Over our nation’s history, we have had our share of enemies, yet we have retained our freedom and standing as a democratic republic. Memorial Day is upon us, and I hope we will use the day as a time to reflect upon that freedom and those who died in defense of that freedom.
There is one threat that is always before us, an enemy that could be our ultimate demise if we are not on our guard. In the past, when we faced a common enemy, we pulled together as a country. But when there is no “enemy at the gates,” we look for an enemy—and we turn on each other.
I found an interesting speech by Abraham Lincoln that addresses this very issue. Lincoln was a mere 28 years old when he delivered this in January 1838, a speech considered to be one of his earliest published speeches. A few weeks earlier, a black man had been lynched in St. Louis, and that incident led to this speech before a group of young men in Springfield, Illinois.
Lincoln’s speech began with a recognition that the United States government—our system of political institutions—is essentially the best that’s ever been formed. But is there any threat to us?
“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!… 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…. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”
“There is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.”
At this point in his speech, Lincoln illustrated this disregard for law and sober judgment by referring to the lynching in St. Louis.
“When men take it in their heads to day, to hang gamblers, or burn murderers, they should recollect, that, in the confusion usually attending such transactions, they will be as likely to hang or burn some one who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is; and that, acting upon the example they set, the mob of to-morrow, may, and probably will, hang or burn some of them by the very same mistake. And … the innocent …fall victims to the ravages of mob law; and thus it goes on, step by step, till all the walls erected for the defense of the persons and property of individuals, are trodden down, and disregarded. “
In other words, we take the law into our own hands, and we use our own “law” to get what we want—even at the expense of others. Mob rule leads to mob violence, and however justified the mob may feel, it only spawns more mob rule and violence by others. And before long, it is the innocent who are the victims of mob rule. And it only gets worse.
“But all this even, is not the full extent of the evil… The lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice … Having ever regarded Government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations; and pray for nothing so much, as its total annihilation….
“Whenever this effect shall be produced among us; whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted 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; depend on it, this Government cannot last.”
Lincoln concluded his speech with a call for order and obedience.
“The question recurs, “how shall we fortify against it?” 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. …
“But I do mean to say, that, although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed.”
I’ll readily admit that we have many laws I don’t like. Some need great revision, and some need to be completely repealed. But our freedom as a democratic republic gives us a process by which to do that, a process that is good and orderly. There is no room for mob rule or the childish mindset in which we throw a tantrum when we don’t get what we want.
While we work to maintain our freedom—while we work to repeal the bad laws and institute just and righteous laws—let’s not lose sight that our greatest allegiance is to Jesus Christ, the sovereign ruler of all.
“Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves” (Rom. 13:1-2).
Read the full speech by Abraham Lincoln here.
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