The Republican Party has just experienced its worst day since the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, or at least since the resignation of Richard Nixon. On top of losing two winnable Senate races and thereby control of the upper chamber, the party has watched as the Capitol was stormed by a mob, which disrupted the tallying of the electoral votes before Vice President Mike Pence. Trump, still the party’s leader, badly misjudged the effect of his words and deeds on the Georgia Senate races, and on the crowd gathered in Washington to support him the next day.
Now would be a good time for everyone—especially Republicans—to reread Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Address of 1838, which warned against the threat of mob rule alongside the peril of overweening political ambition. Though the speech’s language and style are archaic, its message is just as timely now as it was then, and for the same reason: political violence, whether localized in Portland, Oregon, or the nation’s capital by a comparatively small number of people, is a harbinger of the end of democratic self-government if it grows more frequent.
The operation of this mobocratic 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.
Even if Lincoln were alive today and agreed with President Trump’s claim that the presidential election was rife with fraud, he would not countenance a mob uprising. In the Lyceum speech he directly criticized the mob actions of abolitionists, whose aim he shared, but whose violent means, he saw, would undermine their goal. Some of the pro-Trump protesters speak of invoking the “right to revolution” as contemplated in the Declaration of Independence: “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
How we are to judge when our government is trampling our natural rights such as to trip the Declaration’s right of revolution is a difficult matter, but it is doubtful that Lincoln would have thought that the allegations of vote fraud rise to that awful threshold. As he argued in the Lyceum Address:
When I so pressingly urge a strict observance of all the laws, let me not be understood as saying there are no bad laws, nor that grievances may not arise, for the redress of which, no legal provisions have been made. I mean to say no such thing. But I do mean to say, that, although 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. So also in unprovided cases. If such arise, let proper legal provisions be made for them with the least possible delay; but, till then, let them if not too intolerable, be borne with.
There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law. In any case that arises, as for instance, the promulgation of abolitionism, one of two positions is necessarily true; that is, the thing is right within itself, and therefore deserves the protection of all law and all good citizens; or, it is wrong, and therefore proper to be prohibited by legal enactments; and in neither case, is the interposition of mob law, either necessary, justifiable, or excusable.
Students of Lincoln and his reverence for the Founding will recognize this as a restatement of the counsel of moderation in Lincoln’s favorite founding document, the Declaration of Independence: “Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
The controversy over the fairness of the recent election needs to be seen in a broader context of the broad swath of the American people—perhaps a majority—who believe that the government is not presently protecting their individual rights and the principle of self-government. This is a serious issue—maybe the central issue—in our politics today. Judging the scene, and what to do about it, are matters requiring statesmanship of the highest order. In his Lyceum speech, Lincoln expressed worry that mobocracy increased the possibility of Caesarism—of the ambitious man thirsting for distinction on the public stage by whatever means, who “would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.”
Donald Trump has shown great perception of the defects of our political order; he has had many salutary achievements in office; he has fought hard for worthy objects against the intransigent opposition of the permanent government; his love of country is undoubted; he has given new hope to many unheard and hitherto unrespected Americans.
At the same time, his reckless public pronouncements have fallen short of the standard of the high statesmanship most needed—never more so than his remarks on the Capitol Mall on Wednesday. He has left himself vulnerable to the charge that he will exit office amid a flurry of “pulling down” not only fellow partisans, but the very institutions of our government itself.
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