In dark times, those of us who think that the troubles that haunt human societies have their origins in the human heart, and so are permanent, are inclined to look for wisdom in the past. We know that prior generations have dealt with challenges like those we now confront, and we know that some of those generations were blessed with great-souled men and women from whose responses to those challenges we might learn.
In recent days, my mind has turned to Abraham Lincoln—maybe the greatest of the great-souled Americans. I’ve thought of him not only because he thought and acted with such moral clarity regarding the evil of racism and the inhumanity of slavery, but also because he understood that no just society was possible without respect for basic social order. He knew there was an ideal of justice above the law, and he knew that it could only be respected and put into effect through the law, not around it. Early in his life, he raised the alarm about what he called a “mobocratic spirit”—and he laid out its meaning in terms that help us to see its dangers not only in rioting and looting but also in lawless policing and in failures of leadership that undermine our solidarity.
In 1838, when he was 28 years old, Lincoln delivered a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, on “the perpetuation of our political institutions,” in which he expressed alarm about the dangers of mob rule. “Accounts of outrages committed by mobs, form the every-day news of the times,” he said. “They have pervaded the country, from New England to Louisiana.”
We incline to worry about angry mobs out of fear that they will harm the innocent, but Lincoln argued that even when their cause is understandable (even when, as in one of his examples, they are rightly livid at “the perpetration of an outrageous murder”), their lawlessness is a grave danger, because they ultimately liberate “the lawless in spirit…to become lawless in practice,” and then leave good citizens with no choice but to become lawless in their own defense. “Such are the effects of mob law; and such as the scenes, becoming more and more frequent in this land so lately famed for love of law and order,” Lincoln said. And then he reached for his core concern:
By the operation of this mobocractic spirit, which all must admit is now abroad in the land, the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed—I mean the attachment of the People.
This loss of public attachment—to the government, and to the nation as a whole—seemed to him ultimately the gravest threat to a free society. And guarding against it is a primary responsibility of both the leaders and the citizens of our society. This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t protest injustice, Lincoln said, but it means they must not take the law into their own hands, or sow disrespect for it so as to undermine the solidarity of the nation.
My mind has turned to these remarks in recent days because so much of what we have seen playing out in our streets and in our politics has revealed a failure to grasp the importance of our attachment to one another and to our society and its laws. The police officer who callously murdered George Floyd on the street in Minneapolis acted with lawless brutality, and sparked a cry for justice in response. The rioters who in time deformed that righteous cry for justice into mayhem, looting, and destruction acted with lawless barbarity, and sparked a cry for order in response. And then the President of the United States deformed that cry for order into yet another scene in the endless, boorish, narcissistic psychodrama always playing in his head and, in these last four years, projected onto the real world through the power of the presidency.
In a healthy free society, the cry for justice and the cry for order ought to be in harmony. This is one of Lincoln’s lessons: Justice requires, as he himself put it, law and order. And indeed, one of the ways our society has made great progress on the tortured question of race is that in our time the murderous policeman who treats a black man as less than human is acting not on behalf of an unjust law but in violation of a just one—and he has been charged with murder. The law is on the side of justice, and so people in search of justice should be on the side of the law.
The vast majority of protesters around the country in recent days have been on the side of both justice and law. And the mobs who have not should be treated as criminals, not encouraged by feckless leaders who can’t tell the difference between justice and power. This has surely been part of the failure of leadership we have witnessed in some places. The tendency to take the side of a mob is a very bad sign about some of our politicians. The hypocrisy involved in welcoming lawlessness as a response to lawlessness—along with smaller hypocrisies, like abandoning months of (often justified) scolding about social distancing in the midst of a pandemic when the crowds packed tightly in the streets are politically convenient—can’t help but undermine our confidence in one another in America.
But President Trump has exhibited an equal and opposite failure that must exact a steeper cost because he holds a higher office. He has failed to identity the danger in this moment as a danger to Americans’ attachments to one another and to justice and law. He has identified the danger instead with the only sort of danger he seems to know how to identify: a danger of weakness, understood as a failure to look strong. We are seeing, yet again, that character is not incidental to leadership but essential to it, and so that failures of character result in failures of leadership. Listen to the recording of the president’s phone call with governors this week for a lesson in what a failure of leadership sounds like. Watch the president’s walk across Lafayette Square for a photo opportunity in front of St. John’s church and you will see what happens when we lose sight of the distinction between performance and reality in our politics.
What Trump is missing is another of Lincoln’s core lessons—a lesson Lincoln taught not only through the words of his great speeches but through his actions as a leader in much harder times than these; the lesson his successors in the presidency must not fail to learn. The lesson is that a free people is held together by bonds of affection rooted in common ideals and aspirations. When those bonds are broken by a lawless police officer, it is essential that leaders act restore them by making clear that a murderer does not speak for the law. When those bonds are broken by a lawless mob, it is essential that leaders act to restore them by making clear that looters do not speak for justice. In both cases, leadership involves calling our society to unify around its highest ideals, not around vengeance, or violence, or anger, or force. It involves helping us remember that we are better than what we have seen in our country in recent days.
I say remember because our common memory is key to what this moment requires, and failures of memory are essential to the civic failures we have seen. President Trump can’t call on us to be better than this because he seems not to believe that we are. His peculiar form of nationalism is rooted in the conviction that America shouldn’t look weaker than other nations, not in any sense that there is something special about our country beyond its being ours. And too many of those who refuse to draw distinctions between protesting and rioting also don’t believe we are better than this. They traffic in crude and deceptive (if Pulitzer Prize winning) deformations of our history that would deny us the resources to address the problems they seek to highlight.
A fuller sense of our own history must include a sense of the history of racial oppression in our country—a story which has not ended by any means. But it must also include a sense of the history of struggle against racial oppression, a struggle as old as our society and which has witnessed tremendous progress in our own time. Together, that history gives us a way to understand the righteous outrage that has spilled into protests before those were deformed into riots. And it gives us a way to address it. It gives us a resource on which we can draw constructively, a way to know that we can be better than this.
This may be the deepest lesson Lincoln offers us in this moment. It is a lesson he himself took time to learn. In his youthful address to the Men’s Lyceum, he could see that a reverence for lawful justice was an essential source of solidarity for our society, but he suggested that, especially in the absence of direct memory of the revolution, that reverence would have to be rooted in cold, rational arguments:
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.
But two decades later, as he took upon himself the awful burden of the presidency in a moment of ultimate crisis, Lincoln had come understand a more profound source of solidarity against the dangers of lawless passion. As he closed his first inaugural address, he said this:
Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Before the war had really begun, Lincoln could see past it. He had come to recognize, and rose to teach us, that memory must be at the root both of national identity and strength and of national conciliation and solidarity. Memory is the path by which we might find our way toward a reverence for the law that is also a reverence for justice. It is by seeing that we have lived a life in common, by being gentle with each other and not by mistaking force for strength, that we might answer the kind of challenge we confront now.
Ideally, we might be called to such a recourse to common memory by leaders in our country. But in the absence of that, we can also rise to the challenge individually and together, and take our cues from great leaders of our past. We have vast resources to call upon in this effort, if only we would seek them out.