3 civics lessons from Abraham Lincoln

February 11, 2021

Did you know that Friday – Feb. 12 – is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday?

Born in 1809 in Kentucky, Lincoln would become a central figure in American history – not just as the 16th president of our country, but as a hero who brought America through the Civil War to reconciliation, ultimately preserving the nation.

In some ways, Lincoln’s era in American history is not so unlike ours. While America may not be experiencing anything like a civil war, we are certainly experiencing a civics crisis.

The nation we see through the news and social media appears to be deeply divided into camps, increasingly angry and intolerant, and even, in some cases, quick to violence. Not unlike in Lincoln’s era, people wonder if our republic is set to expire.

What can we learn from Lincoln, then?

To honor his birthday, we look at three civics lessons learned from his life.

 

“We must not be enemies”

In his first inaugural address, knowing that civil war was brewing, Lincoln said, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Much of today’s division is between the political left and the political right, with its many expressions in news outlets, entertainment and social media. Understandably, each side sees the other as their opponent, but with disturbing frequency each side is also seeing the other as an enemy. If America is to heal, this trend must end.

President Joe Biden, in his first inaugural address, likewise called for unity. More than words, what needs to follow are actions that demonstrate real effort to work together. There must be collaboration with those who maintain their different viewpoints, rather than demanding that the other side abandon their viewpoints as a prerequisite to collaboration.

America can withstand diversity in opinion. In fact, we become stronger and more resilient for it. Following an impulse to crush or delegitimize an opposing view rather than engage both its merits and its failings is a sign of weakness, not a sign of strength. In order to keep passionate disagreements that lead to better, more informed policies, we have to commit first to the idea that we must not be enemies.

 

“There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law”

In 1838, when just 28 years old, Lincoln spoke to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. Explaining the importance of the rule of law and the Constitution – calling these the “political religion” of our country – he said, “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.”

Specifically, he was alluding to the lawlessness of pro-slavery mob violence that led to the murder of an abolitionist newspaper editor. In the process, Lincoln made a case for the rule of law and eliminated certain avenues for addressing grievances. Unfortunately, this past year many did not take his advice. Americans regularly saw peaceful protests turn into riots, groups of activists into mobs, and constitutional activity into lawlessness.

The risks are not limited to the physical danger of the moment. When these things happen, the political temperature only ramps up further, making the stakes higher and encouraging the “other side” to become more desperate.

Further, it’s short-sighted. When law is so easily trampled, public confidence that we can secure cherished rights through the law is undermined. This in turn leads more people to consider different means – such as additional violence – in order to secure their rights. In short, healthy civic engagement first requires a respect for the rule of law and the Constitution.

 

Government is to be “of the people, by the people, for the people”

Lincoln gave one his most famous speeches in 1863 with the Gettysburg Address, and with it one of the most iconic phrases in American lexicon: a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

In less than ten words, he described how the country’s government was designed. It’s a concept that needs to be revisited.

Too often we speak of government as if it’s synonymous with the White House or Washington, D.C. Every four years, we watch breathlessly to see who becomes the next U.S. president, as if that person is akin to a monarch. In reality, that person will be gone in 8 years or less, and with few exceptions his or her importance in Americans’ lives will expire not long after.

What remains is the people. Government is of the people, not of the president. This is both refreshing and calming. Elections have consequences, but they have limits.

As we engage civically, we should remember that we the people come from a position of responsibility and strength. The wisdom of Abraham Lincoln illuminates that strength. As we commemorate the birthday of one of America’s most consequential presidents, we would be better off as a nation if we followed his counsel.

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