A Timely Message on Mob Rule From Our 16th President

6 mins read



Donald Trump is not known for his soaring rhetoric, but his speech at Mount Rushmore was one of the rhetorical highlights of his presidency. In addressing the nation as he enters the home stretch of another presidential campaign, the president would do well to recall the words of Abraham Lincoln, one of the four American presidents chiseled into the South Dakota mountaintop — and the first to be elected on the Republican Party ticket.

In 1838, the 28-eight-year-old Lincoln delivered what would later be considered his first great political speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Ill. In it, he warned against the dangers of mob violence. In the cases he discussed, vigilante groups had not waited for justice to be done to lawbreakers, but had savagely murdered the men (most of them black) accused of committing the crimes. Here were two explosive issues, mob violence and race, that together threatened the preservation of our political institutions.

The foundational problem with mob rule, as Lincoln saw it, was that it alienates decent, law-abiding citizens from their government. When “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; 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,” Lincoln warned.

The United States, he asserted, was far more likely to “die by suicide” than by foreign conquest.

Today, the same toxic mix again threatens the survival of our political institutions, and more broadly, our American way of life. But the two situations are largely reversed, with Black Lives Matter (along with their white “antifa” allies) pillaging and destroying some of America’s great cities and threatening to bring their violence to a town or suburb near you. As Attorney General William Barr observed while testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, not one Democratic member of the committee was prepared to denounce what Lincoln called “the mobocratic spirit,” despite the graphic nine-minute video he showed at the opening of his testimony. The mainstream media has largely covered up the violence and lawlessness, while liberal politicians have doubled down on the problem by supporting proposals to defund the police.

The tactic of willfully ignoring mayhem played itself out in Kenosha, Wis., which the president is visiting Tuesday, and Joe Biden was finally roused to address the topic. He did so only after a Republican convention that featured an array of Americans of all ages and hues signaling that their nominee will run on a platform of restoring law and order as best he can in our federal and decentralized republic, in which the worst of the violence is taking place in cities and states long controlled by Democrats. But Trump can also follow Lincoln’s advice in the Lyceum Address to make “reverence for the laws” the “political religion of the nation,” starting first in the family, but also “in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges.”

For too long, America’s school children have been fed a steady diet of racism, genocide, and greed, capped off by the New York Times’ ideologically driven 1619 Project. Is it any wonder that our young people are more drawn to socialism, “democratic” or otherwise, when this is all they know? Meanwhile, as Heather Mac Donald has shown, college and university presidents have declared with one voice that they will use every tool in their educational arsenal to fight against “systemic,” “institutional,” and “structural” racism, even as they themselves skirt the law regarding illegal immigration, racial discrimination, and the rights of the accused. Reverence for the law is in short supply in the very citadels of learning where it should be enshrined.

If our 45th president can channel the insights of our 16th president, opposing mob violence and restoring civic education, he will have a winning message.

Jean M. Yarbrough is the Gary M. Pendy Sr. Professor of Social Sciences and Professor of Government at Bowdoin College. Her most recent book, “Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition,” won the American Political Science Association’s Richard E. Neustadt Prize for the best book on the American presidency in 2013. 





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