of Abraham Lincoln's Lyceum Address
American Lyceum Movement began when Josiah Holbrook, a
teacher and amateur scientist, founded a volunteer educational
organization in his town of Milbury, Massachusetts in
1826. Holbrook's idea caught on, and other towns in
New England formed groups where local people could give
lectures and debate ideas.
the mid-1830s more than 3,000 lyceums had been formed
from New England to the South, and even as far west as
Josiah Holbrook traveled from Massachusetts to speak at
the first lyceum organized in central Illinois, in the
town of Jacksonville, in 1831.
organization which hosted Lincoln's lecture in 1838,
the Springfield Young Men's Lyceum, had probably been
founded in 1835. It first held its meetings in a local
schoolhouse, and by 1838 had moved its meeting place to
a Baptist church.
lyceum meetings in Springfield were usually held on Saturday
evenings. And while the membership comprised young men,
females were invited to the meetings, which were intended
to be both educational and social.
topic of Lincoln's address, "The Perpetuation
of Our Political Institutions," seems like a typical
subject for a lyceum address.
But a shocking event that occurred less than three months
earlier, and only about 85 miles from Springfield, surely
Murder of Elijah Lovejoy
Lovejoy was a New England abolitionist who settled in
St. Louis and began publishing a stridently anti-slavery
newspaper in the mid-1830s. He was essentially chased
out of town in the summer of 1837, and crossed the Mississippi
River and set up shop in Alton, Illinois.
Illinois was a free state, Lovejoy soon found himself
under attack again. And on November 7, 1837, a pro-slavery
mob raided a warehouse where Lovejoy had stored his printing
press. The mob wanted to destroy the printing press, and
during a small riot the building was set on fire and Elijah
Lovejoy was shot five times. He died within an hour.
Lovejoy's murder shocked the entire nation. Stories
about his murder at the hands of a mob appeared in major
cities. An abolitionist meeting held in New York City
in December 1837 to mourn for Lovejoy was reported in
newspapers throughout the East.
Lincoln's neighbors in Springfield, only 85 miles
away from the site of Lovejoy's murder, certainly
would have been shocked by the outburst of mob violence
in their own state.
Discussed Mob Violence In His Speech
is perhaps no surprise that when Abraham Lincoln spoke
to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield that winter
he made mention of mob violence in America.
may seem surprising is that Lincoln did not refer directly
to Lovejoy, instead mentioning acts of mob violence generally:
of outrages committed by mobs form the every-day news
of the times. They have pervaded the country from New
England to Louisiana; they are neither peculiar to the
eternal snows of the former nor the burning suns of the
latter; they are not the creature of climate, neither
are they confined to the slave-holding or the non-slave-holding
states. Alike they spring up among the pleasure-hunting
masters of Southern slaves, and the order-loving citizens
of the land of steady habits. Whatever, then, their cause
may be, it is common to the whole country."
likely reason Lincoln did not mention the mob's murder
of Elijah Lovejoy is simply because there was no need
to bring it up. Anyone listening to Lincoln that night
was entirely aware of the incident. And Lincoln saw fit
to place the shocking act in a broader, national, context.
Expressed His Thoughts on the Future of America
noting the menace, and very real threat, of mob rule,
Lincoln began to talk of laws, and how it is the duty
of citizens to obey the law, even if they believe the
law is unjust. By doing that, Lincoln was keeping himself
apart from abolitionists like Lovejoy, who openly advocated
violating the laws pertaining to slavery. And Lincoln
did make a point of emphatically stating:
do mean to say that although bad laws, if they exist,
should be repealed as soon as possible, still they continue
in force, for the sake of example they should be religiously
then turned his attention to what he believed would be
a grave danger to America: a leader of great ambition
who would attain power and corrupt the system.
expressed a fear that an "Alexander, a Caesar, or
a Napoleon" would rise in America. In speaking about
this hypothetical monstrous leader, essentially an American
dictator, Lincoln wrote lines which would be quoted often
by those analyzing the speech in future years:
thirsts and burns for distinction; and if possible, it
will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves
or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then, to expect
that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled
with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch,
will at some time spring up among us?''
is remarkable, that Lincoln used the phrase "emancipating
slaves" nearly 25 years before he would, from the
White House, issue the Emancipation Proclamation. And
some modern analysts have interpreted the Springfield
Lyceum Address as Lincoln analyzing himself and what kind
of leader he might be.
is apparent from the 1838 Lyceum Address is that Lincoln
was ambitious. When given the opportunity to address a
local group, he chose to comment on matters of national
importance. And while the writing may not show the graceful
and concise style he would later develop, it does demonstrate
that he was a confident writer and speaker, even in his
it is noteworthy that some of the themes Lincoln spoke
about, a few weeks before he turned 29, are the very same
themes that would be discussed 20 years later, during
the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debates that began his rise to
The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions:
Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois
January 27, 1838
a subject for the remarks of the evening, the perpetuation
of our political institutions, is selected.
the great journal of things happening under the sun, we,
the American People, find our account running, under date
of the nineteenth century of the Christian era.--We find
ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion
of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility
of soil, and salubrity of climate. We find ourselves under
the government of 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. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found
ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings.
We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them--they
are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and
patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors.
Their's was the task (and nobly they performed it) to
possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this
goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys,
a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; 'tis
ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by
the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse
of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation
that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of
gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to
posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively
require us faithfully to perform.
then shall we perform it?--At what point shall we expect
the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify
against it?-- Shall we expect some transatlantic military
giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!--All
the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all
the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their
military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could
not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track
on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.
what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?
I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst
us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our
lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As
a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or
die by suicide.
hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now,
something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean 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.
This disposition is awfully fearful in any community;
and that it now exists in ours, though grating to our
feelings to admit, it would be a violation of truth, and
an insult to our intelligence, to deny. Accounts of outrages
committed by mobs, form the every-day news of the times.
They have pervaded the country, from New England to Louisiana;--they
are neither peculiar to the eternal snows of the former,
nor the burning suns of the latter;--they are not the
creature of climate-- neither are they confined to the
slave-holding, or the non-slave- holding States. Alike,
they spring up among the pleasure hunting masters of Southern
slaves, and the order loving citizens of the land of steady
habits.--Whatever, then, their cause may be, it is common
to the whole country.
would be tedious, as well as useless, to recount the horrors
of all of them. Those happening in the State of Mississippi,
and at St. Louis, are, perhaps, the most dangerous in
example and revolting to humanity. In the Mississippi
case, they first commenced by hanging the regular gamblers;
a set of men, certainly not following for a livelihood,
a very useful, or very honest occupation; but one which,
so far from being forbidden by the laws, was actually
licensed by an act of the Legislature, passed but a single
year before. Next, negroes, suspected of conspiring to
raise an insurrection, were caught up and hanged in all
parts of the State: then, white men, supposed to be leagued
with the negroes; and finally, strangers, from neighboring
States, going thither on business, were, in many instances
subjected to the same fate. Thus went on this process
of hanging, from gamblers to negroes, from negroes to
white citizens, and from these to strangers; till, dead
men were 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.
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.
are the effects of mob law; and such as the scenes, becoming
more and more frequent in this land so lately famed for
love of law and order; and the stories of which, have
even now grown too familiar, to attract any thing more,
than an idle remark.
you are, perhaps, ready to ask, "What has this to
do with the perpetuation of our political institutions?"
I answer, it has much to do with it. Its direct consequences
are, comparatively speaking, but a small evil; and much
of its danger consists, in the proneness of our minds,
to regard its direct, as its only consequences. Abstractly
considered, the hanging of the gamblers at Vicksburg,
was of but little consequence. They constitute a portion
of population, that is worse than useless in any community;
and their death, if no pernicious example be set by it,
is never matter of reasonable regret with any one. If
they were annually swept, from the stage of existence,
by the plague or small pox, honest men would, perhaps,
be much profited, by the operation.--Similar too, is the
correct reasoning, in regard to the burning of the negro
at St. Louis. He had forfeited his life, by the perpetration
of an outrageous murder, upon one of the most worthy and
respectable citizens of the city; and had not he died
as he did, he must have died by the sentence of the law,
in a very short time afterwards. As to him alone, it was
as well the way it was, as it could otherwise have been.--But
the example in either case, was fearful.--When men take
it in their heads to day, to hang gamblers, or burn murderers,
they should recollect, that, in the confusion usually
attending such transactions, they will be as likely to
hang or burn some one who is neither a gambler nor a murderer
as one who is; and that, acting upon the example they
set, the mob of to-morrow, may, and probably will, hang
or burn some of them by the very same mistake. And not
only so; the innocent, those who have ever set their faces
against violations of law in every shape, alike with the
guilty, fall victims to the ravages of mob law; and thus
it goes on, step by step, till all the walls erected for
the defense of the persons and property of individuals,
are trodden down, and disregarded. But all this even,
is not the full extent of the evil.--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. While,
on the other hand, good men, men who love tranquility,
who desire to abide by the laws, and enjoy their benefits,
who would gladly spill their blood in the defense of their
country; seeing their property destroyed; their families
insulted, and their lives endangered; their persons injured;
and seeing nothing in prospect that forebodes a change
for the better; become tired of, and disgusted with, a
Government that offers them no protection; and are not
much averse to a change in which they imagine they have
nothing to lose. Thus, then, by the operation of this
mobocractic 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. By such things,
the feelings of the best citizens will become more or
less alienated from it; and thus it will be left without
friends, or with too few, and those few too weak, to make
their friendship effectual. At such a time and under such
circumstances, men of sufficient talent and ambition will
not be wanting to seize the opportunity, strike the blow,
and overturn that fair fabric, which for the last half
century, has been the fondest hope, of the lovers of freedom,
throughout the world.
know the American People are much attached to their Government;--I
know they would suffer much for its sake;--I know they
would endure evils long and patiently, before they would
ever think of exchanging it for another. Yet, notwithstanding
all this, if the laws be continually despised and disregarded,
if their rights to be secure in their persons and property,
are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob,
the alienation of their affections from the Government
is the natural consequence; and to that, sooner or later,
it must come.
then, is one point at which danger may be expected.
question recurs, "how shall we fortify against it?"
The answer is simple. 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.
ever a state of feeling, such as this, shall universally,
or even, very generally prevail throughout the nation,
vain will be every effort, and fruitless every attempt,
to subvert our national freedom.
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.
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.
it may be asked, why suppose danger to our political institutions?
Have we not preserved them for more than fifty years?
And why may we not for fifty times as long?
hope there is no sufficient reason. We hope all dangers
may be overcome; but to conclude that no danger may ever
arise, would itself be extremely dangerous. There are
now, and will hereafter be, many causes, dangerous in
their tendency, which have not existed heretofore; and
which are not too insignificant to merit attention. That
our government should have been maintained in its original
form from its establishment until now, is not much to
be wondered at. It had many props to support it through
that period, which now are decayed, and crumbled away.
Through that period, it was felt by all, to be an undecided
experiment; now, it is understood to be a successful one.--Then,
all that sought celebrity and fame, and distinction, expected
to find them in the success of that experiment. Their
all was staked upon it:-- their destiny was inseparably
linked with it. Their ambition aspired to display before
an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth
of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered,
at best no better, than problematical; namely, the capability
of a people to govern themselves. If they succeeded, they
were to be immortalized; their names were to be transferred
to counties and cities, and rivers and mountains; and
to be revered and sung, and toasted through all time.
If they failed, they were to be called knaves and fools,
and fanatics for a fleeting hour; then to sink and be
forgotten. They succeeded. The experiment is successful;
and thousands have won their deathless names in making
it so. But the game is caught; and I believe it is true,
that with the catching, end the pleasures of the chase.
This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already
appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they, too,
will seek a field. It is to deny, what the history of
the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition
and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us.
And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification
of their ruling passion, as others have so done before
them. The question then, is, can that gratification be
found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has
been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many
great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task
they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition
would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a
gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong
not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle.
What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander,
a Caesar, or a Napoleon?--Never! Towering genius distains
a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.--It
sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the
monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It
denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief.
It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor,
however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction;
and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense
of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable
then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest
genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to
its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among
us? And when such a one does, it will require the people
to be united with each other, attached to the government
and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate
will be his paramount object, and although he 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.
then, is a probable case, highly dangerous, and such a
one as could not have well existed heretofore.
reason which once was; but which, to the same extent,
is now no more, has done much in maintaining our institutions
thus far. I mean the powerful influence which the interesting
scenes of the revolution had upon the passions of the
people as distinguished from their judgment. By this influence,
the jealousy, envy, and avarice, incident to our nature,
and so common to a state of peace, prosperity, and conscious
strength, were, for the time, in a great measure smothered
and rendered inactive; while the deep-rooted principles
of hate, and the powerful motive of revenge, instead of
being turned against each other, were directed exclusively
against the British nation. And thus, from the force of
circumstances, the basest principles of our nature, were
either made to lie dormant, or to become the active agents
in the advancement of the noblest cause--that of establishing
and maintaining civil and religious liberty.
this state of feeling must fade, is fading, has faded,
with the circumstances that produced it.
do not mean to say, that the scenes of the revolution
are now or ever will be entirely forgotten; but that like
every thing else, they must fade upon the memory of the
world, and grow more and more dim by the lapse of time.
In history, we hope, they will be read of, and recounted,
so long as the bible shall be read;-- but even granting
that they will, their influence cannot be what it heretofore
has been. Even then, they cannot be so universally known,
nor so vividly felt, as they were by the generation just
gone to rest. At the close of that struggle, nearly every
adult male had been a participator in some of its scenes.
The consequence was, that of those scenes, in the form
of a husband, a father, a son or brother, a living history
was to be found in every family-- a history bearing the
indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the
limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received, in the
midst of the very scenes related--a history, too, that
could be read and understood alike by all, the wise and
the ignorant, the learned and the unlearned.--But those
histories are gone. They can be read no more forever.
They were a fortress of strength; but, what invading foeman
could never do, the silent artillery of time has done;
the leveling of its walls. They are gone.--They were a
forest of giant oaks; but the all-resistless hurricane
has swept over them, and left only, here and there, a
lonely trunk, despoiled of its verdure, shorn of its foliage;
unshading and unshaded, to murmur in a few gentle breezes,
and to combat with its mutilated limbs, a few more ruder
storms, then to sink, and be no more.
were the pillars of the temple of liberty; and now, that
they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless
we, their descendants, supply their places with other
pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason. 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: and, that we
improved to the last; that we remained free to the last;
that we revered his name to the last; that, during his
long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over
or desecrate his resting place; shall be that which to
learn the last trump shall awaken our WASHINGTON.
these let the proud fabric of freedom rest, as the rock
of its basis; and as truly as has been said of the only
greater institution, "the gates of hell shall not
prevail against it."
Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler