The Hedgehog and the Fox:  Lincoln’s Lyceum Speech for the Ages

The Hedgehog and the Fox:  Lincoln’s Lyceum Speech for the Ages

By Jason H. Silverman

The Sangamo Journal, on Saturday, January 27, 1838, advertised a lecture for that evening by the local lawyer “A. Lincoln, Esq.” Lincoln was little more than two weeks shy of his twenty-ninth birthday. He was single, sharing living quarters with Joshua Speed, practicing law in partnership with John T. Stuart, and establishing his reputation as a Whig politician. He had been admitted to the Illinois bar only sixteen months previously and had lived in Springfield for less than a year, but he had already been twice elected to the state legislature and would be re-elected a third time in August.

As a legislator, he had proven his political acumen by playing a pivotal role in moving the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield, an ongoing process that would be completed in 1839.  Merely stating “A. Lincoln, Esq.” in the newspaper notice was presumably sufficient and well known enough among the readers of the Journal in early 1838 to encourage attendance at his lecture for the notice indicated neither its title nor its topic.

Lincoln’s lecture was sponsored by a local voluntary association called the Young Men’s Lyceum. And, there is no evidence that Lincoln was a member of this group. Indeed, the wording of the notice in the Journal, which stated that Lincoln would speak “in compliance with the request of the Lyceum,” was indicative that he was an invited guest rather than a member.

Lincoln’s lecture was entitled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” As published, Lincoln’s lecture began with a characterization of the inheritance bequeathed to the people of the United States by the recently deceased revolutionary generation. This inheritance comprised a broad and fertile land as well as the unique “blessings” of “a political edifice of liberty and equal rights.”

Lincoln asserted that the “duty” of his contemporary Americans was to protect, sustain, and transmit these “blessings” to subsequent generations. Developing his argument through a number of questions he asked and then answered, Lincoln laid out his arguments for his intensely interested audience.  Beginning with the simple inquiries, “How, then, shall we perform [this task]? At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?”  he envisioned dangers to the young republic, dismissing the potential of attack from abroad and instead focusing on insidious domestic threats, especially the murderous violence of “savage mobs.”

In Lincoln’s view, the particular danger from mob violence and a disregard of the law was that the people eventually would lose faith in the government’s ability to offer basic protection. Then, conditions would be ripe for an ambitious and aggressive tyrant to arise. In Lincoln’s opinion, this future tyrant could assail the world like a colossus who “thirsts and burns for distinction.”  Lincoln warned that such a tyrant could destroy the nation.  “Distinction will be his paramount object,” Lincoln foresaw, “and [with] nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.”

Lincoln dismissed the threat of “some transatlantic military giant” and argued that “the approach of danger to be expected . . . if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us.  It cannot come from abroad.”  He feared that “if destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”

Lincoln fretted about what “an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon” might do to this country.  “It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true,” Lincoln said, “to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up among us.  And, when they do, they will naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have done so before them.”

The solution to the problem of domestic destruction, Lincoln said, lay in increasing the people’s “attachment” to the government, through personal fealty to uphold the law, through efforts to emulate the nation’s founders, and through explicit education in American history and values.   “Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap,” encouraged Lincoln, “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.”

The connection of the people to the government would secure and protect “national freedom.” This bond between government and its people “shall universally, or even, very generally prevail throughout the nation, [then] vain will be every effort, and fruitless every attempt, to subvert our national freedom.”  At the conclusion of his lecture, he returned to the memory of the founding generation, using familial and natural imagery to speak of the “living history” now departed,

“They were a forest of giant oaks; but the all-resistless 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 gentle breezes, and to combat with its mutilated limbs, a few more ruder storms, then to sink, and be no more.  They were the pillars of the temple of liberty and now they have crumbled away, 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 defence.–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.” 

Offering a paradoxically passionate defense of “unimpassioned reason,” Lincoln then concluded his version of political religion with a quotation that implicitly compared the nation to the universal Christian church: “Upon these let the proud fabric of freedom rest, as the rock of its basis; and as truly as has been said of the only greater institution, ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

After printing Lincoln’s lecture, the Journal fell silent about it, publishing no commentary on the speech in subsequent weeks. Apparently, this was a consistent practice and the usual treatment of lyceum lectures in nineteenth-century newspapers. Ordinarily a local occasion such as this came and went with apparently little fanfare.  However owing to the fame that Lincoln eventually attained, Americans have returned to this event time and again, marking the Lyceum Address as Lincoln’s “first speech of distinction” and examining every word in it for its revelations and prophecies.

         Readers of Lincoln have exploited quotations from the Lyceum Address to justify myriad situations. The law-and-order passages have had a particularly long shelf life. For instance, in 1915, Outlook quoted Lincoln’s warnings about mob rule to condemn the lynching of a Jewish manager in Atlanta. Then in 1948, Lincoln’s “reverence for the laws” passages were used quite differently and ironically when famed liberal United States Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon advised labor leader A. Phillip Randolph, not to take up civil disobedience in response to segregation.  Similarly, in 1966, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley quoted Lincoln on “reverence for the laws” in an effort to quell civil rights protesters.

Other passages have also supplied ammunition for a multitude of causes.   In a televised broadcast in 1953, Senator Joseph McCarthy quoted Lincoln’s commentary about domestic threats as authoritative evidence for his anti-Communist witch hunts. McCarthy’s quotation inspired published responses about Lincoln’s words. The Washington Post provided a lengthier quotation to temper McCarthy’s, and in the New York Times, journalist James Reston offered an alternative interpretation, writing that “Lincoln, however, was not arguing in this speech that good ends justify the adoption of any means in America.”

A half century later, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin commented in the Times in the wake of September 11, 2001. She emphasized Lincoln’s discussion in the Lyceum Address about the relationship between previous generations and the current one, and she expressed hope that “those who lead us, will, like Lincoln, be inspired by the noble ambition to accomplish reputable deeds worthy of remembrance.”

Whether quoted to support or to suppress civil rights, to incite alarm or to inspire courage, to remember the past or fear for the future, the language of the Lyceum Address has been recreated and resurrected, but rarely ignored. Years of public argument using this speech have well established the lecture’s significance as Lincoln’s emergence as a political philosopher.

As one of Lincoln’s earliest public texts, the Lyceum Address often serves as a benchmark against which his subsequent words are measured.  Not surprisingly, the Lyceum Address has been the subject of numerous studies.  Viewed primarily from the perspective of later events such as increasing the sectional controversy and the Civil War, these studies attribute to the young Lincoln almost prophetic powers of one sort or another.  Some even argue that his ambition could be identified with the Caesarian figure he predicted would arise.  Other studies see Lincoln as the prophet of “political religion.”  During the controversy over the expansion of slavery in the 1850s he accordingly held up the principle of equality to persuade a divided nation; after war began he invoked divine providence on behalf of a new birth of freedom.

When scholars examine Lincoln’s Lyceum Address for its political tones, they typically focus on what Lincoln did not say. They note Lincoln’s tangential allusion to the death by mob violence of abolitionist newspaper editor and Minister Elijah P. Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois, less than three months before Lincoln’s speech and they explore Lincoln’s dramatic evocation of the unnamed tyrant who posed a threat to democracy.

Although some scholars claim that the Lovejoy murder was a motivating force behind Lincoln’s Lyceum Address, others question that interpretation. Lincoln’s audience could hardly have missed the oblique reference to Lovejoy in his generalized example of a mob that might “throw printing presses into rivers” and “shoot editors,” but Lincoln did not mention Lovejoy by name. Why? A plausible explanation would be the existence of strong anti-abolitionism in central Illinois, while some scholars describe the absence of open condemnation in Lincoln’s text as political acumen, political pandering, or both.

The moral tone of Lincoln’s words fell far short of supporting abolitionism, an extreme political position to many in the 1830s.   In the Lyceum Address, Lincoln’s discussion of the potential tyrant placed emancipation and enslavement in terms of extremism.  “Towering genius distains a beaten path,” he said. “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.”

In considering the figure of the tyrant, scholars have expended much energy in their efforts to identify particular individuals to whom Lincoln may have been referring. Some note that the language of tyranny was common in Whig denunciations of former Democratic President Andrew Jackson or Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren. Some looking more locally, have argued that the imagined tyrant was Lincoln’s thirty-year nemesis, Illinois Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, who was then contending with Lincoln’s law partner, John T. Stuart, for a seat in Congress.

Perhaps some answer could be found in the nature of the speech itself.  The expectations of a Lyceum speech suggest that the lecture was intended to provide a well-thought, reflective commentary of broad philosophical themes for common public interest. A good lecture was to spark thought rather than to proselytize specific political actions.  As whiggish in their faith in progress as lyceums were, speaking at the Young Men’s Lyceum was not equivalent to speaking at a Whig political meeting. Lyceums were considered to be nonpartisan and members often came from different political parties and maintained different ideological commitments. This was as true in Springfield as it was elsewhere.  The young men of the lyceum would not have invited Lincoln to speak so that he might defend his actions in the state legislature or make a case for his own forthcoming candidacy for reelection or for Stuart’s candidacy for a congressional seat.

At the same time, the young men knew Lincoln to be a Whig politician, and he did not cease being one when he entered the Baptist Church on that cold winter night in 1838, any more than he ceased being a lawyer.  He was subtle in speaking of abolitionism, careful not to align himself with such an extremist political position even while criticizing the murder of one of its adherents, and he did not specifically identify anyone who might become a “tyrant.”  Although efforts to name the tyrant have long occupied scholars, the fact that the tyrant is unnamed and unidentified is itself a choice worthy of note.

Speaking of abolitionism at all, even far short of any kind of endorsement, pressed the limits of what would be suitable for an ostensibly apolitical speech, and the allusions to Lovejoy, and the more explicit references to McIntosh, (“Turn, then, to that horror-striking scene at St. Louis. A single victim was only sacrificed there. His story is very short; and is, perhaps, the most highly tragic, if anything of its length, that has ever been witnessed in real life. A mulatto man, by the name of McIntosh, was seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour from the time he had been a freeman, attending to his own business, and at peace with the world.”) whose murder had been reported by Lovejoy, established a moral argument that attentive listeners might discover for themselves.

The Lincoln of the Lyceum Address was certainly not an abolitionist, and he assuredly spoke from his perspective as a white man, but he was prepared to go on record as one who did not hold abolitionists responsible for the violence visited upon them. In its own time and place, this was not an especially popular view.

In many ways, Lincoln’s Lyceum Address was practice: practice in public speaking, practice in identifying and responding to contemporary events, and practice in experimenting with the rhetorical traditions of the time. The lyceum was a good place to deliver a formal speech before Springfield’s professional class, the lawyers and merchants, the doctors and skilled laborers, the up-and-coming young men of ambition constituting the next generation of community leaders, and perhaps even some female spectators.

In Lincoln’s Lyceum Address, the practice of the law received almost religious veneration, with nary a flicker of doubt for him.  Nineteen years later, after the Dred Scott decision, the question of “bad laws” for him would become more immediate.  In his Lyceum Address, his current generation was meant simply to “transmit” the legacy of the founders, manifest in a “proposition” that they had already articulated.  On a cold winter’s day in Gettysburg in the middle of a dark war, his “task” would become an emotional effort to realize the founders’ hope, promise, and an as yet unproven “proposition that all men are created equal.”  In his Lyceum Address, “emancipating slaves” and “enslaving freemen” alike were represented as the potential actions of an ambitious tyrant.  Through time and experience Lincoln would slowly find a moral distinction between them.

Now, 183 years after a 28-year-old lawyer trudged through the muddy streets of Springfield to speak in the Baptist Church, everything has long been replaced by the “silent artillery of time . . . ; the leveling of its walls. They are gone.–They were a forest of giant oaks; but the all-resistless 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 gentle breezes, and to combat with its mutilated limbs, a few more ruder storms, then to sink, and be no more.”  Generation after generation have used and abused Lincoln, interpreting him for their own time and purpose while  finding in his words what they consider to be the best and the worst of the nation.

Anyone who has ever studied Lincoln knows he is not easy to figure out. Two hundred and twelve years after his birth on his parents’ farm in Kentucky, how we remember Lincoln is largely a selfish endeavor.  Indeed, there are many Lincolns to remember: the precocious child, the laborer, the surveyor, the storyteller, the lawyer, the politician, the husband and father, the wordsmith, the president, and the martyr.  However, in seeking a fuller, more polished account of Lincoln and his life and times, on one January night in 1838, he was a lyceum lecturer.

Emerging from his own anxieties, insecurities, and ambitions and responding to the expectations of Springfield’s anxious, ambitious residents, he appeared before his neighbors and constituents invoking their passions and their prejudices, testing and trying his ideas, weighing words adopted from the language of the day, and exhibiting the skills of formal public speaking.  At an ordinary event, a young lawyer sought to be extraordinary by explaining the state of the nation and offering bromides for its ills. But also at that moment, he exercised a voice that ever so faintly glimmered with moral purpose and promise.

Jason H. Silverman is the Ellison Capers, Jr. Professor of History at Winthrop University.