What would Lin­coln think of Trump?

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Sid­ney Blu­men­thal

Don­ald Trump has a sketchy re­la­tion­ship with Abra­ham Lin­coln. “Great pres­i­dent,” Trump said. “Most peo­ple don’t even know he was a Repub­li­can, right?” Trump also con­jec­tured that “had An­drew Jack­son been a lit­tle later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War,” though Jack­son had died many years be­fore.

But what would the 16th pres­i­dent have thought of the 45th? Be­yond pure spec­u­la­tion, we can find clues in Lin­coln’s first for­mal speech, “The Per­pet­u­a­tion of Our Po­lit­i­cal In­sti­tu­tions,” in which he crit­i­cized at­tacks on the free press and warned against a fu­ture dem­a­gogue who would threaten the frag­ile Amer­i­can ex­per­i­ment.

On Jan. 27, 1838, mount­ing the podium be­fore the Spring­field Lyceum for Young Men in Illi­nois, the 29-year-old Lin­coln, a mem­ber of the Illi­nois Leg­is­la­ture, de­scribed the “mobo­cratic spirit.”

Lin­coln be­gan by de­cry­ing a spate of re­cent crimes that re­duced the rule of law to “the caprice of a mob,” in­clud­ing the lynch­ing of a black pris­oner in St. Louis. “Hav­ing ever re­garded Gov­ern­ment as their dead­li­est bane, they make a ju­bilee of the sus­pen­sion of its op­er­a­tions; and pray for noth­ing so much, as its to­tal an­ni­hi­la­tion.” He also con­demned the “bands of hun­dreds and thou­sands” who “throw print­ing presses into rivers, shoot ed­i­tors” — which ev­ery­one in the au­di­ence would have rec­og­nized as a ref­er­ence to the Love­joy case.

On Nov. 6, 1837, in Al­ton, Ill., Eli­jah P. Love­joy, an an­ti­slav­ery edi­tor, was mur­dered by a group of men who stormed his ware­house to de­stroy his print­ing press. Love­joy had been driven out of St. Louis for pub­lish­ing an­ti­slav­ery ar­ti­cles. Mov­ing his base of op­er­a­tions across the Mis­sis­sippi River, he soon joined in calling for the for­ma­tion of the Illi­nois Anti-slav­ery So­ci­ety. Love­joy’s as­sas­si­na­tion made him the first mar­tyr of the abo­li­tion­ist move­ment. His killers were ac­quit­ted in a trial that reached its ver­dict eight days be­fore Lin­coln de­liv­ered his speech.

The over­whelm­ing view in Illi­nois was that Love­joy de­served his fate. Pro­mot­ing an­ti­slav­ery opin­ion was deeply un­pop­u­lar. In Wash­ing­ton, law­mak­ers up­held a gag rule that barred the pre­sen­ta­tion of an­ti­slav­ery pe­ti­tions to Congress. For­mer Pres­i­dent John Quincy Adams, now serv­ing in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, stub­bornly led the re­sis­tance. But North­ern leg­is­la­ture af­ter leg­is­la­ture passed res­o­lu­tions in sol­i­dar­ity with South­ern states to af­firm the gag rule. On March 3, 1837, Lin­coln and only one other mem­ber of the Illi­nois House signed a dis­sent­ing state­ment declar­ing “that the in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery is founded on both injustice and bad pol­icy.”

Love­joy, ac­cord­ing to Lin­coln, did not bring about his own death. Con­trary to con­ven­tional wis­dom, he was wholly in­no­cent, the vic­tim of “the vi­cious.” Those who “shoot ed­i­tors” were not sim­ply break­ing the law, but also as­sail­ing the ba­sic right of free speech — the very foun­da­tion of Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment. The attack on Love­joy, whether one agreed with his opin­ions or not, was an at­tempt “to sub­vert our na­tional free­dom.”

Then Lin­coln pointed to an even greater men­ace than ram­pag­ing mobs, “a prob­a­ble case, highly danger­ous.” He warned against the emer­gence of a man driven to power by a fierce de­sire for “celebrity and fame” who “thirsts and burns for dis­tinc­tion.” This dem­a­gogue “scorns to tread in the foot­steps of any pre­de­ces­sor, how­ever il­lus- tri­ous,” and be­liev­ing that “noth­ing left to be done in the way of build­ing up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.”

There is a con­tem­po­rary fig­ure who re­sem­bles that fame-hun­gry dem­a­gogue, one who tears down in­sti­tu­tions and in­cites the mobo­cratic spirit, sub­vert­ing the right to free ex­pres­sion and, with it, our na­tional free­dom. Th­ese Lin­col­nian terms de­scribe our re­al­ity-tv-star-turned-pres­i­dent, who called the “FAKE NEWS me­dia” the “en­emy of the Amer­i­can peo­ple,” and tweeted an al­tered video that showed him body-slam­ming a man with the CNN logo in place of his head.

But Trump would no more un­der­stand Lin­coln’s fore­warn­ing than he will ac­cept re­spon­si­bil­ity for his in­cite­ment. Trump’s sense of his­tory is as limited as his self­con­trol.

If we can de­duce how Lin­coln would per­ceive Trump, we can also sur­mise how he would ad­vise Amer­i­cans to han­dle him. This is what he said about the pos­si­ble rise of an Amer­i­can dem­a­gogue: “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.”

Sid­ney Blu­men­thal is the au­thor of “Wrestling With His An­gel: The Po­lit­i­cal Life of Abra­ham Lin­coln, Vol­ume II, 18491856.”

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