Lincoln did not have to pull violence out of his imagination to call it a threat to American institutions. By modern standards, the nineteenth century looks so violent one has to wonder how anybody could sleep at night. Even aside the wars, habitual violence played a tremendous role in everyday life. The nation did not see Andrew Jackson as a pariah for his duels, but rather largely took him as a homespun workingman’s hero. Thomas Hart Benton’s political career had barely begun, and certainly did not end, when he put a bullet in Old Hickory and broke his sword. He simply moved to Missouri where he shot a man dead. St. Louis mobs destroyed Abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy’s printing press, so he moved across the Mississippi to Alton, Illinois. Settled by southerners and a center of slave catching activity, Alton enjoyed Lovejoy’s antislavery politics so much that it formed a mob which killed him on the way to destroying his most recent printing press. Even men at the heights of power, in no less rarefied air than that of the Senate chamber, could draw pistols on one another.
Though Lincoln surely knew of Lovejoy’s fate, he had other examples in mind at the Young Men’s Lyceum:
It would be tedious, as well as useless, to recount the horrors of all of them. Those happening in the State of Mississippi, and at St. Louis, are, perhaps, the most dangerous in example and revolting to humanity. In the Mississippi case, they first commenced by hanging the regular gamblers; a set of men, certainly not following for a livelihood, a very useful, or very honest occupation; but one which, so far from being forbidden by the laws, was actually licensed by an act of the Legislature, passed but a single year before. Next, negroes, suspected of conspiring to raise an insurrection, were caught up and hanged in all parts of the State: then, white men, supposed to be leagued with the negroes; and finally, strangers, from neighboring States, going thither on business, were, in many instances subjected to the same fate. Thus went on this process of hanging, from gamblers to negroes, from negroes to white citizens, and from these to strangers; till, dead men were seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every road side; and in numbers almost sufficient, to rival the native Spanish moss of the country, as a drapery of the forest.
Turn, then, to that horror-striking scene at St. Louis. A single victim was only sacrificed there. His story is very short; and is, perhaps, the most highly tragic, if anything of its length, that has ever been witnessed in real life. A mulatto man, by the name of McIntosh, was seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour from the time he had been a freeman, attending to his own business, and at peace with the world.
Such are the effects of mob law; and such as the scenes, becoming more and more frequent in this land so lately famed for love of law and order; and the stories of which, have even now grown too familiar, to attract any thing more, than an idle remark.
Lincoln could have added Nat Turner’s revolt. Turner’s band massacred around sixty men, women, and children, essentially any white person they came across. In retaliation white militias and mobs, sometimes not all that distinct from one another, descended on the county and claimed as many as two hundred black lives. The vast majority of those people committed only the crime of living while black.
These lynchings, and many others, occur too often to take as some kind of exception. The lynchings and the terror campaigns that produced them belong as much in the heart of the American story as slavery. However horrible, this kind of violence and the threat of it formed an integral part of the American social order for much of the nation’s history.
One might imagine a finger pointed southward in reading that. I know I did when writing it. But violence, racially-charged or otherwise, took place all over the country. It still does, if not to the horrific extent that it once did. Years ago a friend directed me to a collection of lynching photos online. They make for hard viewing, but the first in the collection comes from Yreka, California. One cannot get much further north than Duluth, Minnesota.
The images tell at least two stories. First they tell us that the lynching happened. The second story challenges us more. In some photographs the mob posed with their work, entirely unashamed and unafraid. Some appear to be smiling. They tell us that they did the deed and are proud of it. They want others to see them as men capable of breaking into jails to drag out the accused and do murder, the sort who will douse someone in tar or oil and burn them alive. One does not trifle with them…or with the community that supports them. They thought of themselves good, upstanding, moral men. Their communities largely agreed. Some of the photographs in the collection are postcards.
This too is a part of us.