If there exists any consensus among the American people today which transcends all discord and division it is that we are not living in an ordinary time. Anyone with a love of history will unconsciously find comparisons in our past to the still unfolding history of today.. The pandemic and economic downturn last year brought comparisons to the 1918 pandemic. A contentious election year complete with summer race riots and protests immediately drew comparisons with 1968. There is a less well known historical period with parallels that provide lessons to be considered..
The 1830s in America was a time of great change, as much of American history has been, With it came unrest. Mobs and riots were not uncommon in early America but by 1835 they were “damn nearly the American way” as one writer put it nearly a century later. However the mobs and riots of early America had been mostly pushback against any overreach of authority, abuses of power, and attempts to restrict liberty. The mobbing in the 1830s shifted. The generation of the founding was dying off, James Madison died in 1836, and a new generation was rising. It was this America that led to the first major speech of 29 year old Abraham Lincoln’s then unknown political future.
In January 1838 Abraham Lincoln, a newly minted lawyer, addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield Illinois. The topic for his speech was “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” He was living through what I just described and unlike most during that time, saw the danger from the “mobocratic spirit.” For his lyceum audience he provided two of the most egregious examples of recent mobbing as the basis for his concern. The first was a mob event in Mississippi which by its end resulted in dead men “seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every road side; and in numbers almost sufficient, to rival the native Spanish moss of the country, as a drapery of the forest.” The second account of mobbing was less numerous in its victims but more disturbing in it’s process as Lincoln said.
“Turn, then, to that horror-striking scene at St. Louis. A single victim was only sacrificed there. His story is very short; and is, perhaps, the most highly tragic, if anything of its length, that has ever been witnessed in real life. A mulatto man, by the name of McIntosh, was seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour from the time he had been a freeman, attending to his own business, and at peace with the world.”
At this point you may be wondering what all this has to do with Brian Kemp. At this point in Lincoln’s Lyceum address he asked his audience “What has this to do with the perpetuation of our political institutions?” His answer will lead to the answer of what this has to do with the current Georgia Governor.
Mobbing was by no means widespread. Most Americans never engaged in it. But the acts of mobbing and rioting serve to undermine all that America fought for in the revolution. The extralegal acts of mobs that went unpunished and those who were complicit by their failure to uphold the rule of law were just as much contributors in the undoing of the Founding. Lincoln said, “By such examples, by instances of the perpetrators of such acts going unpunished, the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint, but dread of punishment, they thus become, absolutely unrestrained.–Having ever regarded Government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations; and pray for nothing so much as its total annihilation.”
The mobocratic spirit was a great danger facing the young republic in January 1838, and it remains so today. That the lawless in spirit are as complicit as the lawless in practice is something few realized in 1838 and worryingly few recognize it today.
What is the solution to fight against this poison which is the worst enemy of our free republic? Unsurprisingly, the answer given by the first president from the republican party holds as true today as it was in 1838.
“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. 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. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.”
Up to the 1830s, this was a given sentiment for Americans as the fight for their liberty was still living memory. The passions at work in the founding generation were buttressed by the spirit of liberty that arose the founding. Lincoln recognized what was happening as that generation of great Americans was giving way to a generation that did not have the lived experience of a fight for liberty to counter other individual passions.
“Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.–Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws.”
This reverence for the rule of law is the political religion Lincoln saw as the bulwark against the mobocratic spirit that undermined the American founding and threatened the survival of the republic. When I watched the events in Georgia unfold after the November election I could not help but notice the parallels to the period of irreverence for the law and desire for mob rule which led to Lincoln’s concern for the perpetuation of our political institutions. During that time citizens did not start out in their lawlessness with acts of lynching and tortuous murder. In our time, citizens called for their elected leader to ignore the law. A republican Governor was denounced, called a traitor to his party and his country by not only citizens but by fellow republicans, leaders of his party and the leader of the county.
It was a remarkably sad thing to watch. If we are a nation of laws then didn’t Brian Kemp do the right thing and shouldn’t he be celebrated for doing the right thing even though upholding the rule of law was unpopular?
Everyone calling for his defeat in the next primary and calling his actions treasonous and other nonsense are actually saying they did not want him to do as Abraham Lincoln prescribed and uphold the rule of law–or his oath of office. The more the rule of law is quietly ignored or broken intentionally, the easier it will be for the next person or group to do the same.
In the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case that gave us Jim Crow and “separate but equal” eight justices yielded to the popular or mob opinion of the day rather than adhere to the rule of law. Had the rule of law been adhered to, followed, and enforced back then how different the 20th century could have been and how many injustices and atrocities avoided.
Governor Kemp’s actions and decisions after the election stand out as one of the most impressive instances of selfless statesmanship in American History.
The self-described Republican candidates opposing him should answer a question in light of the argument made here. How can they claim to be patriotic and want the best for America when the very things they called for are directly in conflict with our founding principles and what has allowed the American experiment to continue? Should Governor Kemp ignored the advice of the first leader of the Republican Party, one our best presidents, Abraham Lincoln? Those who support the opposing candidates and share the irrational anger toward Governor Kemp should consider the same questions as well.
Full text of Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum