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Lincoln saw the future threatening what had come before

You can just hear his tinny but sincere voice.

“The operation of this mobocratic spirit, which everyone must admit, is now taking place abroad… any government, and especially those constituted like ours, can be effectually broken down and destroyed… when the cruel part of the population will be allowed to gather in groups of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, destroy and rob provisions stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn unpleasant persons at their pleasure and with impunity; If we depend on it, this government cannot last.”

When 28-year-old Illinois State Representative Abraham Lincoln felt the need to deliver this stern warning one January evening at the Springfield Lyceum 186 years ago, was he anticipating MAGA? 6 January? The end of everything? Sounds like it. And this was Illinois, not a state where you would think slavery was a hot topic. Not in 1838.

The tall, clean-shaven Lincoln was then some 23 years and three months away from delivering his inaugural address on the steps of the Capitol in March 1861, a surprise choice as our 16th president. Just a month after his inauguration, a Confederate attack on Fort Sumter launched the Civil War. Did Abe feel all that coming?

Lincoln was responding to the tribal fever he felt all around him in what was suddenly a hot-blooded Illinois. A few months earlier, a pro-slavery mob had murdered journalist Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist. No one said anything at the time about fine people on either side. Yet the war, which would not begin for many years and was taking place several states away, seemed somehow to be in the air in Illinois. Lincoln wanted to remind everyone that what we already had, a democracy, was worth preserving.

He offered a simple solution. “Let every American, every lover of liberty, every benefactor to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, that he will never in the least violate the laws of the land; and never to tolerate their transgression by others.”

How would the honest Abe react to news of the alternate electors plan, the Insurrection, the Big Lie, the president himself – who held Lincoln’s own former office – calling the Georgia Secretary of State and asking for enough votes to run an election to succeed? I think we have a pretty good idea.

Many years before Lincoln would assume the presidency, he spoke to the Springfield Lyceum as a two-term state representative, already thinking big and asking his audience to do the same.

“As the patriots of seventy-six did with the support of the Declaration of Independence, so he said that evening with the support of the Constitution and the laws, ‘let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor; let every man remember that to transgress the law is to trample upon the blood of his father, and to the destruction of his own character, and the liberty of his children.

To trample on his father’s blood. To tear the character of his own freedom and that of his children.

Remember, he wasn’t reading this from a teleprompter. He didn’t campaign and try to win votes. Give a speech to the newspapers. He took a stand because it was the right time to do so. Even though no one specifically asked him to.

At the time, Lincoln was a lean, little-known, two-term state representative from Illinois, years before the Great Conflict, who had an almost psychic sense of what lay ahead for his country. He almost certainly didn’t think that on that January evening in a few quick years he would be the one trying to sew that badly torn fabric back together.

“In short,” young Lincoln continued that evening, “let it become the political religion of the nation; and let old and young, rich and poor, grave and gay, of all kindreds and tongues, and colors and circumstances, offer sacrifices on his altars without ceasing.”

Let’s read that again.

“Of all genders and languages ​​and colors and conditions,” he said. This was 1838.

Most of us know his 272-word Gettysburg Speech, or perhaps even know it by heart. Not so many people study his brilliant 703-word Second Inaugural Address – “With malice toward none and charity to all…” in which Lincoln, on the verge of winning the Civil War, found a way to portray the Great War as a plague who came forth from Above. So that “every drop of blood drawn with the whip (or slavery) will be paid for by another drawn with the sword (war).” One historian called it “the least triumphant speech ever delivered by a victor.”

Lincoln’s Lyceum speech – thank goodness someone wrote it down – came some 27 years before the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Great War. It happened on a cold January evening, after the murder of an Illinois journalist who happened to be an abolitionist.

He didn’t worry about his base. He wasn’t worried about the polls. Lincoln may have been far from the White House that night, but he saw a future that threatened everything that had come before. He’s still right.

John Nogowski previously worked at the New Haven Register/Journal Courier.