President Lincoln's words remind us that to survive as a democracy we must transcend our racial, religious, regional and party affiliations, and embrace the Constitution and the rule of law.
On Monday, the House Judiciary Committee announced a new wave of inquiries into alleged illegal acts by President Donald Trump, his associates, and members of his administration. Together with the coming Mueller report and mounting congressional as well as federal court challenges to Trump’s declaration of a national emergency, this development portends the approach of political crisis in the United States unlike anything we have seen since Watergate.
At a moment like this, it is worth remembering the wise counsel of the most outstanding political leaders in our history. One such is Abraham Lincoln, who at age 28 gave a speech in Springfield, Illinois, that compares to the Gettysburg Address in its poetic distillation of exactly what the United States is and what we stand for.
Lincoln delivered the address, which he titled “The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions,” to the Young Men’s Lyceum in January 1838. His theme was the sanctity of the U.S. Constitution and the rule of law, which he proclaimed to be “the political religion of our nation.”
That year Lincoln feared the rise of what he called a “mobocratic spirit” in the United States. He gave as examples numerous high-profile cases of vigilante bands of self-declared good citizens from Missouri to Louisiana taking the law into their own hands and lynching blacks and whites alike for allegations of crimes they, the mobs, not the courts, ruled to warrant the death penalty.
Classically intelligent, as well as emotionally intelligent, Lincoln warned that if American citizens tolerated such abuses of the rule of law a fatal contagion would set in. One region after another would descend into anarchy, and soon the nation would reach a point of no return.
A demoralized and pessimistic people, he cautioned, no longer feeling themselves protected by the laws, would relinquish their “attachment” to government and turn instead to a Napoleon, Caesar, or Alexander the Great for rescue and salvation.
How do we prevent such a downward spiral of our political institutions, Lincoln asked next.
“The answer is simple,” he replied. All Americans must unite behind the single hallowed cause of our common Constitution and the rule of law:
“As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor; — let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children’s liberty.
“Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap — let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in primers, spelling books, and in almanacs; — let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice.”
No greater political wisdom than this has been recited in American history. Lincoln is telling us that in order to survive as a democracy, we must transcend our racial, religious, regional, and party affiliations and embrace together one unifying political religion: the Constitution and the rule of law.
As the specter of Watergate-like political crisis nears, all eyes, minds, hearts and tongues must be fixed on these cornerstones of our democracy.
“While ever a state of feeling, such as this, shall universally, or even, very generally prevail throughout the nation,” Lincoln pledged, counseling his generation and ours to keep the political faith, “vain will be every effort, and fruitless every attempt, to subvert our national freedom.”