In his speech to the Young Men's Lyceum at Springfield on January 27, 1838, Abraham Lincoln warned that the mobocratic spirit of the day posed a mortal threat to free institutions. The growing disposition of many people to assert their sovereign will outside the law put to a test the capacity of the people for self-government. His prescription for the evil was to inculcate and sustain among citizens a reverence for the Constitution and the laws. Speaking to a political gathering in Peoria on October 16, 1854, Lincoln professed to see in the Kansas-Nebraska Act a new danger to the republic. Its doctrine of popular sovereignty exhibited the mobocratic spirit in a new and fateful form; it gave over to the naked will of a small majority in one part of the national territory a power over slavery that violated the true principle of self-government inscribed in the Declaration of Independence. To meet the crisis called for political action, and the emerging Republican party, with which Lincoln soon identified, set about the task of rousing the people to the danger. The task was twofold: foil the enemy in the political arena and, as Lincoln put it, "readopt the Declaration of Independence." [1]

Lincoln, it would appear, spoke in two distinctively different modes. The young Whig in 1838 held with the conservative counsel of moral nurture, emphasizing the "passive" virtue of submission to the true will of the people lodged in the Constitution and the laws. The emerging Republican in 1854, by contrast, enlisted the "active" virtue of the people in the political arena; here, he called on the people in their essentially sovereign capacity to rise up against the enemy of the republic and reaffirm its basic principles.[2] Two related Page  [End Page 15] considerations, however, lend support to the view that the difference between the two Lincolns was not as great as has been suggested. There are reasons to believe, first of all, that the young Lincoln was not as Whiggish as many others at the time; that he did not fully share their professed fears of Andrew Jackson as a Caesar; and that he seemed to appreciate in the political style of Jacksonian Democrats their skill in enlisting the "active" involvement of the people in Jackson's war on the national bank. Second, later sections of the Lyceum Address cast doubt on the efficacy of Whig means for sustaining the republic and point instead to a more activist and popular political approach. Further discussion of these considerations will seek to put in context the limits of Lincoln's Whig views and their relation to his later Republicanism.

The first part of the Lyceum Address clearly sounded a Whig tone. In a spirit of filiopiety Lincoln called to mind the great inheritance from the Founding Fathers, the edifice of liberty and rights founded by their heroic efforts. It only remained for dutiful sons to preserve and transmit this legacy to posterity. The greatest danger at the time arose from popular passions that overrode the sober judgment of the courts and substituted mob action for the lawful processes of justice. While this mobocratic spirit was no respecter of sections, erupting alike in sunny climes and in the land of steady habits, Lincoln chose two specific examples closer to home—the lynchings of a free Negro in St. Louis and three gamblers in Mississippi. Unspoken but doubtless more powerful in its effect upon the minds of the audience was the murder of the abolitionist editor in Alton, Eliah Lovejoy, less than three months earlier. The consequences of mob action, wherever it occurred, invariably generated an ascending order of evils that put at risk the existence of free institutions: It destroyed the lives and property of immediate victims, gave license for the lawless in spirit to become lawless in practice, and, by alienating the attachment of good men, ultimately undermined the foundations of government. At a later stage in the erosion of its moral base, someone of ambition and talent would arise to destroy the institutional framework itself. [3]

To avert these multiplying evils, according to Lincoln, required an absolute resolve by the people to obey the laws. "Let reverence for the laws," he advised, "become the political religion of the nation." For the purpose of forging and sustaining this moral base of free institutions, Lincoln looked to the nurturing efforts of myriad individuals and groups: to mothers with lisping babes on their laps; Page  [End Page 16] to schools, academies, and colleges; to those who wrote 'Trimmers," spelling books, and almanacs; to ministers, lawmakers, and judges. As a candidate for the state legislature in 1832, the young Lincoln identified early on with this Whig agenda. He deemed education "the most important subject" before the people because it would enable them to read the histories of free nations, the Scriptures, and other works of a moral or religious nature. [4] As the Founding Fathers had mutually pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to the cause of independence, Lincoln enjoined equal commitment to the Constitution and the laws. He wanted to strengthen the passive virtues of the people.

This part of the Lyceum Address reflected the concerns of many other Whigs. Daniel Webster warned the Senate that Jackson's veto of the bill to recharter the national bank pointed to a future frightfully different from the past; it pitted the naked will of a popular hero against the Constitution as interpreted by its true arbiter, the Supreme Court. In like fashion Henry Clay declared that Jackson's arbitrary removal of Treasury deposits from the national bank plunged the nation into "the midst of a revolution," which inescapably brought "a total change in the pure republican character of the Government." Most alarming of all, the enormous popularity of Jackson, as an "anarchic hero," bespoke a lawless spirit among the people now emboldened to claim themselves to be the literal and absolute repository of sovereignty. At work in the mob action of the 1830s, this sovereign claim carried over into the following decade in drastic form, providing the basis for suffrage reformers in Rhode Island to write a new constitution and launch a government under it without the permission of existing authorities.[5]

Calvin Colton, a leading conservative publicist and thinker of the day, thus defined the issue for Whigs as one between "the Constitution and the Democracy," and many contributors to the American Whig Review embellished the theme. "The Constitution and laws" were deemed to be the true locus of sovereign power; here was to be found "the voice of the whole nation" as it stood over against the volitions of the present generation. Through "the educating power of the law itself," the "subjection" was to be disciplined by the "objection." The proposition—that "the Republic is necessary Page  [End Page 17] to virtue, and not virtue to the Republic"—thus challenged one of the basic assumptions of romantic democracy, for it considered virtue to be an "end" of the state and not a "means." Again, virtue was here taken in its passive sense; true statesmen could never place "irrational confidence" in man's "natural and unaided capacity for self-government."[6] By choosing wise and virtuous leaders, the people essentially exhausted their active duty as citizens in the public sphere.

Daniel Webster, Whig senator from Massachusetts
Daniel Webster, Whig senator from Massachusetts

If the first part of the Lyceum Address expressed Whig sentiments, later parts cast doubt on Whig means for perpetuating republican institutions. The Fathers of the Revolution were not the paragons of passive virtue often idealized in Whig rhetoric. A passion for fame and glory attracted many leaders to the cause, while feelings of anger, envy, and hate against the British impelled the mass of people into action. The unique circumstances of the Revolutionary period, in short, gave a wide berth for the ambitions of the leaders and the Page  [End Page 18] active passions of the people in the public sphere. For succeeding generations, by contrast, the public good required that passions give way to reason; as Lincoln put it, new pillars of the temple of liberty would have to be "hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason." But was not this a counsel of perfection? To suppose that the sons could rise to a higher moral plane than the Founding Fathers and impose upon themselves the discipline of "cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason"?[7] When a man of vaulting ambition appeared on the scene, would the people possess the degree of unity and moral power needed to stop him?

Most studies of the Lyceum Address focus at this point, namely, with the prediction that men of "lofty genius" would arise whose passion for fame could not be realized in merely preserving the edifice of the Founding Fathers. Although many men of ability might be content to serve as governor, member of Congress, or president, Lincoln observed that they did not belong to the family of the lion or the tribe of the eagle. "Towering genius disdains a beaten path" and would aspire to glory and fame by destroying where it could not create. Early on, Edmund Wilson suggested that the ambitious Lincoln projected himself into the role against which he warned his audience. Dwight Anderson elaborated this theme more fully by charting Lincoln's career through two stages. The failure of Lincoln as a dutiful son to foil the Caesarian designs of President James K. Polk in the Mexican War turned him into an evil son. He then played a central role in escalating sectional controversy that led to the Civil War, transformed the federal Union of the Founding Fathers into a consolidated nation, and thereby laid the basis for world dominion in the twentieth century. Harry Jaffa draws on Greek political thought to portray Lincoln as the "good" genius who, in godlike transcendence, foils the "evil" genius of Stephen A. Douglas with a plan for political salvation. George Forgie likewise deals with the good and evil sons, but he places primary focus on "oedipal logic" to explain Lincoln's course.[8]

In different ways these studies are rich and provocative; they invite historians to think anew about the relationship of Lincoln to the Page  [End Page 19] work of the Founding Fathers. But they neglect another inheritance from the Founders, one that can yield considerable insight into the difference between Lincoln's Whig and Republican views on the perpetuation of free institutions. This legacy is the idea of "republicanism" lodged in the political culture of the nation coming over from the eighteenth century. As a wealth of recent studies have shown, republicanism is an elusive and protean concept, one that lends itself to the selective uses of conservatives and radicals, of partisans on all sides of an issue. [9] There is in it, however, a core of beliefs and attitudes about the common political life that Daniel Howe has felicitously called a "conspiracy paradigm." Central here is the belief that a republic begins with a perfect constitution, that its existence depends at last on active virtue, and that the republic is, as a consequence, frail and ever liable to degeneration as corrupt men conspire to bend the government to their selfish purposes. The highest act of statesmanship is to isolate the enemies of the republic, rouse the people from their slumbers, and launch a moral crusade in the political arena to foil the conspirators and return the government to its pure and primitive condition. The moral base of the republic could thus be regenerated in the self-same process of routing its enemies. In this form, the republican prescription for perpetuating free institutions was one that gave ample scope for the ambitions of leaders and for the activist passions of the people in the political arena; it provided the sons, as Mircea Eliade phrased it, a way to reproduce the "cosmogonic act" of the Founders. Party publicists of an earlier day had, in this light, called the election of Thomas Jefferson the "revolution of 1800" because it served to bring the republic back to its origins in the "spirit of '76." [10]

The rhetoric of republicanism likewise informed political debate during the Jacksonian period. The protean nature of the concept allowed Whigs and Democrats to define in selectively different ways Page  [End Page 20]

 Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States
Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States
the enemy bent on destroying the republic. Whigs warned that danger lay in the Caesarian ambitions of a military chieftain driven onward to rash and tyrannical acts by a phalanx of sychophants and party spoilsmen. Unhappily for the Whigs, they enjoyed little success enlisting the people in a moral crusade against a Caesar so popular as Jackson. Indeed, Whigs were only able to elect presidents in 1840 and 1848 by choosing military chieftains of their own. Democrats were far more successful, by contrast, in marshaling the active passions of the people to defend the republic. Picturing Jackson as a Tribune and not a Caesar, they defined the money power, so easily embodied in the national bank, as a government within the government conspiring to destroy the liberties of the people. By rallying the people in the elections of 1832 and 1834 to support his bank veto and the removal of Treasury deposits, Jackson brought the currency and the Treasury back to where Democrats supposed the Founding Fathers had placed them. The party organ in Washington accordingly exulted at the "roused spirit of the Patriotic Democracy" and marveled at "the sublimity of the moral spectacle" to be seen in their leader. Jackson's actions constituted nothing less Page  [End Page 21] than "a second Declaration of Independence," while the people backed him "with no less ardor and self devotion than their fathers did the first." [11] Here, the active virtues of the people in support of their bold leader had saved the republic.

It is hard to believe that the ambitious young Lincoln was inattentive to passing events, particularly to the political style and success of the Jacksonians. He was, in other ways, more "democratic" than many of his fellow Whigs. Gabor Boritt argues that economic considerations relating to individual pursuits often overrode Lincoln's concerns for moral nurture. Although his first campaign speech, cited earlier, deemed education "the most important subject" before the people, he never voted to fund it in the state legislature, presumably out of opposition to higher taxes. He favored the related policies of tariff protection, internal improvements, and a national bank. But, unlike others from Alexander Hamilton to Henry Clay, his political economy was more economic than political, that is, he supported enterprise less as a political means for consolidating national community and more as a means for enlarging the opportunities of individuals "to better their condition." He also opposed those temperance reformers who, with Whiggish inclinations, sought to inculcate morality through political means.[12]

Nor, according to Gabor Boritt and Harry Jaffa, did Lincoln share the personal animus against the Caesarian Jackson that other Whigs expressed. Further support for this view comes from a closer look at the phrasing of that passage in the Lyceum Address where Lincoln warns of the "towering genius." Here, it has been argued, he expresses less of fear for Jackson than of contempt for Jackson's hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren—a man who otherwise seemed to embody so completely that filiopiety Lincoln invoked in the first part of the Lyceum Address. [13] On the eve of being nominated in 1832 to run for vice president under Jackson, Van Buren had protested in a public letter that his ambition had already been realized Page  [End Page 22] as secretary of state and minister to England: "To have served under such a chief, at such a time, and to have won his confidence and esteem, is a sufficient glory." His letter accepting the nomination of the Democratic party to succeed Jackson as president in 1836 sounded the kindred tone of a dutiful son: As "the honored instrument" of his party, Van Buren vowed "to tread generally in the footsteps of President Jackson ... happy, if I shall be able to perfect the work which he has so gloriously begun." These phrases, which gained wide currency in the mocking echoes of the opposition press, resounded clearly in the Lyceum Address. "Towering genius disdains a beaten path," Lincoln said, "denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief" and "scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious." [14] When read in the context of party politics in the later 1830s, Lincoln's words seemed to signal a preference for ambitious predecessors over dutiful sons.

Lincoln's response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 reflected the same paradigmatic formula for political action that had informed Jacksonian Democracy. He isolated the conspiratorial enemy of the republic, began to rally people to the danger, and moved toward the new Republican party as the vehicle for restoring the nation to its pure and primitive principles. His seminal speech at Peoria on October 16, 1854, struck the basic themes that, according to Don Fehrenbacher, were to gain mainly by way of refinement in his later speeches and debates. The enemy was the new doctrine of popular sovereignty; under its delusive appeal for self-government, a small majority in one part of the national domain claimed the power to establish slavery. It constituted a gross violation of the "sacred right of self government" engraved in the Declaration of Independence, namely, "that no man is good enough to govern another man, without the other's consent." In "the pure fresh, free breath of the revolution," Lincoln said, the Founding Fathers had accepted slavery as a "necessity" where it already existed, but they forbad it to expand into the unsettled territory of the Old Northwest and, in doing so, assumed that when slavery ceased to expand it would ultimately become extinct. Because freedom was deemed national and slavery only local and temporary, the word slavery itself was not put into the Constitution.[15]

"But now," Lincoln warned his Peoria audience, "new light breaks Page  [End Page 23]

 Martin Van Buren, father of the modern party system
Martin Van Buren, father of the modern party system
upon us." The doctrine of popular sovereignty posed a mortal threat to the "ancient faith," because its assumption of moral neutrality masked a "covert real zeal" for the spread of slavery—indeed, signaling a conspiracy, the full scenario of which Lincoln was to spell out in the House Divided speech four years later. "I hate it," Lincoln declared, because it countenanced the "monstrous injustice" of slavery, soiled the nation's "republican robes" in the eyes of the world, and, most fatefully of all, pointed to the moral degeneration of the republic by forcing "really good men" into "an open war" with their basic principles. "The spirit of seventy-six and the spirit of Nebraska are utter antagonisms," he concluded. To foil the conspiracy and preserve the republic required a moral regeneration of its base; in the political arena this meant an appeal to the people to rout the enemy and "readopt the Declaration of Independence." The remarkable growth of the new Republican party after 1854 thus provided ample opportunity for men of ambition to enlist the active Page  [End Page 24] virtues of the people in a crusade to restore the republic and make it "forever worthy of the saving." [16]

Among studies cited earlier, those of Harry Jaffa and George Forgie do an exceptional job in drawing out in rich and illuminating detail Lincoln's conspiracy scenario. Both, however, tend to regard Lincoln's outlook as unique to the circumstances, whereas I contend that Lincoln's course in the 1850s exemplified a basic structural element in the political culture of the nation coming from the Revolutionary Fathers. John Murrin thus argues persuasively that the "Country" ideology of republicanism persisted well into the nineteenth century. It constituted a framework within which successive generations organized their political perceptions: The Founding Fathers rebelled against a ministerial conspiracy in England; Jeffer-sonians reclaimed the republic from Federalist monarchists; Jack-sonians foiled the conspiracy of the money power; and Lincoln confronted the enemies of the republic in the 1850s.[17] Richard Hofstadter was inclined to write off the conspiracy paradigm as little more than the paranoid style of extremist groups, but Daniel Howe rightly insists that the Hofstadter thesis obscures a fuller understanding of the nation's political experience, at least from the Revolution to the Civil War. Defining an enemy had a positive side to it in the nineteenth century, according to David Brion Davis; it provided a sense of group identity and energized the people to deal with matters deemed of greatest concern.[18] In this light it was Lincoln the Republican and not the Whig who gave scope for ambitious leaders and active citizens to save the republic. While the Whig would invoke the self-discipline that came from moral nurture, the Republican aroused the moral energies of the people to foil the enemies of freedom. Page  [End Page 25]


  1. Roy P. Basler, ed., Marion Dolores Pratt and Lloyd A. Dunlap, asst. eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), 1:108–15; 2:247–83, 276 (hereafter cited as Collected Works).return to text
  2. The substance of the distinction between the "passive" and the "active" virtues pervaded Whig thought; the terms used here come from an article on the conservative credo, "Opinion of the Council of Three," American Whig Review 6 (Sept. 1847): 242.return to text
  3. Collected Works, 1:109–12. return to text
  4. Ibid., 1:112, 8.return to text
  5. Sydney Nathans, Daniel Webster and Jacksonian Democracy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 46; Congressional Globe, 26 Cong., 1 sess. (Dec. 26, 1833), 59; David Grimstead, "Rioting in Its Jacksonian Setting," American Historical Review 77 (1972): 361–97; Marvin E. Gettleman, The Dorr Rebellion: A Study in American Radicalism (New York: Random House, 1973). return to text
  6. Calvin Colton, A Voice from America to England (London: H. Colburn, 1839), 57; American Whig Review 2 (July 1845): 3; 3 (March 1846): 277; 3 (June 1846): 616; 6 (Sept. 1847), 242; 2 (Nov. 1845): 449. return to text
  7. Collected Works, 1:115. return to text
  8. Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962); Dwight G. Anderson, Abraham Lincoln: The Quest for Immortality (New York: Knopf, 1982); Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982); George B. Forgie, Patricide in the House Divided: A Psychological Interpretation of Lincoln and His Age (New York: Norton, 1979).return to text
  9. Two articles by Robert E. Shalhope deal with the wide range and thrust of the scholarship on republicanism: "Toward a Republican Synthesis: The Emergence of an Understanding of Republicanism in American Historiography," William and Mary Quarterly 29 (1972): 49–80, and "Republicanism and Early American Historiography,"William and Mary Quarterly 39 (1982): 334–56. Further perspective can be found in Daniel T. Rodgers, "Republicanism: The Career of a Concept," Journal of American History 79 (1992): 11–38. return to text
  10. Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 79–80; Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954); Lance Banning, The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978), 274–90; Drew R. McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America (New York: Norton, 1980), 136–65.return to text
  11. Washington Globe, April 5, 1834, July 12, 1832. Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson and the Bank War (New York: Norton, 1967) captures the politically dramatic quality of the events, and two other works demonstrate the pervasiveness of republicanism in the political debates during the period: Marvin Meyers, The Jacksonian Persuasion: Politics and Belief (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957), and Harry L. Watson, Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1990).return to text
  12. Gabor S. Boritt, Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 124, 43, 118; Collected Works, 1:271–79. return to text
  13. Major L. Wilson, "Lincoln and Van Buren in the Steps of the Fathers: Another Look at the Lyceum Address," Civil War History 29 (1983): 197–211. return to text
  14. Albany Argus, April 9, 1832; Washington Globe, June 12, 1835; Collected Works, 1:114.return to text
  15. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962), 22–24; Collected Works, 1:269, 266, 249. return to text
  16. Collected Works, 2:250, 276, 255, 275, 276.return to text
  17. John M. Murrin, "The Great Inversion, or Court versus Country: A Comparison of the Revolutionary Settlements in England (1688–1721) and America (1776–1816)," in Three British Revolutions: 1641, 1688, 1776, ed. J. G. A. Pocock (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 369–453. For the republicanism of the Revolutionary Fathers and the influence of the eighteenth-century "Country" Whigs upon them, see Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967). Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850s (New York: Wiley, 1978), demonstrates the pervasiveness of the conspiracy paradigm in the political debates of the 1850s.return to text
  18. Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Political Thought (New York: Knopf, 1965); Howe, Political Culture, 79–80; David Brion Davis, "Some Ideological Functions of Prejudice in Ante-Bellum America," in The American Experience: Approaches to the Study of the United States, ed. Hennig Cohen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968). return to text