Two months after a proslavery mob murdered Elijah Lovejoy and threw his abolitionist printing press in the Mississippi in my hometown of Alton, Ill., a young Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 reflections on mob rule (“America’s greatest danger is the ‘mobocratic spirit,’ ” Aug. 30) reflected the ambivalence that characterized his political formation.
On the one hand, Lincoln’s allusion to Lovejoy’s death expresses his desire for “law and order” for some. On the other, his glossing over several mob lynchings reflects a more casual set-aside of law for others.
When Lincoln returned to Alton’s riverfront in 1858 for the last of his famous debates with Stephen Douglas in their U.S. Senate race, the soon-to-be president’s ambivalence toward slavery itself was again evident. He looked upon it “as a great evil,” but could not support its abolition in the slave states even as the mobs he earlier warned of seeded an army to keep it.
As President Lincoln would — and did — give his all to the preservation of the Union, even at the cost of maintaining slavery. Weighing that commitment alongside the Emancipation Proclamation has fueled scholarly debate to this day.
Lincoln’s reflections on mobs and the rule of law foretell today’s raw racial-political divide, when more anger can be unleashed over property damage than over the violent killings of Black citizens by law enforcement. More fear is stirred by Black Lives Matter protests than by heavily armed white militias prowling the streets like storm troopers. And more politicians in Minnesota and beyond are envisioning election on the cry for suppressive, racially infused “law and order” than on the vision of a unified and racially just country.
The historic, deadening threads of racism in the U.S. are woven deep into its social fabric. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address wisely and agonizingly gave truth to the task he and all citizens then faced and ever continue to face.
While his ambivalence over slavery was somewhat more subdued by then, the toll of the war prompted him to declare the dire need to “… achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations” — a powerful reminder that raises us even now to act resolutely in building a racially just commonwealth of communities that might override the penchants of any mob.
David L. Ostendorf lives in St. Paul.