In one of his earliest speeches, Abraham Lincoln stood against the lawless tendency of his times to celebrate lynch law. During the first half of the 19th century there was a rising tendency on the part of people throughout the United States to take justice into their own hands. Lincoln’s own Lyceum speech on the subject in 1838 discussed the lynching of a free mixed-race man in St. Louis as well as, rather delicately, the murder of an abolitionist newspaper editor in Alton, Illinois. Despite sympathizing with the desire of people for swift justice, he abhorred the tendency towards lawless anarchy that led people to rise up in violence against others and to transgress against the law. This is not the only time such a tendency to resort to lynch law or some sort of private and violent code of honor has been adopted. This was the case in the latter part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, directed at political enemies, rival mobsters, people ensnared in racial controversy, as well as those who were criminal elements who were wanted dead rather than alive to serve some simulacrum of justice in prison. And, to a great extent, our own contemporary age is seeing a rise of lynch law, especially when it comes to cyberbullying as well as politically oriented violence.
There is no doubt that America is a violent culture, and that it has always been a violent culture from the very beginning. It is worthwhile to ponder the many and complex roots from where that violence began. Many early Americans were refugees for political and religious reasons or for economic reasons who had been the survivor of the harsh and heavy hand of the coercive early modern states of Europe. Still others are the survivors of those who violence displaced from their home territories through fraudulent treaties or wars to defend and expand the territory for settlers, and still others entered the country after having been violently kidnapped and sold across the ocean in slavery. One of the threads of my own personal ancestry, the Scot-Irish, had their own life experience honed by centuries of violence between Scotland and England over the lowlands region, then through Scotland’s religious wars, and then after that through violence against Catholics in Northern Ireland, and still later violence in the Appalachian regions, including an ambivalent to hostile relationship towards government that still exists in my own personal psyche.
Even the life of Abraham Lincoln, a man who attempted to rise above the violence of his time, certainly bore the impact of long-term violence. Lincoln’s grandfather had been the victim of a violent death when Lincoln’s father was young, and Lincoln himself had a troubled relationship with his father that was so bad that Lincoln refused to go to his father’s funeral or to see him before his death. Lincoln volunteered for service in the Black Hawk War in 1832 and was in Congress during the Mexican-American War, where he opposed President Polk’s warmongering ways. He nearly fought a duel after having insulted a rival politician (who was later an Illinois Senator as well as a Union general in the Shenandoah campaign of 1862), fought a rough wrestling match to prove his manhood upon moving to New Salem as a young adult, and was most famously the commander-in-chief of the Union armies during the bloodiest war in American history so far. Also, unfortunately, Lincoln himself became the first president of the United States to die by the hand of an assassin at the end of that war. Throughout his entire life, Lincoln’s existence was shaped by various issues of violence, and it is unsurprising that he would prefer to encourage a world where conflict could be resolved by intellectual means, where Lincoln could be sure of an advantage against most people.
Violence can exist in many ways. Physical violence is easy enough to recognize, but violence can also exist in words, or in the absence of words. It can exist in corrupt institutions that oppress others through selective enforcement of laws and standards in a consistently biased fashion. It can exist through cheating others as well as manipulating rules and laws to allow free reign for one’s own unjust dealing with attacking injustice in a selective and partial fashion. As Lincoln’s own statements against lynch law remind us, violence and injustice have long been conducted under the label of seeking justice. Those who think of themselves as people passionately motivated in search of justice are often blind to the fact that they are as unjust or more unjust than those they target for ridicule, abuse, and violent retribution. This is hard for people to fully understand, but recognizing these patterns from the past can help us to avoid carrying them on in the present-day.