February 21st, 2019
To commemorate President’s Day, as well as the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, we are featuring two speeches delivered by these two former presidents on the blog this week. The first speech is Washington’s “Farewell Address,” which was originally published on September 19th, 1796, and the second is “On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” (often referred to as Lincoln's “Lyceum Address”) which Abraham Lincoln delivered on January 27th, 1838 in Springfield, Illinois. You can read the first post in the series here.
In researching great American speeches, it is no surprise that – of former U.S. presidents – Abraham Lincoln has perhaps the longest list of notable speeches under his name. His situation in history partially explains this fact. Lincoln championed the abolition of slavery and we remember him for his fierce efforts to save the union. Accordingly, he enjoyed countless opportunities to make inspiring and memorable speeches.
Yet Lincoln is one of the greatest orators this country has ever known not simply because of the circumstances he faced. Instead, we remember him as a great orator because of the moral conviction he carried throughout his life and for his gift of giving words to that conviction. Lincoln’s perseverance also serves as an example to anyone who faces challenge. He refused to abandon what he knew to be right, even when half of the country opposed him, and even when the fate of a nation hung in the balance.
Why study Lincoln's Lyceum Address?
Lincoln’s speech The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions: Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois (i.e. the Lyceum Address) is certainly not one of his most well-known or frequently studied speeches. However we are highlighting it because it is one of his earliest speeches and because it is an important one. Lincoln delivered this speech just before his 29th birthday to a lyceum, or school for boys, in Springfield, Illinois. He had recently passed the Illinois bar and was in private practice as a lawyer. (And, as an interesting side note here: Lincoln was an entirely self-educated legal scholar. He is also one of approximately 25% of U.S. presidents who have no formal educational degree. Lincoln learned, he has said, through reading.)
The Lyceum Address illustrates Lincoln’s lifelong dedication to the preservation of the union and his early opposition to slavery. This speech also addresses a number of the same issues as Washington’s Farewell Address. Both Washington and Lincoln worried over the irreparable effects of division within the nation. And, in the Civil War, the dangers of the geographical factions that Washington warned the people against became manifest. Washington and Lincoln also shared the belief that, although diverse in their ways and beliefs, the America people needed a unified democracy in order to function properly and to prosper.
Discussion questions and essay prompts
As we did for the Farewell Address, we’ve included a list of prompts to use as writing or discussion prompts. If you think of other important questions that we didn't list here, please feel free to leave them in a comment below. Ours are as follows:
- Why does Lincoln believe that American citizens pose a greater threat to themselves than that presented by any foreign nation?
- What are Lincoln’s reasons for believing that we should concern ourselves with the indirect consequences stemming from disregard for the law? What are these consequences, and why are they of greater significance than the more direct effects?
- Who and/or what does mob rule most endanger?
- Does Lincoln believe that there is ever a time in which it is appropriate and acceptable to disobey the laws? Do you believe that he is correct?
- Assuming that it is impossible to eliminate, how should we direct ambition in a society? How do we employ those who would “pull down” our government, when there is “nothing left to [do] in the way of building [it] up?”
- What roles, respectively, do passion and reason play in government? Is Lincoln correct when he says that in the future, passion will necessarily be the enemy of the American people?
- What does Lincoln mean when he calls for us to transform “reverence for the laws” into a “political religion?” What other examples of “political religions” can you think of?
- Are Lincoln’s claims that the love of the law should be as a political religion and that passion is to be treated as an enemy reconcilable?