By Christian McWhirter
In the coming months, one of Abraham Lincoln’s most noteworthy and misquoted speeches will go on display in the museum. It is widely considered his first great speech and captures Lincoln finding his voice after four years in the state legislature.
The Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Ill., was a prominent group of professionals who, among other things, met to hear speakers on various subjects. That they invited Lincoln shows his rising status, and he clearly viewed the speech — given on January 27, 1838 — as an opportunity to advocate for one of his core principles: the rule of law.
Mob violence threatening the foundation of American democracy was Lincoln’s chief concern, especially actions taken by pro-slavery advocates. He called this “the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgement of Courts; and worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.” He wanted to assure his audience that the American political and legal system was “conducing more essentially to the end of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us” and thus was the proper way to address all societal grievances.
The lynching of Francis J. McIntosh was an example of the "mob law" Lincoln condemned in his speech. He called it "a horror-striking scene."
If the American people instead chose to “gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity” then democracy and national unity would collapse. In their wake “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” and “set boldly to the task of pulling down” the American experiment.
For Lincoln only “reason, cold calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.” Indeed, that reason must be so firm and so embodied in the state that the American people must develop something akin to a “political religion of the nation.” For those who’ve wondered why Lincoln did not strike at slavery sooner or remained so concerned with his presidential powers as enumerated by the Constitution even during a civil war — here is your answer.
Historians and other observers can argue about Lincoln’s motivations, or quibble over his interpretations of American law and the nation’s foundational documents, but Lincoln’s deep devotion to them is starkly evident here and spanned his entire career. We all change with time and Lincoln was certainly a much different person in January 1838 than he was in July 1862, but you can glimpse the principles of the Lyceum Address in his approach to emancipation. Bound by the Constitution but waging a war against a massive rebellion, Lincoln would free enslaved people only in those areas currently rebelling against the federal government because that’s all he believed himself empowered to do. To go beyond that in a presidential proclamation would be to risk becoming the tyrant he warned about in Springfield decades earlier.
Near the beginning of the speech, Lincoln lays out this threat in broad terms:
"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."
It is an elegant and carefully worded passage—meant to both frighten and inspire its listeners. It is also, in my experience, the most misquoted passage in Lincoln’s entire body of work.
The "die by suicide" portion of Lincoln's speech, as printed in the Sangamo Journal.
As the Lincoln Historian here at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, I often receive emails asking if particular Lincoln quotes are authentic. The answer is almost always “no.” I’m not sure why I get far more emails about false quotes than I do about real ones, but the internet surely doesn’t help by being packed with either misattributed or just plain made up statements from Lincoln.
Of those quotes, the one I’m asked about the most is the above passage from the Lyceum Speech. It usually makes the rounds during any domestic political crisis and is rarely quoted correctly. Often, it is rendered more simply as Lincoln stating America can only be destroyed from within. It’s become such a prevalent problem, that I or other ALPLM staff have now been quoted in articles about it at Reuters, Politifact, and Factcheck, among others.
I suppose in a way this testifies to the continued resonance of Lincoln’s Lyceum Address. People seek Lincoln’s wisdom and the bluntness with which he warned his audience of America’s potential for self-destruction is powerful, even when rendered inaccurately.
That being said, it’s not hard to fact check a Lincoln quote. The Abraham Lincoln Association and the University of Michigan have kindly provided the entire text of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln in a free-to-use database here: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/l/lincoln. Our Papers of Abraham Lincoln project, although still in-progress, also provides highly reliable transcriptions that are searchable: https://papersofabrahamlincoln.org.
But I know there are tricky ones out there too. So, if you dig up a Lincoln quote and can’t find it in his published writings, always feel free to shoot it to me by email. Chances are, I’ve seen it before.
Christian McWhirter is the ALPLM's Lincoln historian.