On American Violence: Lincoln at the Young Men’s Lyceum

Lincoln in the 1840s

Lincoln in the 1840s, via the Library of Congress

A friend brought this New Yorker post to my attention a few days ago. I think Douglas securing White House support to take his new bill to the Senate makes for a good break point in the narrative, so here I am. Over at the New Yorker, Adam Gropnik finds a common historical thread linking Lincoln’s first public speech and the disgust and horror many in the American left, myself included, feel toward Stand Your Ground laws and what we consider their inevitable, perhaps even intended, outcome in the murder of Trayvon Martin. Journalism does not lack for pieces making those kinds of links, many of them reaching a bit too far or even getting matters entirely wrong so I wanted to look in a bit more detail instead of just taking Gropnik at his word. I don’t mean that as a slight against him; I simply never heard of him before my friend pointed me in his direction.

I dug up a copy of Lincoln’s speech and an introduction to it (link goes to a PDF) by Thomas F. Schwartz, curator of the Lincoln Collection. Schwartz casts Lincoln’s first speech as his way of proving himself as an up and coming Springfield professional by demonstrating his learning and oratorical skill. The future president only arrived in town on April 15, 1837 and delivered his speech the following January. He chose what he must have imagined a very innocuous topic, the perpetuation of American political institutions. With 1776 and 1789 in living memory, the youth of the nation often occupied the public mind. Could this ramshackle, rickety constitutional structure really endure?

Yet even so early in the nation’s history, Lincoln stood in what in the 1830s still looked very much like the frontier, and began not with the nation’s youth but with its antiquity:

We find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them — They are a legacy bequeathed to us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors.

Lincoln did not see it as his generation’s task to create anew; they had the United States given to them to keep and hold in trust. These words do not come from a radical’s mouth. Lincoln staked out an essentially conservative argument for the maintenance of what he and his had been given, not for perfecting, creating anew, or anything like that. What would threaten the established order, then, that Lincoln wanted his audience wary of? Not external foes, as he says in often quoted lines:

Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! — All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

The United States kept a very small army and navy at the time. It picked one fight with a European power and lost badly in 1812. But such a vast, largely undeveloped, territory would challenge nineteenth century logistics. Significantly, Lincoln doesn’t speak of keeping Boston, New York, or Washington from foreign armies. He puts his secure landmarks well inland. Nobody could conquer such a place. Popular opinion in Europe saw the Union cause as hopeless on just those grounds a few decades later. Napoleon could go into Russia, but only to starve his men and return defeated. The same travails would face any foreign foe.

The threat then, must come from within. Americans could undo America:

If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

Read that line and think ahead to the 1860s. Throw in the 1960s too. It would also do to remember the frequent, if erratic, violence involved in keeping slaves in their places. To the slaves, that had to have felt something like a campaign of terrorism. Their owners intended as much.

What America meant, what freedom meant, and how both ought to function have never been settled issues. Lincoln knew it as well as anyone, even then:

I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice. This disposition is awfully fearful in any community; and that it now exists in ours, though grating to our feelings to admit, it would be a violation of truth and an insult to our intelligence, to deny.

4 comments on “On American Violence: Lincoln at the Young Men’s Lyceum

  1. Intense stuff — I’m glad you tracked it down and shared it.

  2. I think you and Gopnik may have missed the point, at least partially. The part of the speech regarding the epidemic of violence was in response to the murder of Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist editor, in Alton, Illinois. Lincoln himself was no stranger to duels. In an episode he regretted, he nearly had a duel with James Shields for lampooning him in the press. At the last moment the duel was called off.

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