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For Lincoln’s Birthday: An Early Statement of his Principles

Lincoln_Congressman-electTomorrow is Abraham Lincoln’s 205th birthday. It seems a good time to recall a speech in which Lincoln outlined his political principles while still a young man, before leading the nation through the great crisis of our civil war. While a legislator in the Illinois House, Lincoln spoke to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield on “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.”

Lincoln was speaking about 50 years after the ratification debate over the Constitution, and at the end of the speech he shows his consciousness that the last survivors of the revolutionary generation had all but departed. He took as his theme, then, the question of how Americans might maintain their dedication to those republican principles the Founders had articulated and enshrined in law. Asserting that the only serious threats to the nation would arise from within, he warned against allowing any disrespect for law to enter American life. He insisted that recently reported instances of mob violence in the nation gave cause for alarm; but he also spoke of a potential successor to such civil unrest, an ambitious leader who might seek his own glory through the destruction of democratic institutions. This portion of the speech has fascinated his biographers, some of whom argue that Lincoln spoke from an awareness of his own ambition and where, if he chose, it might lead.

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