Abraham Lincoln served a single, two-year term in Congress, as a representative who opposed the war with Mexico. He was in the minority who realized that the addition of vast new amounts of land would lead to problems over what to do with slavery in that territory. By the time he returned to the nation’s Capital in 1861, he had to confront these problems head on. He conquered them, but lost his life in the process.
But before any of that happened, Lincoln was a young man tying to make his way in the world. As an attorney practicing law in Springfield, Illinois, he had an opportunity to mingle with others who shared his interests.
And so it was on the evening of January 27, 1838. Lincoln attended a meeting of the Young Men’s Lyceum, which met that day to discuss the perpetuation of political institutions. Lincoln’s speech that night deserves a read, and it contains one of my favorite quotes: “Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.” But I have pulled a small section of the speech out, and am presenting it here to attempt to put the terrible events of January 6, 2021 into some context. Lincoln’s words are in bold, and my commentary on them is in italics.
“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.”
In other words, people make mistakes, and a mob of people is no different.
“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.“
The mob does what it wants to do, and innocent people will get caught up in its path. People who did nothing wrong will be powerless to head off an unthinking, remorseless mob.
“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.”
When participants in a mob action suffer no consequences for what they do, they will feel that they can do whatever they want to do going forward from that.
“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.”
Where government is viewed as being the problem, being part of a mob offers the chance to overcome this problem by making whatever rules it wants to.
“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. “
The people who want nothing to do with a mob will need to be sheltered from the mob, or else they will lose their attachment to a government that is too weak to protect them.
“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.“
Here’s the real nub, as Lincoln would call it. When the mob is allowed to run free, the consequences are severe for anyone in its path.
When Donald Trump called for violence on January 6–and make no mistake, that’s exactly what he did–he turned the mob loose on this nation. His Constitutional oath to protect the nation went out the window on that day, and six people are now dead as a result. And even more grievous than that has been the image that America has sent to the rest of the world.
Will any nation on earth ever again view the United States as a model for anything, other than mayhem and societal collapse? I can’t imagine it will. I sure wouldn’t take anything away from these scenes of mayhem, other than America is now nothing more than a global paper tiger.
Even if Joe Biden does become president on January 20, which I’m not at all confident will happen, the damage has already been done. Lincoln understood this danger as a young man, and now we have all seen for ourselves just what a mob can do.