Have we replaced government "by the people" with rule by the mob?

It certainly feels that way. A potentially healthy debate over policing, race and history has degenerated into general lawlessness, as hordes of lawbreakers have swarmed and destroyed statues in our biggest cities from coast to coast.

And these mobs have hardly been discriminating.

They've targeted Christopher Columbus, Founding Fathers, Confederate generals, Union generals, abolitionists, black Civil War units, priests and even a novelist. They've attacked people of a multitude of creeds, races and religions: white, Black and Hispanic; Catholic, Protestant and Hindu.

All in the name of purging, in the words of many activists, "systemic racism" and various other sins inherent in our country's past, present and future.

As I wrote in my book "The War on History: The Conspiracy to Rewrite America's Past," this slippery slope of statue toppling was a natural progression for those who believe that American and Western civilization are built on nothing but malignancy.

Unfortunately, this sort of mob justice is unlikely to bring us to a kind of post-racial utopia, a heaven on earth. More likely it will bring us straight to perdition, where free government disintegrates and we become a nation of mobs, not the law.

Regardless of what one thinks of any particular statue in this country, a republic of the people, by the people and for the people requires deliberation in a public process for any kind of removal to take place.

Now, the few dictate to the many, with force, what statues stay up and which come down. Most simply come down.

In addition, politicians have seemingly been eager to meet the demands of this movement, and the whims of the mob, by jumping ahead and removing statues and the names of historical figures, often with little legal justification.

This is mob rule, pure and simple, and it's what our system is devolving into in cities around the country; it's a path from anarchy to tyranny.

Nobody explained better how this sort of law would lead to the end of free government in America than Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln denounced mob rule as a young man in his famed Lyceum Address to citizens of Springfield, Ill., in 1838. It's a dire warning for us today.

First, Lincoln explained how the United States possessed enormous geographical and material advantages compared with almost any nation on earth.

On top of that, and more importantly, Americans had inherited from the founding generation "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."

That was true in Lincoln's time and it's true in ours.

Lincoln then famously said to his countrymen that America, even in that early stage of development — surely a far weaker international power than it is today — could not be conquered by foes from without. So what, Lincoln asked, could threaten such a country, from where will danger approach?

"I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher," Lincoln said. "As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide."

He then explained how he was now seeing an "ill omen" for his country's future as "mob law" was exploding across America.

Lawless destruction and violence was becoming common. Americans had been targeted for violence, often for petty offenses (real or imagined), and sometimes for the color of their skin. But eventually lawless violence came to all, white and black, men and women, young and old.

Lincoln explained that if this general state of lawlessness was allowed to go on, where perpetrators who violate the law go unpunished and are generally unrestrained by the rightful authorities, it would create a chilling effect for law-abiding citizens who would lose faith in their government to protect them.

It is imperative for Americans, and especially our leaders, to heed these words of Lincoln and put a stop to the anarchy that threatens to submerge our constitutional system.

Jarrett Stepman is a contributor to the Daily Signal, a multimedia publication of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), and co-host of "The Right Side of History" podcast. He is also the author of "The War on History: The Conspiracy to Rewrite America's Past."