How Lincoln Can Guide Us In Restoring Our Institutions

He understood the power of mobs and the challenge of preserving self-government.

On January 6, insurrectionist thugs stormed the U.S. Capitol. Incited by a president deserving of impeachment and his host of congressional enablers, they entered the Capitol to stop an electoral “steal” that had never occurred. Delusion and irresponsibility reigned.

But this being America, it was only a matter of time before the forces of self-government, of responsibility, and of law resurfaced. Hours, as it turned out. Congress returned to the floor that very evening to complete its certification of the electoral votes. And the words of Abraham Lincoln were there to guide them.

Dick Durbin, a senator from Lincoln’s state of Illinois, reminded his colleagues of Lincoln’s insistence that the construction of the Capitol dome be completed during the Civil War, even as crucial resources of time and money were running short. In Durbin’s telling, Lincoln saw the dome as an essential symbol—a sign that the Union would prevail, a sign that the forces of unity, hope, and democratic republicanism would reign victorious again. 

Lincoln’s faith in democracy and constitutionalism motivated his support for the completion of the Capitol dome, but so did his sober recognition that self-government is fragile. The events at the Capitol remind us that the task of retaining our system of self-government is quite difficult, given the destructive tendencies, passions, and ignorance that are sown in the nature of man. As such, our democratic republican system of government must be cherished and strengthened, by each generation of Americans after the next. As the late Harry Jaffa wrote in The Crisis of the House Divided: “Lincoln has been understood and correctly understood as the supreme advocate of the cause of popular government. But it is not because he saw no problem, no difficulty, in adopting that advocacy. Noble things are difficult, said Aristotle, and the nobler more difficult. Lincoln saw popular government as most noble and most difficult.” 

How might we strengthen popular government?

Holding those like former President Trump accountable for their actions would be a first step. A leader who gins up the passions of his supporters to thwart the legal functioning of a separate branch of government rather than abide by constitutional processes deserves shame and appropriate sanction, like impeachment. But thanks to the strength of partisan attachments, it seems that Trump will escape conviction. His acquittal will set a horrendous precedent

But we must not lose hope. Our constitutional system of government has persisted through body blows before. But in the face of division and levels of mutual contempt between Americans that have opened the door to political violence, how might we strengthen the American people’s attachment to their shared system of governance, their constitutional inheritance? 

Lincoln understood that reason alone was not enough to preserve our republic. Great buildings, speeches, stories, and other tools to evoke citizens’ visceral affections for the Constitution and our form of government are necessary. The majesty of the Capitol attests both to the Enlightenment rationality that informed the establishment of our political order and the inability of rationality alone to perpetuate that order. Self-government requires history, myth, and majesty—the sorts of things that inspire a people to recognize themselves as a people, the sorts of things that forge the “bonds of affection” that cohere a nation. For patriots, the task ahead will entail harnessing popular passions and retethering them to the cause of American constitutionalism—to the cause of a political regime grounded in common moral sense, reason, and a tough-minded assessment of human nature. 

We must wed the passions with reason rather than allowing them to trample it underfoot. Lincoln shows us how to do precisely that, and he reminds us of the immense dangers that could stem from our failure. 

In 1838, the young Lincoln delivered an Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield. Lincoln was fixated on the same question we are in the aftermath of January 6: How might we preserve and perpetuate our political institutions? What threatens them? What weakens a people’s commitment to a system of government as blessed as ours?

For Lincoln, the danger to democratic republicanism in America “must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” That suicide would come about through a hateful mix of lawlessness and demagoguery. Lincoln first pointed to “the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country,” citing examples such as mob hangings of African Americans as well as legally licensed gamblers in Mississippi and Missouri. The real dangers, said Lincoln, were not the immediate consequences (the deaths of the individuals involved). As the Notre Dame political scientist Michael P. Zuckert points out, “Lincoln belittled the direct consequences of mob action, in part, in order to highlight the more dangerous secondary effects.” 

The casual violence of mobs threatened to liberate the “lawless in spirit”—“not common looters,” notes Zuckert, “but groups who act in the name of or to effectuate justice. They are groups who take the law into their own hands and who believe they are serving justice in place of and better than the ordinary officers of the law.” Zuckert writes that these are populist mobs. Imbued with the ideal of popular sovereignty and unsatisfied with legal and constitutional constraints on that sovereignty, they aim “to exercise governmental power more directly than the system’s constitutionalism normally allows.” The Capitol’s assailants fit this bill. They sought to thwart our governmental machinery and to harm—perhaps even to kill—those carrying out their constitutional duties, including the vice president of the United States, in the name of (a subset of) the sovereign people. 

Thus, while portions of our chattering class clash over “whataboutism” and “both-sides-ism,” Lincoln long ago figured out the relationship between the looting and lawlessness of last summer and the insurrectionary violence of January 6. The greater threat to the republic took place at the Capitol, but we would be remiss to not understand, as Lincoln did, that these “lawless in spirit” are liberated and spurred to action as the majesty of the law withered in the face of the mob violence of the summer. In Lincoln’s eyes, the upshot is worrisome: “by the operation of this mobocractic 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.” 

According to Harry Jaffa, this erosion of popular attachment to American government was “the worst” of the indirect consequences of mob rule in Lincoln’s eyes. Indeed, without such attachment, the way is paved for some would-be Caesar to ride the wave of chaos to extraconstitutional heights of power. With patriotic citizens “alienated” from their government, said Lincoln, “men of sufficient talent and ambition will not be wanting to seize the opportunity, strike the blow, and overturn that fair fabric” of democratic republicanism. 

The key, then, for Lincoln, is to guard against such disaffection by convincing Americans to adopt utmost adherence to the laws and the Constitution as their “political religion.” Popular attachment to the existing system of government must be strong enough to ward off the usurper. In making this proposal, Lincoln claims that the passions—like those of honor and glory that undergirded the founding—can no longer be relied upon: “Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence” of the American constitutional order. But Lincoln’s reliance on the concept of political religion belies his ode to reason alone: 

“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 character 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.”

The defense of the American political order—an order grounded in reason—requires more than reason. Just as passion helped bring the Revolution and its political progeny into being, so too must passion help preserve it. As Jaffa writes, Lincoln’s concept of the “political religion” aims to “subject” the citizenry “to a discipline in virtue of which they will demand only those things in the name of their own supreme authority that are reasonable; i.e., consistent with the implications of their own equal rights.” That discipline entails appeals to the blood of the Revolution, of one’s forefathers and of one’s own children. Appeals to blood are visceral ones, not appeals to “cold, calculating” reason. Self-government requires reasoned commitment and passionate devotion. It requires patriotism. 

As we lose a “common political language,” in the words of David French, it is essential that we somehow redirect the passionate fervor of today into channels that support the preservation of our political regime of reason.

As Jaffa reflected on the Lyceum Address, Lincoln sees the need for a “would-be preserver” of the republican order in the face of the would-be Caesar. The preserver also brims with outsized ambition, and “He too must know, nay, he must feel, all the reasons which might wrench him from his republican loyalty … The savior must know all the attractions of becoming the destroyer before he can become the savior.” Thankfully, the preserver is wedded to a higher good than raw acclaim, such that he “prefers the people’s freedom to their domination.”

Perhaps invocations of Lincoln himself will no longer do, then, and we must do our own part, as citizens, while awaiting a leader who can rise to the occasion—a preserver of the republic who can look the potential glory of a demagogic ascent to power in the eye and reject it, opting instead to lead the people’s passions out from destruction and tie them to the first principles of republican government. 

Perhaps we need another Lincoln, a new Lincoln, to help us responsibly shoulder the burden of self-government again.

Thomas Koenig is a recent graduate of Princeton University. He will be attending Harvard Law School next fall. Follow him on Twitter @TomsTakes98.