In 1838 when Abraham Lincoln was twenty-eight he gave an Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois titled The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions. Lincoln maintained that America could never be defeated by a foreign power – but the country could defeat itself. In our time of mass shootings and belittling of government, the Perpetuation Speech has lessons for us. Lincoln’s “political religion” was not “government is the problem”; it was “reverence for the laws.”
In 1838 Lincoln was concerned with the “worse than savage mobs” who take law into their own hands, attacking those they believe to be a threat. Worse, Lincoln argued, mob violence spirals out of control until it injures and even kills innocent and admirable citizens.
With the high powered weaponry of today any individual can be his own mob. Anyone can stock up on assault rifles or download a “build a bomb in the kitchen of your mom” Internet recipe.
To Lincoln the direct effect of lawlessness is fearful – the mobs may mistakenly set upon the innocent, or even turn on themselves. The indirect effect is worse because the lawless in spirit have only been held in check by the laws: “Having ever regarded Government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations.”Even worse, the best citizens who have always upheld the law become disgusted with a government that cannot protect them and forsake their government to take matters into their own hands.
This is what we face today. Thirty-five years of preaching that “the government is the problem” has undermined respect for the government, the common bequest of our Founders. Instead of faith in our capacity to face our challenges together, we are advised by the National Rifle Association to redouble our purchases of firearms, the better for each of us to become our own vigilantes. If only firearms were readily at hand in social service agencies, movie theaters, and kindergartens, how quickly threats to our individual autonomy could be turned away.
This works. Black Friday saw a record number of gun purchases. Every time there is a new atrocity we buy more guns to protect ourselves from guns. Possibly the greatest marketing stratagem ever hit upon by the weapons industry is the warning that the government – especially if the government is President Barack Hussein Obama – is coming after your hunting rifle, so stock up on Bushmasters now.
As faith in government deteriorates we are susceptible to men of “ambition and talents” who will “seek the gratification of their ruling passions.” Such figures could never be content with even a presidential chair, as “such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle.” This figure would aspire to the place of “an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon.” In our fear and disorder we would invite in the man on horseback. We already see this with the rise of Donald Trump, popular with our fellow citizens who see themselves beset by immigrants and Muslims. Our government no long works for them they feel, but if Trump can cast out eleven million immigrants and “bomb the shit out of” terrorists, then we will surely Make America Great Again.
There is good reason for the rest of us to lose faith in government. Yesterday as the right denounced Muslim terrorists, the right made sure terrorists would continue to have unfettered access to guns. The Senate voted down an effort to ban gun sales to persons on the nation's terrorist watch list. If people believe their government is imbecilic it may be because their government is imbecilic.
The year 2015 is a time of passion but as in 1838, our passions no longer serve but control us. “Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our further support and defense.” But evidence of rationality is in short supply on the monitor of democracy’s heartbeat, Twitter. Within minutes of news of the shootings in San Bernadino, the Left was claiming it must be an arsenal-loving white male gun nut; the Right assigned blame to Islamo-fascist terrorists. Police are still investigating.
From 1994-2004 when America had an assault weapons ban, advocates used the rhetorical device of promoting “common sense” gun control. Common sense is in short supply in the America of 2015. But we have a limitless supply of weaponry. One thing Americans agree on is that we all expect our arsenals to be used in upcoming outbursts: in Colorado Springs, San Bernadino, Newtown; or right in your own hometown.