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Lincoln’s Lyceum Address Analysis Part One

An analysis of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Lyceum address.


When Lincoln originally gave his speech, his audience and peers were, in general, patriots. By this I mean in general his audience at the Young Men’s Lyceum were against slavery but weren’t abolitionist. They enjoyed the Constitution as it was and didn’t want to completely remove it as some abolitionist did. It makes sense therefore that Lincoln describes “our” political institutions as something that is good, something that is perhaps better than any other type of government. Lincoln uses a lot of rhetoric to appeal to his audience by saying things like “We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty than any of which the history of former times tells us.” In general he believes our institutions are worth preserving. Lincoln believes the principles of our political institutions are also worth preserving. However, he doesn’t believe they are perfect. Subtlety he wants to criticize some aspects of the Constitution while keeping up his credibility with the audience. Lincoln is quick to point out that our political institutions are something we have to keep up with, something we have to maintain. “We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings.” He says it is up to us to preform janitor duties to the Constitution and to America. “’tis ours only to transmit these … undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation.” To Lincoln, this presents a danger to America itself. He believes our institution could come under threat at any time, not by a foreign invader, but by our own if we do not act to perpetuate our political institutions. But what are our political institutions as Lincoln sees them? What exactly does he want to perpetuate? And why wouldn’t they perpetuate on their own? When Lincoln says “our political institutions” I believe he is talking about the American Government, and more specifically the Constitution. At this time their principle was ‘The people should rule’. Democracy was widely accepted as the fairest form of government in America. The problem with Democracy, as some saw it, is that if the people rule what is to stop them from acting outside the law? Lincoln believes that the political institutions we were given were built to protect “civil and religious liberty.” Lincoln, like many in his day, saw these principles as being fundamentally good, just and worthy of being perpetuated. But if people acted outside the law in a ‘democratic’ fashion then how could these principles be upheld? During the time when this speech was first read it was not uncommon to read anti-government propaganda and to see anti-government demonstrations. Some, like William Lloyd Garrison, saw the Constitution as a “Pact with Satan” and didn’t want anything to do with it. The irony of this is that the Constitution was the thing that allowed him to print what he wanted and it kept him safe from mob law. In conclusion, Lincoln, like many others, saw the political institutions of their day as imperfect but worth keeping and maintaining. The institutions, our Government and Constitution, are described by Lincoln as something unique and wonderful, but at the same time dangerous unto itself if not maintained correctly. The principles of our institutions, Civil and Religious liberty, is the goal of it all. But Lincoln sees these principles as not being up help to its fullest extent due to present dangers like mob law- a corrupt form of democracy being practiced at that time.

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