Best We Heed Lincoln’s Warning

Jeff Utsch | Vice President of Educational Development, Compact for America

Long before Lincoln became a household name, he was forging his own path and making his own observations about America as he saw her.

He did not simply transform overnight into the brilliant leader who would save a nation.  Rather, he summoned years of deliberation, with self and others, on every critical issue of the day. If anything could be said of Lincoln, it was that he pensive and cautious in converting thoughts to action.

In 1838, at the age of 28, he gave one of the most inspired and prophetic speeches of any age.  In what is known as the Lyceum Speech, or as he called it, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” Lincoln articulated a trend of lawlessness in the country and understood that it didn’t matter whether one agreed with the perpetrators or not.  If rule of law was not enforced, he contended, a nation was on a course of suicide.

His words:

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 Bonaparte 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. 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.

The danger, Lincoln warned, emanated from “the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of sober judgment…”

Today, we are at that point where many elected leaders disregard the rule of law and attempt to get away with all in reach until pushed back. Often, their aims are what they believe is good for the nation. But, if unlawful, the long-term result is an erosion of what bonds us together.

Edward Snowden’s revelations of what our government is doing to keep us safe is a clear example. Good intentions do not make actions Constitutional.

The oath one takes to protect the Constitution meant something and its obligatory self-restraint was one check on overreaching power, Lincoln believed.  Leaders who do otherwise, believing ends justify means, risk the very destruction of the nation itself.

An example?

Lincoln deplored the Fugitive Slave Act, which had been passed in 1850. When Wisconsin, citing the immorality of the act, refused to enforce it, Lincoln insisted that the nation suffer under until such a time as a Constitutional change could be made.

George Washington would agree. In discussing making changes to the Constitution in his farewell address he stated, “But let there be no change by usurpations, for though this, in the one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit which the use can at any time yield.”

Unconstitutional acts by leaders do extensive damage before they are rectified.  With a Congress lacking the willpower and agility to react to every constitutional infringement by the Executive, our nation is suffering under the weight of corruption.

Are we blind to the costs of such leadership?  Do we not hear the voice of Lincoln’s reason and the ensuing damage if we don’t heed the warning?

Lincoln gave us the remedy and it applies to all.

“How shall we fortify against it (violation of the Constitution)?” he asks. “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. “

A nation of laws holds everyone accountable, Lincoln understood. If not, the nation self-destructs.

As the patriots of seventy-six (Revolutionary War) 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.

Have we reached a point where we are willing to disregard the rule of law and allow any leader, appointed or elected, to trample the Constitution provided they espouse our political views?

Are we this corrupted that we accept treasonous leaders who line their own pockets as long as we get our spoils as well?

I won’t go along with this. Servitude will follow. The American principles of Liberty and equality-under-the- law are gone. Liberty won’t endure when the rule of law is ignored and selectively enforced.

“That temple (Liberty) must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason,” Lincoln stated. “Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense.–Let those materials be molded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws: and, that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last”.

This is what it will take to save our nation.

If we do not heed Lincoln’s warning, we are indeed on a path to collective political suicide, a society in which, “Liberty and Justice for All,” is but an empty cliché of yesterday.

Tags : abraham lincoln constitution edward snowden george washington
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