On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions
Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of
Springfield, Illinois: 27 January 1838

by Abraham Lincoln

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

collected in —
The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I: 1824-1848
Speeches and Writings: 1832-1858

July 2015

If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author

Abraham Lincoln, only 28 years old in January 1838, addressed his fellow-citizens in Springfield "On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions". The speech is a thoughtful and far-seeing warning to America, which includes this famous passage:

At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

Whence, then, may we anticipate any greater potential danger to the American Republic?

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it 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.

Lincoln discusses some contemporary examples of mob outrages, but insists that the long-term consequences of a breakdown of respect for the Constitution and laws can be far more damaging, and not just through encouraging yet more low-level crime, and discouraging law-abiding citizens. The generation that fought and won the American Revolution, men of both ordinary and extraordinary talents harnessed their excitement and ambition in creating and defending the new Republic. With the passing of the Founders' generation, the mere perpetuation of the institutions established by them seem to offer no such challenges and opportunities for excitement and ambition.

Drifting away from respect for the Constitution and laws risks a danger far greater than mob lawlessness, and that is Caesarism; indeed, we have seen in historical fact how mobs may provide the ready shoulders to lift a Caesar either through or above the laws to seize supreme power.

Young Abraham Lincoln throws down this warning to his fellow citizens, and then suggests a remedy, which necessarily must be maintained indefinitely if we desire our freedoms to survive. "On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions" is a rather brief speech, but it touches on one of the most critical issues for the survival of the American, or any other, Republic.

Harry Jaffa's discussion

In his book analyzing key antecedents of the American Civil War. Harry V. Jaffa has a detailed chapter largely on Lincoln's thought in this speech, including the Classical background employed. The speech is uncannily far-seeing:

We have said that Lincoln's 1838 speech "On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions" showed conscious dedication to preparation for the crisis with which he one day grappled on so vast a scale. This may disturb the image of the folklore Lincoln, the hero who resembles Everyman, fashioned from the clay of the common people ... yet able to turn from the concerns of everyday life to discharge, with deeper wisdom, duties heretofore regarded as the province of kings and potentates.

Then Jaffa goes at once to the heart of Lincoln's warning:

Of the myriad writers on Lincoln, Edmund Wilson alone, so far as we are aware, has grasped something of the hidden reservoirs of that "startlingly prophetic" utterance delivered to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield. Its most electrifying passage, as Wilson notes, contains a warning against a "towering genius," thirsting and burning for distinction, who would disdain to perpetuate a government which would only be a monument to the fame of others, and might destroy the existing fabric either by "emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen." As Wilson observes, the warning is ambiguous, and this Ubermensch is described "with a fire that seemed to derive as much from admiration as from apprehension."

This ambiguity, Wilson perceives, stems not only from the mingling of attraction and dread with which Lincoln seems to regard the figure he has conjured, but from his apparent neutrality with respect to the moral quality of acts of emancipation and enslavement. "It was as if," writes Wilson, "he had not only foreseen the drama but had even seen all around it, with a kind of poetic objectivity, aware of the various points of view that the world must take toward its protagonist."

Harry V. Jaffa
"The Teaching Concerning Political Salvation"
Crisis of the House Divided
An Interpretation of the Issues
in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates  (1959; 1982)

It's certainly true currently, as well as before and during the American Civil War, that people see Lincoln by the light of quite various lamps. For instance, as part of their heavy critique of Jaffa's "attractive, but in many respects historically implausible and philosophically problematical, account of Lincoln in the 1850s", one pair of scholars writes:

There are also significant reasons to question Jaffa's interpretation of Lincoln himself. Let us mention one point only: Jaffa's all-important chapter on the Perpetuation Address has as its central theme the "political savior," the hypermagnanimous man who saves republics from Caesars, but the speech it is explicating contains not one word about such a figure. Indeed Jaffa's entire discussion of the political savior per se contains not one citation or quotation from the speech it is purportedly explicating.

Catherine and Michael Zuckert
"Harry Jaffa: Aristotelianizing America"
The Truth About Leo Strauss
Political Philosophy and American Democracy  (2006)

Since Jaffa provides a full-page, paragraph-by-paragraph Analytical Outline of "On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions", I suppose that provides a sufficiently precise guide to Lincoln's brief address, whether a reader of Jaffa ever had made a close reading of Lincoln's text or even read it recently. Further, Jaffa's entire chapter titled "The Teaching Concerning Political Salvation" is a meditation on Lincoln's speech and most pointedly its warning against Caesarism and its suggestion toward an ongoing countervailing force; the chapter is longer than the speech itself and has plenty of quotations from the speech and elsewhere. (I have the 1959 edition in front of me as well as the 1982 version.)

As for the speech itself, these critics seem not to have read the same speech by Lincoln that I did, any more than they have read the same chapter by Jaffa.


© 2015 Robert Wilfred Franson

"The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions""
by Abraham Lincoln, 1838

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