In the late 1830s, increasingly bitter disputes over slavery were turning violent and sometimes deadly. Respect for the rule of law seemed to be rapidly fading as Americans resorted to force.
In January 1838, a voluntary educational association in Springfield, Illinois, the Young Men’s Lyceum, invited Abraham Lincoln to speak to them about “the perpetuation of our political institutions.” Lincoln was just 28 at the time and had recently moved to Springfield and begun the practice of law. Lincoln’s acceptance of the invitation resulted in one of the most significant speeches about the rule of law ever delivered in America.
Lincoln opened by praising the Founders for establishing “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.” He stressed the responsibility that his own generation had, as beneficiaries of this system, to preserve the Founders’ “edifice of liberty” so that future generations could enjoy it “undecayed by the lapse of time.”
Of all the possible threats to the institutions of liberty, Lincoln was chiefly concerned about threats that could spring up from among the people themselves. And of those domestic threats, Lincoln was most concerned about “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 . . . .”
Lincoln foresaw that the ultimate consequences of unchecked lawlessness are catastrophic. “[T]he walls erected for the defense of persons and property . . . are trodden down . . . the lawless . . . are encouraged . . . While . . . good men . . . who desire to abide by the laws . . . become tired of, and disgusted with, a Government that offers them no protection . . . .” And, without the supportive attachment of good citizens, “this Government cannot last.”
What, then, could concerned citizens do to avoid such a terrible fate? For Lincoln, the answer was clear. They had to reaffirm their allegiance to the principles and institutions of the Founding and their steadfast commitment to the constitutional rule of law established by those principles and institutions. Indeed, Lincoln summoned his countrymen to “let reverence for the laws . . . become the political religion of the nation . . . .” If the people could do this, Lincoln assured them that “vain will be every effort, and fruitless every attempt, to subvert our national freedom.”
As in Lincoln’s time, we are today threatened by widespread lawlessness. It has come to us in many forms. Sometimes clearly, as violent criminals and fire-bombing rioters. Sometimes subtly, as the soft despotism of the administrative state and the constitutional indifference of elected officials. Different forms at different times, but the essential threat remains the same. If unchecked, lawlessness will encourage the lawless and disgust the good citizens among us, undermining and finally destroying popular support for the constitutional institutions that provide our only sure protection against tyranny.
But we have reason to hope. As our problem is the same as Lincoln’s time, so is the solution the same, and our duty the same. As the beneficiaries of the Founders’ work, we must acknowledge and fulfill our duty to preserve their work. We must reaffirm our allegiance to the principles and institutions of the Revolution and our unwavering commitment to the rule of law established by those principles and institutions. If we can do this, then “vain will be every effort, and fruitless every attempt, to subvert our national freedom.” And, if we do this, we can take the greatest pride in knowing that we did our duty to preserve the Founders’ “edifice of liberty” so that future generations can also enjoy its blessings “undecayed by the lapse of time.”
The entire text of Lincoln’s remarkable address to the Young Men’s Lyceum can be accessed here.
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