Lincoln’s Lyceum Address

by Rebecca Ripperton
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?

On President’s Day: Washington’s Farewell Address

by Rebecca Ripperton
February 18th, 2019


To commemorate President’s Day, as well as the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, we will feature two speeches delivered by these two former presidents on the blog this week. The first speech is Washington’s “Farewell Address,” first published on September 19th, 1796, and the second is “On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” (often referred to as the “Lyceum Address”) delivered by Abraham Lincoln on January 27th, 1838 in Springfield, Illinois.

Why study Washington's Farewell Address?

A little over 222 years ago, George Washington made the decision not to seek a 3rd term in office and his famous Farewell Address was published in a Philadelphia newspaper. It was a letter of valediction to the American people at that time, and one that remains a rich and forceful document, filled with counsel that is as relevant today as it was in the 18th century; in his own words, President Washington offers “the disinterested warnings of a parting friend.” As a founding father and the unanimously elected president of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, George Washington was well acquainted with the perils facing the American nation, and many scholars have noted how eerily accurate his predictions have turned out to be.

Perhaps some of you have read his Address in your History classes, and maybe even with your own children or students. If your children have not yet read this Address, however, I encourage you to share it with them once they are of a suitable age (depending on the individual, 13+). George Washington’s circumspection here is an example of statesmanship at its finest. His civic duty was one he regarded with the utmost seriousness, and throughout each and every line of this letter, Washington’s love for his country rings out.

Reading the writings and speeches of early American statesmen is without doubt one of the most effective ways to acquaint any young person with traditional American values and both the content and the import of our constitution, not to mention an excellent way to expose them to exemplary rhetoric. Any serious study of our founding documents is also likely to inspire in the reader a deepened love of country, an appreciation for the care and introspection with which the constitution was crafted, and an aspiration to be a better, more thoughtful citizen. In Federalist 51, Madison asks, “what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature”? Through studying our government, we learn about ourselves; we are forced to admit our flaws – individual and collective – and work to correct them. Being an engaged citizen is a continual challenge, but it is also an endlessly rewarding and noble one.

In recommending this speech, I am reminded of an admonition a former professor of mine once gave to a hall of college freshman. He said (and I am paraphrasing), “The Great Books – the U.S. Constitution, the Bible, Plato’s dialogues, etc. – do not bend to human desires. They were not designed to please us, and we do not get to decide whether or not they are good enough for us and for our opinions. Instead, we must work to be good enough for them; we must rise to meet the standard they set.” In this Address, President Washington offers insight into how we may continue the work of rising to meet the standard of our constitution, how we may better strive as a people to be good enough for it.

Discussion questions and essay prompts

Lastly, if you have the desire and opportunity to discuss the Farewell Address either in a classroom or at home, the following are some questions that you might use to guide your conversation. (You could have students write about one or more of these questions, as well.)

  • Why does Washington oppose political parties? What does he perceive their danger(s) to be?
  • Why might Washington favor parties under a monarchy but not in the setting of a ‘popular’ government?
  • How do friendships differ from factions? How may citizens under a government sustain strong friendships without succumbing to the temptation of political party?
  • What does Washington mean when he says “The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield”? Why is it so important to exercise judiciousness in this regard?
  • What kind of relationship does Washington believe exists between morality and religion? Given his assertions, what role should religion play in a government that “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”?
  • What is the relationship between Washington’s stance on foreign policy and his opinion of political parties? In what ways are they similar? How might they differ?
  • Why does Washington believe that a national union is “the palladium of […] political safety and prosperity”? How does he justify the importance of national unity?
  • If “to preserve [reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power] must be as necessary as to institute them,” is the work of the modern statesman any different from that of the founding fathers? Does this assertion in any way alter your understanding of what the current work of the government should be?
  • What does it mean to be a good citizen in George Washington’s eyes? What is the work of a good citizen?
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