There was a time when children celebrated the birthday of our nation’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. I recall, as a young Cub Scout, our den mother, who happened to be my mother, fashioning from clay and scraps of fabric the spitting image of Lincoln to be the centerpiece of our pack’s Lincoln Day diorama. And we committed to memory Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a masterpiece in communication I think of every time I hear our modern presidents drone on about the many things they will do to make our lives better.
But even in those bygone days of my youth, few were familiar with Lincoln’s words from a much earlier speech, one he gave to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, in 1838. A passage in that speech was particularly prescient, even for Lincoln, and warrants revisiting in this day of presidential proclamations and executive czars owing allegiance only to the president.
“Many great and good men,” observed Lincoln, “aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or presidential chair, but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle.” And with whom did Lincoln associate the family of the lion and the tribe of the eagle? Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon and presumably King George, from whom the founders of the American nation had secured their freedom.
The young Abraham Lincoln was not above sarcasm in describing such tyrants. “Towering genius disdains a beaten path,” he said. “It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction.”
“Is it unreasonable then,” asked Lincoln, “to expect that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time spring up among us?” Lincoln’s query was rhetorical. He knew the answer was yes. Lincoln was under no illusion, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter over a century later, “that our people enjoyed biological or psychological or sociological immunities from the hazards of concentrated power.”
How did Lincoln propose to protect Americans from the genius and tyranny of aspirants to the family of the lion and the tribe of the eagle? By insisting on the rule of law and respect for the Constitution. “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.” Lincoln urged instruction in the rule of law at every opportunity. “In short,” Lincoln said, “let it become the political religion of the nation.”
Lincoln lamented, even in 1838, that the experiences of the revolutionary era were fading from memory, leaving people complacent in their freedom. But, he wasn’t worried that we’d lose our freedom and independence at the hands of foreign powers. “If destruction be our lot,” Lincoln warned, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”
At the time of his Lyceum speech, Lincoln was as concerned about his fellow citizens’ lack of respect for the rule of law as he was about high public officeholders’ lack of respect for the rule of law. But whatever the threat, he understood, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis would write a century later, that “[t]he greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning, but without understanding.”
These are the men of towering genius who aspire to the family of the lion and the tribe of the eagle. As Lincoln anticipated, they do exist among us. They believe that they understand what Americans require, and they believe that they know how to employ the powers of government to get the job done. And, again as Lincoln foresaw, they have little respect for the rule of law. Theirs is a whatever-it-takes approach to government.