The Writings of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 1-7

Such are the effects of mob law, and such are 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 anything more than an idle remark.

But 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
smallpox, 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 he not 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 tranquillity, 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 mobocratic 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.

I 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.

Here, then, is one point at which danger may be expected.

The 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 charter 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.

While 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.

When, I so pressingly urge a strict observance of all the laws,
let me not be understood as saying there are no bad laws, or 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

There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.
In any case that may arise, 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.

But 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?

We hope there is no sufficient reason. We hope all danger 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,
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 done before them. The
question then is, Can that gratification be found in supporting
and in 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 aspire 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 disdains 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 an 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 his designs.

Distinction 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.

Here then is a probable case, highly dangerous, and such an one
as could not have well existed heretofore.

Another 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 of causes–that of establishing
and maintaining civil and religious liberty.

But this state of feeling must fade, is fading, has faded, with
the circumstances that produced it.

I do not mean to say that the scenes of the Revolution are now or
ever will be entirely forgotten, but that, like everything 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 a 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-
restless 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 more gentle
breezes, and to combat with its mutilated limbs a few more ruder
storms, then to sink and be no more.

They were 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 defense. 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.

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