“At What Point Shall We Expect the Approach of Danger?” Abraham Lincoln on the Suicide of a Free People

Editor’s Note: As mimetic creatures, we are connected to one another not only in the present, but also across time. Being able to think historically helps us to understand how we are shaped by what we have deemed worthy of memory, while an understanding of mimetic theory helps us to look back at our history and search for the unheard voices. Dr. Tracy McKenzie’s articles provide us with a rich, complex understanding of the past that neither romanticizes nor scapegoats those who came before us. This deeper understanding can inform our present.

In this installment of his series of articles drawing on the wisdom of the past to reflect on our current election cycle, Dr. McKenzie reflects on the warnings of President Lincoln that a free society could only be taken down by “suicide,” that is, a breakdown in the people’s trust of the government, leading to tyranny. “The strongest bulwark of any government,” Lincoln claimed, is “the attachment of the people,” and if that breaks down, the union might fall apart. This article has been abridged from the original.


“Think of your forefathers!  Think of your posterity!”—John Quincy Adams

I’ve noted previously that I tend to think about the engagement with the past in terms of metaphors.  History can serve as a kind of mirror in which to see ourselves more clearly, or as a kind of story in which we situate our lives and make sense of who we are and where we are headed.  The study of history can also become a conversation, in historian’s David Harlan’s memorable phrase, “a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”  This was the metaphor uppermost in my mind as I read through Lincoln’s Lyceum speech.  I tried carefully to listen, asking myself what in Lincoln’s observations I especially needed to listen to or wrestle with.  You can find Lincoln’s speech easily online (here, among several places), so I encourage you to read it for yourself with the same question in mind.  In the meantime, here are a few thoughts that I had as I tried to listen to young Mr. Lincoln.

First, Lincoln was articulating a common view among thinking Americans in the late 1830s.  There was a palpable sense among Americans that the United States had passed from its infancy into a more mature stage of national existence.  Most of the best known Founding Fathers had long since passed from the scene, and the rank and file of Americans who had taken part in the Revolution were mostly gone as well.  What would this mean for the next generation of Americans?  What role would they play in the nation’s life?  The Founding generation had bequeathed a land to posterity, Lincoln observed, as well as a set of political principles and institutions designed to promote liberty and equal rights.  The work of the current generation, he noted, was not to establish but to perpetuate—to preserve the land from the foot of the invader, and to transmit the political edifice to the succeeding generations “undecayed by the lapse of time, and untorn by usurpation.”

The country’s republican experiment, though successful so far, would always require the people’s vigilant care.  The main threat, Lincoln told his audience, would not come from a foreign invader, however.  “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?”  The answer was sobering: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be our author and finisher.  As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Subsequent writers have long been captivated by Lincoln’s wording here.  The sentence became the springboard for Oz Guinness’s fine book, A Free People’s Suicide.  (You can read my review here.)  At bottom, Lincoln’s point (as Guinness aptly observes), is that the twin works of establishing and ordering liberty were the finished accomplishments of the Founding generation.  The work of sustaining liberty, the third great challenge of a free people, is a never-ending task that each generation must take up in turn.

Surveying the national landscape in 1838, Lincoln identified several alarming trends that might ultimately endanger the people’s liberty.  One was an increase in incidents of popular violence: episodes of vigilante justice that Lincoln equated with “mob law.”  (Among other incidents, he was surely thinking about recent lynchings of southern slaves suspected of conspiring against their masters, as well as attacks on abolitionists much closer to home.)  The real danger of such episodes, he commented, was that they gradually contributed to a mindset that the government was not a reliable protector of the lives and property of the people.  When this happened, Lincoln noted ominously, “the strongest bulwark of any Government . . . may effectually be broken down and destroyed—I mean the attachment of the People.”

I am very much struck by Lincoln’s axiom.  How important is the “attachment of the people” to the government essential to the sustaining of our liberty?  None of the Founders would have advocated an unquestioning submission to government in all things.  The United States was born in resistance to government, after all.  The colonists’ belief that George III and Parliament were systematically subverting their liberties is the fuel that propelled the American Revolution.  And it was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, who voiced the foundational principle that free government is grounded not in trust but in suspicion.  As Jefferson wrote in 1798, “Free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence . . . In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief with the chains of the Constitution.”

And yet the Founders also believed that a degree of popular faith in the government was essential to its survival.  This was because popular disgust with the government could, itself, endanger the people’s liberty.  The Founders’ views on this were complicated, and we need to understand that they simultaneously held two different truths in tension with one another.  On the one hand, when government becomes too powerful it may eventually exercise tyranny over the populace.  On the other hand, when the citizens of a free society conclude that government can no longer protect their interests, that also becomes a breeding ground for tyranny.

It was this latter axiom that Lincoln had in mind when he shared with the Lyceum audience what was at stake if “the attachment of the People” to the government should be broken down.  From time to time individuals of genius and ambition would spring up with an unsatisfied thirst for power or celebrity or acclaim, Lincoln observed.  In broad strokes, he sketched the distinguishing features of such ambition:

“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.”

Individuals of such ambition will arise, Lincoln insisted.  And they will prosper, he predicted, in historical moments when the people are widely disgusted with the government.  In such settings, emotion will drown out reason, and the majority will be “not much averse to a change in which they imagine they have nothing to lose.”

Is this a timely warning?  Tell me what you think, and then I’ll weigh in with some thoughts of my own.

For more in this series, see also:

Offered In A Spirit Which Will Not Disgrace The Cause Of Truth

Words From The Past: James Madison On The Role Of Elected Leaders

George Washington on the “Spirit of Party”

“Neither Force Nor Will”: Alexander Hamilton on the Supreme Court

Should the American People Have a Say in the Supreme Court’s Direction?

There’s Nothing New About a Contested Convention

“Commencing Demagogues and Ending Tyrants”

Lincoln on the Role of the President

Image: Screenshot from Youtube. “Abraham Lincoln, Mini Biography” by bio.

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at http://faithandamericanhistory.wordpress.com. 

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