restricted access Lincoln and van Buren in the Steps of the Fathers: Another Look at the Lyceum Address

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14 major l. wilson Lincoln and van Buren in the Steps of the Fathers Another Look at the Lyceum Address Major L. Wilson on January 27, 1838, Abraham Lincoln delivered an address to the Young Men’s Lyceum at Springfield, illinois, entitled “The Perpetuation of ourPolitical institutions .” Less than a year earlier, on March 4, 1837, President Martin van Buren dealt with the same matter in his inaugural Address. Both expressed concerns widely shared at the time and the ambiguous nature of these concerns: they proudly claimed success for the “republican experiment” begun by the fathers, yet warned that it might fail if the present age proved false. “it impresses on my mind a firm belief,” the president observed, “that the perpetuation of our institutions depends upon ourselves.”1 To the sons had fallen the solemn duty of preserving the work of the founding fathers. While both expressed acommonconcern forpreserving the republic, Lincoln and van Buren differed in their assessment of the specific dangers facing it. one was thewidespread incidenceof mob action. Deploring“the increasingdisregard for law which pervades the country,” Lincoln feared the long-run effect of the “mobocratic spirit”would be toerode“the attachmentof the People”and destroy 14 E 1. roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (new Brunswick: rutgers univ. Press, 1953), 1:108–15; James D. richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 20 vols. (newYork:Bureau of national Literature, 1897), 4:1530–37, 1532;rush Welter, The Mind of America, 1820–1860 (new York: Columbia univ. Press, 1975), 276–93. Civil War History, vol. XXiX no. 3 © 1983 by The kent State university Press In order to view this proof accurately, the Overprint Preview Option must be checked in Acrobat Professional or Adobe Reader. Please contact your Customer Service Representative if you have questions about finding the option. Job Name: -- /358884t lincoln and van buren in the steps of the fathers 15 2. Basler, Works of Lincoln, 1:109, 111, 112; richardson, Messages, 4:1533. the basis of self government. “Let reverence for the laws,” he urged, “become the political religion of the nation.” van Buren likewise saw how the “ardor of public sentiment” often outran “the regular progress of the judicial tribunals.” By wounding “the majesty of the law,” moreover, mob action might eventually provide the occasion “for abridging the liberties of the people.” on balance, however, van Buren was far less concerned about mob violence than Lincoln. reaffirming at this point a Jeffersonian trust in the “generous patriotism” and “sound common sense” of the people, he believed they would soon return to the “landmarks of social order.”2 on two other dangers to the republic the differences were much clearer and sharper. Lincoln devoted only two sentences to the rising voice of abolitionist agitation and expressed no personal opinion on the matter. in a lengthy passage, by contrast, van Buren condemned abolitionism as the greatest threat to the republic. regarding the menace of Caesarism van Buren made no explicit references at all, whereas Lincoln placed central emphasis on it in his address. The Lyceum Address has been the subject of a considerable number of studies. Done mainly from the perspective of later events—mounting sectional controversy and the Civil War—these studies impute to the young Lincoln prophetic powers of one sort or another. Some argue that he was very ambitious and that he identified with the Caesarian figure he predicted would arise. other studies see Lincoln as a prophet of “political religion.” During the controversy over the expansion of slavery in the 1850s he accordingly held up the principle of equality to judge and redeem a divided nation; after war began he invoked divine providence in behalf of a new birth of freedom. relatively little attention, on the other hand, has been given to van Buren’s views and none to a comparison of them with the views of Lincoln. in taking up the matter this essay focuses particularly on the political context of the 1830s, at a time when the system of two-party competition was approaching maturity. if a prophet of some sort, the young Lincoln was also a Whig politician. As a Whig, moreover, hisviews on the perpetuation of republican institutions surely gained greater clarity and force in dialectical contrast with the party ideology of Democrats. And no other Democrat had contributed more to the organization of his party and its ideological identification than President van Buren. A closer...


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Subject Headings

  • Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865 -- Political and social views.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Biography.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1861-1865.
  • Political leadership -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Presidents -- United States -- Biography.
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