It has been nearly 200 years since the young Abraham Lincoln began to formulate and articulate his views on democracy, social reforms and political institutions in America. Yet, we can apply many of Lincoln’s insights to our unsettling times today.
As a young adult, age 28, Lincoln’s address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, on Jan. 27, 1838, was seminal in its thoughts and hopes. It strongly influenced later developments in his life.
The Lyceum was an educational movement and civic organization that hosted public lectures, speeches and debates. These social groups first began to meet in Massachusetts a few years earlier and quickly spread to various towns and cities of our nation’s young republic. They provided a place where local people could civilly share and debate ideas and ideals, as an expression of their constitutional freedoms.
Decades later, Lincoln would bring a much briefer address at a national cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In that memorable 1863 setting, in the middle of a “great civil war,” he reviewed our nation’s inception and the dedication of its founders and early leaders.
He underscored that this exceptional nation was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Then, he identified that the ultimate consequence of the great conflict was our nation’s very preservation, “whether that nation or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Today, we are also engaged in a politically challenging time, with radical social realities similar, in some ways, to the times of Lincoln’s Lyceum address. His remarks then were informed by the recent lynchings of suspected gamblers and murderers (which he referenced in the speech).
Lincoln also warned of the dangers of incendiary demagoguery, slavery and mob violence, such as that which initiated the shooting of the anti-slavery abolitionist and printer, Elijah P. Lovejoy at Alton, Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, and just 85 miles from Springfield, Illinois, three months earlier. He worried that people who disrespected American laws and courts could destroy the U.S. “Such lawlessness, disorder and human evils could not be condoned then, nor should they be now.”
The deaths of Black men (and at least one Black woman) at the hands of police in various locations across our country during the first six months of the present year have ignited public demonstrations and protests. Many of these lawful demonstrations degenerated into riots, looting and violent destruction. This kind of mob action solves no social ills and helps meet no social needs.
The dangerous demagoguery Lincoln warned of nearly 200 years ago, we now hear in our streets, see on our oversized TV screens and read in social media. It only tends to fan the flames of those who respond with emotion rather than reason and react with crude remarks, vile profanity and cruel, destructive mayhem.
Unfortunately, our country and world are simultaneously suffering from a coronavirus pandemic, which has caused dramatic overreach by many elected leaders, and economic distress, worse than that of the “Great Depression,” nearly 100 years ago.
Lincoln’s Lyceum Address illustrates his lifelong dedication to the preservation of the union and his early opposition to slavery and racial disparities. His speech also addresses a number of the same issues as Washington’s Farewell Address, where he warned of the irreparable effects of political parties, whose incendiary rhetoric could cause consequential division, distrust and disunity within the young nation.
We are now just a few score days away from the 2020 national elections, which will determine the direction of our country, perhaps for decades to come — if we endure as a nation. Will we be more pro-life? Pro-family? Pro-religious-liberties?
Or will we yield to those who will continue to raise tensions and divide our countrymen? Will we again promote equality of opportunity or submit to those who demand equality of outcome and other Marxist viewpoints?
The solutions to these issues are not political but prayerful. Second Chronicles 7:14, in the Hebrew scriptures, is undoubtedly one of the most well-known and best-loved verses regarding prayer in the Bible. It sets forth stipulations, for those called by His name, to experience His blessings — individually and nationally. It seems God is committed to accomplishing His holy purposes only in conjunction with and in response to the prayers of His people.
Perhaps the once-familiar words of Katherine Bates, in the first verse of her patriotic poem and song “America the Beautiful,” give context for our needed prayers, in these turbulent times: “America! America! God shed His grace on thee, And crown thy good with brotherhood, From sea to shining sea!”