Opinion editor’s note: On Jan. 27, 1838, a 28-year-old named Abraham Lincoln gave a talk to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Ill., a sort of debating society. Excerpted here, the noted speech was one of the future Civil War president’s earliest published works. It seems to have some relevance to America’s challenges this late summer of 2020.

As a subject for the remarks of the evening, the perpetuation of our political institutions is selected.

In the great journal of things happening under the sun, we, the American people, find … ourselves in the peaceful possession of the fairest portion of the earth … under the government of a system of political institutions conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty than any of which the history of former times tells us.

We found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the … establishment of them — they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. …

Theirs was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ‘tis ours only, to transmit these … undecayed to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. …

How then shall we perform [this task]? At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? … Shall we expect some … military giant, to step the Ocean and crush us at a blow? Never!

All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined … could not, by force, take a drink from the Ohio River … in a trial of a thousand years.

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. … If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

I hope I am over wary; but … there is, even now, something of ill-omen amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment of courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice. …

Accounts of outrages committed by mobs form the everyday news of the times. …

But you are, perhaps, ready to ask, “What has this to do with the perpetuation of our political institutions?” I answer, it has much to do with it. Its … danger consists, in the proneness of our minds, to regard its direct, as its only consequences.

Abstractly considered, the hanging of … gamblers at Vicksburg, [Miss.], was of but little consequence. They constitute a portion of population that is worse than useless in any community. … Similar too, is the correct reasoning, in regard to the burning of the [Black alleged murderer] at St. Louis. He had forfeited his life, by the perpetration of an outrageous murder, upon one of the most worthy and respectable citizens of the city; and had not he died as he did, he must have died by the sentence of the law, in a very short time afterward. …

But the example, in either case, was fearful. When men take it in their heads today to hang gamblers or burn murderers, they should recollect that, in the confusion usually attending such transactions, they will be as likely to hang or burn someone who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is; and that, acting upon the example they set, the mob of tomorrow, may … hang or burn some of them by the very same mistake.

And not only so; the innocent, those who have ever set their faces against violations of law in every shape, alike with the guilty, fall victims to the ravages of mob law; and thus it goes on, step by step, till all the walls erected for the defense of the persons and property of individuals, are trodden down and disregarded.

But all this, even, is not the full extent of the evil. By such examples, by instances of the perpetrators of such acts going unpunished, the lawless in spirit are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint, but dread of punishment, they thus become absolutely unrestrained. Having ever regarded government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations and pray for nothing so much as its total annihilation.

On the other hand, good men, men who love tranquillity, who desire to abide by the laws, and enjoy their benefits … seeing their property destroyed; their families insulted and their lives endangered … become tired of, and disgusted with, a government that offers them no protection; and are not much averse to a change in which they imagine they have nothing to lose.

Thus, then, by the operation of this mobocratic spirit, the strongest bulwark of any government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed — I mean the attachment of the people.

Whenever this effect shall be produced among us; whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision-stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this government cannot last. …

I know the American people are much attached to their government; I know they would suffer much for its sake; I know they would endure evils long and patiently, before they would ever think of exchanging it for another. Yet, notwithstanding all this, if the laws be continually despised and disregarded, if their rights to be secure in their persons and property are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, the alienation of their affections from the government is the natural consequence. …

Here then, is one point at which danger may be expected. The question recurs, “How shall we fortify against it?” The answer is simple. Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution never to violate, in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others.

As the patriots of ’76 did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor; let every man remember that to violate the law is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children’s liberty.

Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap — let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in primers, spelling books, and in almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.

While ever a state of feeling such as this shall universally, or even very generally, prevail throughout the nation, vain will be every effort, and fruitless every attempt, to subvert our national freedom.

When I so pressingly urge a strict observance of all the laws, let me not be understood as saying there are no bad laws, nor that grievances may not arise for the redress of which no legal provisions have been made. I mean to say no such thing.

But I do mean to say that although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed. So also in unprovided cases. If such arise, let proper legal provisions be made for them with the least possible delay; but, till then, let them, if not too intolerable, be borne with.

There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law. …