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The Party of Lincoln Ignores His Warning Against Mobocracy

“There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law,” declared the man who would be America’s sixteenth president. Only justice can make a more perfect Union.
Lincoln at Gettysburg

Mathew Brady via Getty Images

President Abraham Lincoln, bareheaded at center, giving the Gettysburg Address, Pennsylvania, 1863

Republican leaders enjoy flashing their badges as the “Party of Lincoln,” preening themselves on Lincoln’s moral victories and declaring themselves his rightful political heirs. “Our party, the Republican Party, was founded to defeat slavery. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, signed the Emancipation Proclamation,” Senator Ted Cruz declaimed at the Republican National Convention in 2016, as a prelude to endorsing for president a man whom he had once called a “sniveling coward” and “pathological liar,” a man who had insulted Cruz’s wife and accused his father of conspiring to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. Senator Marco Rubio is another who presumes to speak for “the party of Lincoln,” including the time he tweeted, in February 2016, that Donald Trump would “never be the nominee of the party of Lincoln,” as does House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who managed to recall a few familiar words from the Gettysburg Address in honor of Lincoln’s birthday last year.

It’s supremely doubtful that the sixteenth president of the United States would have appreciated the compliment, however. This was true even before the events surrounding the seditious putsch attempt by Trump supporters on January 6, but all doubts have been removed by the subsequent behavior of senior Republicans, as they’ve argued in the name of “unity” against impeaching Trump for inciting insurrection and instead urged national “healing”—after months of stoking divisiveness, giving credence to lies that Trump won the election, and voting against the certification of Biden’s victory hours after the mob stormed the halls of government and threatened lawmakers with lynching, rape, and torture.

As such devoted disciples of Lincoln, those Republicans might be expected to know that one of their hero’s earliest major speeches, in 1838, was a denunciation of a “mobocratic spirit” abroad in the land that threatened to destroy “the attachment of the People” (his emphasis) to government by rule of law. “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law,” Lincoln declared, as he warned against “the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts.”

In particular, Lincoln cautioned against turning a blind eye to mob violence in the futile effort to maintain a tenuous and self-devouring peace. Leaving the perpetrators of such violence “unpunished,” he held, would only embolden the mob and inevitably destroy democratic self-government, as “the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice” and “absolutely unrestrained.” Without accountability, such a mob would “make a jubilee of the suspension of [the Government’s] operations; and pray for nothing so much, as its total annihilation.” The answer, Lincoln believed, was “simple”: let dedication to the rule of law become “the political religion of the nation” (again, his emphasis).

This dedication was markedly absent from Lincoln’s self-proclaimed votaries in the aftermath of the mobocracy that invaded Capitol Hill last week, as Cruz, Rubio, McCarthy, and many of their colleagues urged Americans to choose “unity” over devotion to the rule of law. McCarthy argued that “an impeachment at this time would have the opposite effect of bringing our country together when we need to get America back on a path towards unity and civility.” Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, offered the same bromide: the country “desperately needs to heal and unify,” whereas impeachment proceedings “will only divide us further.” Rubio issued a similar call, with the added twist of blaming the victim. “Biden has a historic opportunity to unify America behind the sentiment that our political divisions have gone too far,” he tweeted, having avoided telling his followers that Biden won the election. “But instead he decided to promote the left’s efforts to use this terrible national tragedy to try and crush conservatives or anyone not anti-Trump enough.” As for Cruz, just five days after he told Trump supporters in Georgia that he stood “shoulder-to-shoulder” with them in their desire to overturn the election, he intoned: “We must come together and put this anger and division behind us.”

The actual party of Lincoln made the opposite decision, believing that the deep principles of preserving the Union far outweighed the superficial comity of false unity. Lincoln had been pressured on all sides to capitulate to Southern demands, including permitting the South to secede, to “let the erring sisters depart in peace!” But part of his reason for refusing to do so was, as the historian James M. McPherson put it in This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War (2007), the fear of setting a “fatal precedent,” one that could be “invoked by disaffected minorities in the future, perhaps by the losing side in another presidential election.” And so they made the apparently paradoxical decision to fight a civil war in an effort to achieve, not unity, but a more perfect union.

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Lincoln consistently likened the minoritarian efforts of the South to a mob, as it employed threats, intimidation, blackmail, political chicanery, voter fraud, and violence to coerce the majority into giving way to ever more unreasonable demands. “We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose,” he told John Hay, his private secretary. For Lincoln, as he said repeatedly, the Civil War was more than a question of the moral wrongs of slavery, as fundamental to the conflict as those were; the principles of democratic self-government and the political character of the nation were also at stake.

In his first inaugural address, Lincoln insisted that “the rule of a minority” could never be “a permanent arrangement” in a democracy. Once the principle of majority rule is rejected, “anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.” A few months later, in his first address to Congress, Lincoln observed that American democracy was often called an experiment. Two parts of that experiment—the “proposition,” as he also liked to call it—had been demonstrated, he said: establishing the proposition and administering it. But America had yet to prove itself against a third test of the democratic experiment: “its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it.”

Trying to preserve unity before the Civil War, Democrats and Whigs alike had long prevaricated on the question of slavery. Southern voices urged the nation to accept slavery in the interests of unity: “We sincerely deplore and disapprove the existing agitation in our Church of the subject of slavery,” a Baltimore newspaper editorial declared on January 5, 1861, exhorting its readers “to diminish rather than increase the popular excitement on this subject” at a time when “our best citizens are endeavoring to preserve the unity of the nation.” This was a sentiment that Senator Lindsey Graham echoed, 160 years later, when he tweeted: “It is past time for all of us to try to heal our country and move forward. Impeachment would be a major step backward.”

The Republican Party was founded to oppose the spread of slavery into new states—a purpose that superseded desire for unity. If those Republicans had believed in unity at all costs, they would have let the South keep slavery and permitted its spread across the Union as it expanded. Instead, the party of Lincoln went to war to defend its principles—not simply to protect the Union as it was, but to abolish slavery from it. Lincoln consistently reminded Americans that the Union was an “unfinished task,” invoking the Preamble to emphasize the fundamental constitutional point that the nation should forever strive to “form a more perfect Union.” This could never, by definition, include secession, sedition, or insurrection.

And so—quite unlike Graham’s GOP—Lincoln’s party did not quail at the prospect of impeachment, even in the immediate aftermath of a bloody civil war. The Republicans impeached Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, when he vetoed legislation that, in supporting the newly acquired rights of black Americans, would be sure to enrage white Southerners. In putting unity ahead of accountability Johnson granted the white South a near-total amnesty for their participation in insurrection against the United States government, including pardons to all Confederate soldiers. The result of his decision was that revanchist mob rule to restore white supremacy was emboldened, exactly as Lincoln had predicted: they saw in Johnson’s sweeping exoneration only confirmation of their entitlement to power. Once they succeeded in bringing Reconstruction to an end, they bequeathed to the nation a Lost Cause mythology in which the white South was redeemed and white America reunited, a mythology that propelled the insurrectionists who carried Confederate flags into the Capitol in 2021. And thus was white “unity” reconstituted, at the cost of every moral principle for which the civil war had been fought in the first place.

In Lincoln at Gettysburg, his virtuosic 1992 elucidation of the Gettysburg Address, Garry Wills argued that Lincoln’s great achievement in that shortest of speeches was to fuse the principles of the Declaration of Independence with those of the Constitution, moving the nation forward into a new understanding of what it meant to be American by “cleansing” the Constitution, in Wills’s metaphor, of the sin of slavery, “making union not a mystical hope but a constitutional reality.” That “mystical hope” was of the nation’s forming “a more perfect Union.” Not a Union at any cost, but a struggle toward perfecting the Union, rather than accepting it on any terms offered—especially a fraudulent and pious “unity.” This is precisely why the Constitution specifies impeachment: because a more perfect Union cannot be realized unless it has the power to make its leaders, as well as its citizens, accountable for their attachment to the rule of law and rejection of mobocracy.

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At Gettysburg, Lincoln told the nation that the Civil War was testing whether America “or any nation” that was “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…can long endure.” And in his Second Inaugural, as battle still raged, Lincoln called on Americans to “strive on” in order to “finish the work we are in” to perfect that Union. What he had, at Gettysburg, called “the great task remaining before us” was now to “create a just, and a lasting peace.”

Only a just peace can be a lasting one. Only a country that continually strives to create a more perfect Union can long endure. That is the proposition to which, as Lincoln told us, we must continually re-dedicate ourselves. Unity requires not the avoidance of conflict but a dedication to the political religion of safeguarding the rights of all, rather than those of the entitled or violent few. As any citizen of Lincoln’s America should know, unity without justice is no unity at all.

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