilante attacks degraded the rule of law, the sole protection against tyranny. Without it, an ambitious leader might someday seek glory by “emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.”
He was speaking in Illinois, a free state, but one with much sympathy for slavery. Many settlers came from the South, and some even enslaved people in defiance of local law. Lincoln was subtly telling his audience that if they ignored the law, if they engaged in racist violence, they risked losing their privileged place in the world.
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He paired this with a warning against radicals on the other side. Though Lincoln called slavery an injustice, he was still reluctant in 1838 to support abolitionists, many of whom rejected the Constitution because it accommodated slavery.