As our hearts and minds ache from sorrow and chaos, it is time to reflect on national politics and the prevalence of violence in our society. We have been here before.
On Jan. 27, 1838, a young frontier lawyer gave a remarkable speech titled, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.”
Then only 28 years old, Abraham Lincoln warned his audience of the dangers that come from within our hearts and within our nation. His words have an all-too familiar ring. He said, “there is, even now, something of ill-omen amongst us,” referring to “the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgement of courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.”
Lincoln acknowledged the reality of “deep rooted principles of hate, and the powerful motive of revenge … the basest principles of our nature.”
And he decried “the mobocratic spirit” among “the vicious portion of the population.”
Less than three weeks before Lincoln’s speech, an abolitionist and newspaper editor who grew up in central Maine, Elijah Parish Lovejoy, 34, was murdered in Alton, Illinois, by a mob opposed to his anti-slavery views. This incident must have been fresh on Lincoln’s mind, because it was close to home and one of the first incidents of mob violence to gain national attention in the lead-up to the Civil War.
Lovejoy was born in Albion, Maine, on Nov. 9, 1802, and graduated in 1826 from Waterville College (now Colby College), where he was valedictorian and class poet.
He ventured west and in 1827 settled in St. Louis, Missouri, where he worked his way up to become an editor and part-owner of The St. Louis Times. After a religious conversion, he moved back east to attend the Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, where he became an ordained Presbyterian minister. He then returned to St. Louis where he started The St. Louis Observer, penning increasingly strong anti-slavery editorials.
Infused with a moral purpose, Lovejoy wrote: “As long as I am an American citizen, and as long as American blood runs in these veins, I shall hold myself at liberty to speak, to write, and to publish whatever I please on any subject, being amenable to the laws of my country for the same.”
When anti-abolitionists in St. Louis destroyed his printing press, Lovejoy moved across the Mississippi River to Alton, Illinois, where he started the Alton Observer. Three more presses were destroyed. On Nov. 7, 1837, Lovejoy was shot when a pro-slavery mob attacked the warehouse that housed his fifth printing press. He was buried on his 35th birthday.
In his speech, Lincoln does not mention Lovejoy specifically, but he describes the “ravages of mob law” that take place until “all the walls erected for the defence of the persons and property of individuals are trodden down and disregarded.”
Lincoln continued: “By such examples … the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint, but dread of punishment, they thus become, absolutely unrestrained.”
Lincoln chillingly warned about the emergence of a president who “scorns to tread in the footsteps of a predecessor” and who “thirsts and burns for distinction.” Once again, Lincoln is proven prescient.
To “furnish all the materials for our future support and defence,” Lincoln advocated “reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason.” As valedictorian and nascent minister, Lovejoy described something warmer in his commencement poem: “The pure and hallowed element of mind; A flame which burns amidst the darkest gloom, Shines round the grave, and kindles in the tomb.” Lovejoy in his name, life story and writings pointed to an even deeper way.
We are in this political crisis not only as citizens, but also as brothers and sisters. To fight “the mobocratic spirit” that stalks our nation, let us summon what Lincoln later termed “the better angels of our nature.” Counter chaos with reason, passion, determination, courage and love as exemplified in the lives of Lincoln and Lovejoy.
Jennifer Wilder Kierstead is a writer based in Waterville.
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