Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln ()

Abraham Lincoln, at age 29, used a speech on Jan. 27, 1838 to the Springfield Young Men’s Lyceum to put down his line in the sand on a vital issue of his times. He firmly set his course against mob rule, criticizing those who take to the streets and the facilitators who rouse them to destructive paths. The young lawyer would not be taken in by feigned disclaimers of “no violence” voiced from those simultaneously stirring up the passions of the citizenry. He would see through the hollow hypocrisy of “No Justice—No Peace,” uttered as an implied threat that mock the true virtues of justice and peace.

Young Lincoln’s lesson provides guidance about the modern tendency to override the orderly processes of law. His perspective is highlighted in an excellent book by Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer: “Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion.”

Holzer explains how Lincoln used a speaking engagement to declare his innately-formed view based on an ugly eruption of mob violence. The author sets the stage to appreciate the provenance of Lincoln’s defining speech by unveiling fresh research that gives insightful clues to Lincoln’s dilemma, simple decency, deeply held views and moral clarity.

The second chapter, “Not Like Any Other Thunder,” describes the death on Nov. 2, 1837, of Elijah Parish Lovejoy, a Maine-born minister who became a Western newspaper editor and abolitionist.

In Missouri and Illinois, Lovejoy published blunt criticisms of a local judge who failed to indict white men suspected of lynching a free black man. His outspokenness agitated the community of Alton, Illinois, resulting in a mob getting whipped into a fever pitch, assaulting the editor’s building, burning it to the ground, tossing his printing presses into the Mississippi River, and fatally shooting Lovejoy.

The tragedy, presaging the brush fires that popped up across the nation, became a cause célèbre then, but not a casus belli yet. Even Horace Greeley picked it up and dubbed Lovejoy a “martyr to public liberty.” The story circulated widely and affected Lincoln deeply, convincing him to overcome his hesitancy about getting out too far and too soon ahead of the public sentiment that would soon dominate the nation’s history.

The fledgling politician resolved a scant couple of months after Lovejoy’s murder that the time had come for him to speak out on this travesty of justice and its larger implications. When he accepted the invitation to speak to the Springfield Young Men’s Lyceum, he carefully prepared a passionate speech, ironically criticizing dangerous exhibitions of overzealous passion. That speech offers lessons for those who value and learn from history and it teaches much about the young Lincoln; it ought also to serve as a moral compass for citizens, public officials and commentators on how to behave responsibly.

Lincoln preferred “cold calculating reason” over “extremist emotionalism.” He decried “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.”

The rising dramatic fervor of this extraordinary Lyceum oration (a primer for his renowned and more mature words at Gettysburg, in the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Second Inaugural) sums up: “Whenever this effect [the agitation to take the law into a mob's own hands] shall be produced among us, whenever the vicious portion of the 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 hand and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity, then depend on it, this Government cannot last.”

Lincoln’s crescendo concludes: “There could be no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law” because “reverence for the laws is the political religion of the nation.”

This youthful wisdom of the maturing Great Emancipator is extraordinary in its clarity and appreciation of sound civic values affecting the touchstone virtue of true “justice” for all. That core value goes back to the Greeks, expounded by Aristotle who classified “justice” as the highest ideal and whose essential elements are dispassionate neutrality, in diametric opposition to predisposed outcomes rendered by supervening tribunals.

Calls for “equal justice” by demonstrators waving banners may lead aggrieved people to the ramparts and to violence in the streets, but history teaches us that justice is not found there. A new bias is no answer to a perceived old one.

Holzer has written a fine and timely book. False prophets and agitators, even intellectually honest and courageous public officers, ought to learn from this clear lesson of the nation’s greatest, tell-it-like-it-is president. While 162 years may seem long ago to many, it is mere blink in history, and the lesson if ignored today, puts the country at its peril, so said young Abe Lincoln then, and for now as well.