Will Save a Suicidal Nation
Early in 1838, a twenty eight year old Abraham Lincoln spoke at the Young Man’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois on “the perpetuation of our political institutions.” Lincoln’s words that day have been cited by many over the past year. Lincoln recognized the potential for grave danger inherent to our system of self-government. He said: “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 prediction has echoed in my mind in the weeks following the election of Donald Trump.
What symptoms did Lincoln attribute to a country on the brink of suicide? Citing recent lynchings in St. Louis and Mississippi, he warned his listeners of an “ill-omen amongst us.” He meant an “increasing disregard for the law which pervades the country.” He knew that such “disregard” had the capacity to undermine the pillars of order established by our founding fathers, and lead to a society ruled not by the “sober judgement of the courts,” but rather by the “wild and furious passions of…the worse than savage mobs.” Lincoln argued that in such a society scenes of unspeakable violence could become, “too familiar, to attract anything more, than an idle remark.”
Sound familiar? How many horrifying deaths on American soil have garnered no more than an “idle remark” in the past year alone? Too many to list.
With the election of a man whose campaign was based on stoking the fires of distrust and hatred, those symptoms have progressed to a critical point. Lincoln knew that “the attachment of the people” is “the strongest bulwark of any government.” By choosing Donald Trump, a man with no governmental experience, and a swaggering disregard for the laws of the land, the American people are expressing a great lack of attachment to their government. And now we are witnessing the disorder of a nation alienated from its government: “The lawless in spirit are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and…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.” David Duke, an open white supremacist, and a former leader of the KKK, tweeted, “This is one of the most exciting nights of my life,” on election night.
Lincoln’s speech does more than foresee the conditions of a country that elects a man like Trump. It also foresees Trump himself. Lincoln said that a “great danger” the American people would one day need to fend off was the ascent of an ambitious leader who longs so much for “Distinction…he would set boldly to the task of pulling down” the beliefs and institutions upon which our country is founded, and for which we have so much reason to be proud. Trump’s rhetoric of fear is surely doing just that.
So how do we respond? How do we preserve the America for which so many have given so much to create and maintain? How can we save this suicidal nation? Lincoln advises us in his Lyceum Address to stifle “passion,” and instead turn to “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason…general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws.” Of course he is right, and a rehabilitation of those long-neglected values would be good for us. Blinding passion, declining moral standards, and a widespread disdain for the order imposed by law all played a role in the rise of Trump.
But the Gettysburg Address offers the greatest bulwark against despair in these times. At Gettysburg, Lincoln reminded us to do the one thing nearly all Americans can agree to do: honor our fallen soldiers. He asks us to consider what our veterans risk their lives and die defending, and then,
Take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that government by the people, of the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
There are many reasons Donald Trump represents a grave threat to all that is good about America, but he cannot destroy our country unless we let ourselves be destroyed. The recent election results may look a whole lot like “suicide,” but the American people have more fight in them that: if we can “take increased devotion” to stand both publicly and privately for what is right, then we will outlast this darkness, and America will live on.