The Deeper Dangers of Mob Violence

Lincoln in the 1840s

Lincoln in the 1840s

I left off with Lincoln at the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, citing examples of putting passions ahead of the law. From that one can take that mob violence should not be celebrated or welcome. That may seem like a very obvious conclusion, but it has long eluded parts of the American public, who saw fit to proudly commemorate their lynch mobs by posing with the victim for photos and postcards, or by making excuses after the fact that rarely stop short of declaring that the victims really had it coming. I’ve read and heard quite a bit too much of that about Trayvon Martin, as if his murderer recognized him, went down to the courthouse and checked his records, then calmly came back to shoot him dead. To that we may add that they also affirm that, at worst, fairly minor crimes deserve execution. The cause could be anything, really: smiling at the wrong person, just being visibly different, speaking out against injustices ones neighbors preferred to preserve.

Lincoln grappled with that. He started by conceding the point: McIntosh in St. Louis killed a person. The Vicksburg gamblers declared their unworthiness by their profession. They might very well, he said, have deserved killing:

Abstractly considered, the hanging of the gamblers at Vicksburg, was of but little consequence. They constitute a portion of the population, that is worse than useless in any community; and their death, if no pernicious example be set by it, is never a matter of reasonable regret with any one. If they ere annually swept, from the state of existence, by the plague of small pox, honest men would, perhaps, be much profited  by the operation. — Similar too, is the correct reasoning, in regard to the burning of the negro at St. Louis. He had forfeited his life, by the perpetuation of an outrageous murder, upon one of the most worthy and respectable citizens of the city

Lincoln did not advocate abolishing the death penalty, but in neither case he cited did the victims receive fair trials, due process, or receive their punishment from the hands of the state. That carries serious consequences even if the victims end up equally dead:

When men take it in the heads to day, to hang gamblers, or burn murderers, they could recollect, that, in the confusion usually attending such transactions, they will be as likely to hang or burn some one who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is; and that, acting upon the example they set, the mob of to-morrow, may, and probably will, hang or burn some of them by the very same mistake. And not only so; the innocent, those who have ever set their faces against violations of law in every shape, alike with the guilty, fall victims to the ravages of mob law; 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.

I have known far too many people convinced that no one would ever mistake them for a guilty party who thus take a profound disinterest in protections for the accused. American law enforcement and the courts have given people, especially people of darker skin, ample cause to distrust them, but they still beat the alternative. However flawed, all the vaunted safeguards of the American system of justice play out therein and abuses and errors at least have the potential for correction on appeal. Try to convince a mob of your right to due process.

But the problem goes beyond just indiscriminate violence against the innocent:

By such examples, 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.–Having ever regarded Government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations; and pray for nothing so much, as its total annihilation. While, on the other hand, 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.


Thus, then, by the operation of this mobocractic spirit, which all must admit, is now abroad in the land, 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. Whenever this effect shall be produced among us; whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision-stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this Government cannot last.

One of the more valuable civics lessons I got in school came from essentially the first time the subject came up. Amid a very patriotism-soaked lesson, my sixth grade teacher pointed out that in the United States the government did not just declare that certain rights existed, but also took affirmative steps to ensure they existed in fact as well as on paper. With twenty years of additional education I can point out many problems with that statement, including the implication that only the US does so, but the essential fact remains that rights written on paper but not observed in practice are not enshrined, but rather entombed. The constitutions of the Soviet Union came up as the obvious example of the day, even if that state only had months when she gave us.

And why would anybody, knowing the society has declared open season on them and that they have no rights it will respect, care to defend it? Lincoln speaks here as  a radical and a conservative simultaneously. The conservative aristocrat, a common enough figure in Whig circles, asks how sacred tradition can survive popular attacks upon it, but the radical in him looks from the position of the downtrodden and asks why they would want to support such a society. In that Lincoln anticipates the very sort of man he would probably have  seen as a very dangerous radical indeed, Frederick Douglass.


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