Today in history: Lincoln delivers Lyceum Address

January 28th, 2013

Yesterday marked the 175th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Address, which he delivered on January 27, 1838, to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. The Lyceum was an educational civic organization that hosted public speeches and debates, and Lincoln’s remarks were informed by the recent lynchings of suspected gamblers and murderers (which he references in the speech) and the shooting of the abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy at Alton, Illinois, in November of 1837 (which he does not mention specifically in the speech, but was uppermost in the minds of his listeners). Delivered when Lincoln was just 28 years old, the speech was soon published in the Sangamon Journal and quickly helped to gain for Lincoln a reputation as an orator. 

According to its Preamble, the United States Constitution has as one of its aims to “establish justice.” Understanding law as the path to justice, “We the people of the United States” bound ourselves to a fundamental law that would organize our polity and guide the statutory laws. When Lincoln delivered this speech half a century after these words were written, he was concerned that Americans were increasingly inclined to take the law into their own hands. In the grip of strong passions, they were substituting vigilante justice for the justice of law.

After tracing the dangerous effects of this slide into lawlessness and mob rule, Lincoln proposes a solution: “Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. . . . Let reverence for the laws . . . become the political religion of the nation.” Well aware of the dilemma posed by unjust laws, Lincoln nonetheless insists on law-abidingness: “bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed.” Such “reverence for the constitution and laws,” Lincoln argues, is one of the new pillars of the temple of liberty, indispensable for preserving our political institutions and retaining the attachment of the citizens, now that the founding generation had gone to rest.

After having your students read Lincoln’s speech, use some of the following questions by the WSPWH editors to have them discuss the themes of the speech:

What is “reverence for the laws”? Does it differ from fear of punishment? Is reverence always part of law-abidingness, or does it add something new—and if so, what? Is reverence (or political religion) necessary to the preservation of our political institutions? Is it sufficient for binding citizens to the Republic? If not, what else is needed? Is Lincoln right that disobedience always undermines respect for law? In a democracy (where laws are arrived at by majority rule), must we obey bad laws in order not to undercut good laws or law itself? Would the case for disobedience be stronger under other, nondemocratic forms of government? What is the relation between “political religion” (reverence for the laws) and religion as most citizens know it (reverence for God)? What happens if the two conflict?

As a subject for the remarks of the evening, the perpetuation of our political institutions, is selected.

In the great journal of things happening under the sun, we, the American People, find our account running, under date of the nineteenth century of the Christian era. 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 us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Their’s was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ’tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time, and untorn by usurpation—to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.

How, then, shall we perform it? At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? 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.

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. 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.

Click here to continue reading Lincoln’s Lyceum Address on “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.”

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