Donald Trump has a fondness for bringing up Abraham Lincoln. “Most people don’t even know he was a Republican,” the president declared at a Republican dinner in 2017. Critics mocked this—the GOP is often called “the party of Lincoln,” after all—but he might not have been wrong. Most Americans don’t study history in detail. Trump’s point was that he could use Lincoln’s partisan affiliation to troll modern-day Democrats, even though the parties were different back then. “Let’s take an ad,” he suggested.
He didn’t need an ad, as it turned out. This spring he staged a Fox News interview at the Lincoln Memorial. He referenced Lincoln again last week as he accepted the Republican nomination on the White House lawn, on the last night of the party’s convention. He used the phrase “party of Lincoln,” repeated that Lincoln was “our first Republican president,” and noted that Lincoln had looked out of the windows of the same house that Trump was using as a TV backdrop.
Lincoln came up in a more substantive way last week at the Republican National Convention, in a prime-time address by South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem. She invoked a speech Lincoln gave in 1838, when he was a young Illinois state legislator. “He was alarmed by the increasing disregard for the rule of law,” Noem said.
“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.
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.
How does this apply to 2020? It is true that, as Noem suggested, Lincoln’s 1838 speech gives no support to looting and destruction during protests against police violence. His words cannot be taken to support the shooting of an apparent far-right counterprotester in Portland, Oregon.
The speech says nothing, however, against peaceful protest. And the speech most clearly condemns the kinds of actors whom Noem left unmentioned—like a 17-year-old accused of murdering protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in an act of vigilante violence. It does not support the far-right “boogaloo” movement, or “3-percenter” militia groups preparing to overthrow the government.
Nor does Lincoln’s speech support a president casually disregarding the law. When President Trump invoked Lincoln last week, he was speaking on federal property, joined by members of his administration, who are prohibited by law from partisan activity while on duty.
When Lincoln became president, he himself was accused of violating the law—suspending the right of habeas corpus in some areas during the Civil War. He faced the judgment of the Supreme Court and of history. But he ended slavery through legal motions: the Emancipation Proclamation, crafted to fit within his war powers; an act of Congress; and finally an amendment to the Constitution.
Young Abraham Lincoln argued that defiance of the law endangers us all. His point was that one cannot claim to support the rule of law while also ignoring it.