by Jeff Polet
On the 50th anniversary of our Constitution, and at the unripened age of 28, Abraham Lincoln took the stage at the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield IL to address the topic “On the perpetuation of our political institutions.” Known now simply as The Lyceum Address, it is one of the most impressive speeches ever given in this country by a young politician. It is also a speech that generates a remarkable range of interpretations, some seeing in it a defense of the Constitutional order and others a rejection.
Given the assigned topic, the speech begins in a startling manner: with a reference to the book of Ecclesiastes. “In the great journal of things happening under the sun, we, the American People, find our account running, under date of the nineteenth century of the Christian era.” By this rhetorical strategy, Lincoln accomplishes two things: first, he sets the mood for the speech by suggesting that American political institutions are subject to the same withering away that infects all human endeavors, which amount to little more than a “vanity and a striving after wind”; second, he places the American experiment within a larger civilizational framework whose structure and purposes are both articulated in and by the Christian revelation. Interestingly enough, he assumed that his audience would immediately get the reference, an assumption no sane speechwriter would operate by today. The referring of American national history to Christian redemptive history would be a constant in all of Lincoln’s great speeches, most dramatically in his Second Inaugural Address (1865).
In the Bible the story of creation occupies only the first two chapters, with the next three chapters telling the story of the fall and its aftermath. The rest of the scripture is dedicated to the story of redemption. Treating American history as if it’s a microcosm of the Christian story, Lincoln proceeds to identify what we might call the “creation” period of American history: its European settlement and the formation of the Constitutional order, created “by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors.” Given the unique garden in which we have been placed we need not fear destruction by an external force—our perdition comes from within. “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.” [I’m not sure why those are the only two possibilities.] Death comes to those who disobey the law; so it was in Eden, and so it is in America, Lincoln believes.
Lincoln inveighs against the lawless “mob rule” that has beset America; lynchings that proceeded “from gamblers to negroes, from negroes to white citizens, and from these to strangers; till, dead men were seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every road side; and in numbers almost sufficient, to rival the native Spanish moss of the country, as a drapery of the forest.” The main problem with mob rule is that the active agents (mobs) are neither interested in nor capable of distinguishing the innocent from the guilty, thus rendering everyone insecure.
America must be “saved” from this state of anarchy, and salvation requires both faith and a savior. Faith must be developed by the establishment of an institutional religion, but not one of a sectarian variety. In one of the more remarkable passages of the speech, Lincoln declares that:
“The question recurs, ‘how shall we fortify against it?‘ [Mob rule] The answer is simple. 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.”
That last phrase would be repeated by Lincoln in his well-known letter to Lydia Bixby, who could be forgiven for not accepting Lincoln’s intended solace and expression of gratitude, nor experiencing the “solemn pride” that accompanies having “laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom” — namely, the lives of her five sons.
Faith in the new political religion is accomplished by a co-opting of all other social institutions in its name, but who is to be the author of this new religion? Will it be simply a restatement of the religion of old (that of the Founders)? Decidedly not, for the admiration for the Founding generation had to pass along with their passing. Memory carries not the same passion as desire, and most notably it doesn’t satisfy the demands of ambition (which Lincoln had in spades and his law partner referred to as “a little engine that knew no rest”). Ambition can’t be satisfied by celebrating the accomplishments of others.
“This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle.“
With the passing of the Founding generation comes the passing of the political order they had built, but was now fallen. That history “is gone.” In one exquisitely wrought line Lincoln describes his attitude toward the Founding generation: “They can be read no more forever.” What the British armies could not accomplish—the vanquishing of our patriot fathers—time had done.
What was needed, then, is a “new birth of freedom,” and one based on sounder principles than those found in the Constitution. This new political religion, Lincoln claimed, had to be built on the foundation of “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason.” Having begun his speech using the Bible to describe the ephemeral nature of all human endeavors, and having traced out the redemptive process, Lincoln returns at the end again to the Bible, but this time reflecting its reference to an eternal and enduring order. Quoting Matthew 16: “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.’” Lincoln’s civil religion thus operates as a substitute for traditional church religion, and he thus sets up a major division in the American polity between dueling allegiances. Much of the subsequent history of America is a working out of this tension.
- What role does and ought civil religion play in our politics? What are the features of a civil religion as opposed to church religion?
- Do our contemporary political problems result from the fact that we no longer have either a shared story or a shared set of cultural markers? What, if anything, acts as a substitute for the Biblical religion that was so much a part of Lincoln’s imagination?
- How does Lincoln’s speech make you rethink the idea of religion in our Constitutional system, or the “separation of church and state”?