Today in class I was discussing Utopia. We had just started Book Two, and were learning about the institutions of the Utopians. At some point, the question got asked: why don’t the Utopian people ever get dissatisfied with their lives? They have plenty of food, but people tend to want more than just their basic needs to be met. It was a good question. We tossed it back and forth a bit, thinking about how human passion might upset the tidy social arrangements in Utopia.

It occurred to me, in the midst of the discussion, that Lincoln had sussed out perhaps the most serious political danger that threatens an otherwise loyal and stable polity in the Lyceum Address (1838), one of the first public speaking engagements he had. I brought the speech up to the class and tried to sum it up for them briefly. (I also reminded them that it was the bicentennial year of Lincoln’s birth–incidentally, it’s the Johnson tercentenary this year as well.) The danger, of course, is that posed by the ambitious politician, who allows self-interest to override the calling to govern justly and well. One thing’s for sure, it’s hard to do Lincoln justice in a quick summary. Especially because I lack his eloquence, probably due to my deficiencies as a Shakespearean.

Here’s the relevant passage from the Lyceum Address:

But, it may be asked, why suppose danger to our political institutions? Have we not preserved them for more than fifty years? And why may we not for fifty times as long?

We hope there is no sufficient reason. We hope all dangers may be overcome; but to conclude that no danger may ever arise, would itself be extremely dangerous. There are now, and will hereafter be, many causes, dangerous in their tendency, which have not existed heretofore; and which are not too insignificant to merit attention. That our government should have been maintained in its original form from its establishment until now, is not much to be wondered at. It had many props to support it through that period, which now are decayed, and crumbled away. Through that period, it was felt by all, to be an undecided experiment; now, it is understood to be a successful one.–Then, all that sought celebrity and fame, and distinction, expected to find them in the success of that experiment. Their all was staked upon it:– their destiny was inseparably linked with it. Their ambition aspired to display before an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better, than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves. If they succeeded, they were to be immortalized; their names were to be transferred to counties and cities, and rivers and mountains; and to be revered and sung, and toasted through all time. If they failed, they were to be called knaves and fools, and fanatics for a fleeting hour; then to sink and be forgotten. They succeeded. The experiment is successful; and thousands have won their deathless names in making it so. But the game is caught; and I believe it is true, that with the catching, end the pleasures of the chase. This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?–Never! Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.–It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.

Distinction will be his paramount object, and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.

If you like this part of the speech (and what’s not to like?) the rest is quite good as well. It’s an oft-explicated speech, but to learn more about it a great place to start is chapter two of John Brigg’s excellent book Lincoln’s Speeches Reconsidered.

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