What Lincoln Might Say About Charlottesville

Something like hate stirs within me at the sight of the swastika unfurled on American soil: a powerful, visceral reaction against white supremacy as the complete antithesis of both the American Founding, which I love, and the person of Christ, whom I love by an order of magnitude more and strive to live up to. The heart knows: here is an enemy, mortally opposed to the principle that all persons are created equal and ought to be judged not by any accident of birth, but by the content of their character.

An additional reason I hate the Nazi flag and the white supremacist creed is that it has such power to stir blind rage in me. In the abstract, I understand at all times that good and evil run through every human heart. But no other group of people makes me know so readily that I have murder and mayhem in me, too: I feel it the instant I see them marching under that flag or hear their vile chants.

I want to suggest looking at the events in Charlottesville a different way. 

I don’t know about your social media feeds, but mine have absolutely blown up with talk about Charlottesville this week, and to a person all posts have been laden with a level of urgency, passion, revulsion, and alarm. The authors hate racism, they hate white supremacy, they hate the violence that takes innocent life and don’t want to be associated with it. They don’t want it to spread; they want it put down

There have been some disagreements expressed about what precisely happened and what should have been said, but the disagreements have been between people who hate white supremacists and people who hate white supremacists but don’t understand why people won’t condemn the Antifa anarchist violence too; or people who hate white supremacists and resent having their political positions tarred with it in any way. What unites the debaters is resolute rejection of the white supremacist creed. 

If the numbers to be gleaned from the earliest reports are correct (it’s strange that we have no good numbers still), the Nazis in Charlottesville were perhaps no more than 500 bad dudes who deserve to be condemned—and just about everyone has condemned them. The very reason everyone is talking about this with such pain and horror is that the great majority of Americans have that visceral reaction to white supremacy that I feel. They despise racism, deeply regret the history of slavery and its legacy, and long for racial harmony and equality. That is not the mark of a racist people. That’s something to feel good about, even while we are a very divided nation, politically speaking. 

I think it’s important to notice this because the white supremacists and the Antifa  extremists who came armed to oppose them are both s—t-stirrers. They exist for the precise purpose of ginning up hate. They strive to provoke violent confrontation, and their method is to get us all to believe the worst of each other—to think that the Americans who believe in the brotherhood of man are few and the majority are bad people, secretly harboring racist tendencies.

That is not true. There were, again according to initial reports, a few hundred white supremacists.  There were additionally some 1,000 counterdemonstrators, of whom maybe 200 were Antifa. Which means that even in Charlottesville, the peaceful counter-demonstrators appear to have outnumbered the wicked people fighting each other, and the one murderer.

A few hundred wicked people fighting each other must not be allowed to make us all hate and suspect each other—or else they win, and we normal people (with our beautiful and necessary political debates and differences) do not.

The Nazis want us to hate blacks, Jews, Catholics, immigrants, and ultimately everybody. Antifa wants us to soak in the righteous rage the Nazis provoke until we feel ourselves justified in doing anything to discharge that rage.

In 1838, Abraham Lincoln addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum with a sober warning about how vigilante justice threatens our political institutions. If the United States were to die, he warned, it would likely not be at the hand of a foreign enemy, but by suicide.  He hoped he was being over-cautious, but he noted with alarm the rise of vigilantism in his day:

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. This disposition is awfully fearful in any community; and that it now exists in ours, though grating to our feelings to admit, it would be a violation of truth, and an insult to our intelligence, to deny. Accounts of outrages committed by mobs form the every-day news of the times.

What Lincoln wrote of some gamblers who were hanged in Vicksburg is about what most of us think of white supremacists:

They constitute a portion of population that is worse than useless in any community. . . . If they were annually swept from the stage of existence by the plague or small pox, honest men would, perhaps, be much profited by the operation.

The problem, Lincoln noted, is that mobs act not on impartial evidence and sober judgment, but by terrifying whim. Unable to make distinctions, they snatch up the innocent with the guilty:

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, and probably will, 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.

In other words, the mob, if tolerated, will eventually come for each of us.  

That’s not the worst of it.  Unchecked, vigilantes grow emboldened and behave worse. Meanwhile, Lincoln notes, peace-loving people who love their country and would die for it, when they find themselves calumniated, their property destroyed and their family members injured, will eventually become disgusted with a government that won’t protect them and turn on it. And once a people has no attachment to its government, anarchy ensues. A constitution without a people loyal to it has no power whatsoever to protect anyone’s rights.

align=”left” In other words, the mob, if tolerated, will eventually come for each of us.  

This is the consummation both white supremacists and Antifa, a Communist/anarchist group each devoutly wish: the destruction of our mutual commitment to each other and to the constraints on power embodied in the Constitution and necessary for self-government.

They want us to walk around on tenterhooks, suspecting our neighbors, so that we will feel justified in breaking into unruly mobs until the rights to free speech, freedom of assembly, and all the freedoms of a free people are crushed by us ourselves. Their ultimate aim is to destroy the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution of what was conceived to be, and still can be, the freest nation on earth. 

Read the Lyceum speech and see if Lincoln does not have a prescient word for our own times.  Blind passions are the enemy of self-government, Lincoln taught. We require instead cool heads, sound morals, and a reverence for the political institutions that keep us free. Now is not the time to turn on America. It’s the time to be American.


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