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The Party of Lincoln Ignores His Warning Against Mobocracy

“There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law,” declared the man who would be America’s sixteenth president.

Republican leaders enjoy flashing their badges as the “Party of Lincoln,” preening themselves on Lincoln’s moral victories and declaring themselves his rightful political heirs. “Our party, the Republican Party, was founded to defeat slavery. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, signed the Emancipation Proclamation,” Senator Ted Cruz declaimed at the Republican National Convention in 2016, as a prelude to endorsing for president a man whom he had once called a “sniveling coward” and “pathological liar,” a man who had insulted Cruz’s wife and accused his father of conspiring to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. Senator Marco Rubio is another who presumes to speak for “the party of Lincoln,” including the time he tweeted, in February 2016, that Donald Trump would “never be the nominee of the party of Lincoln,” as does House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who managed to recall a few familiar words from the Gettysburg Address in honor of Lincoln’s birthday last year.

It’s supremely doubtful that the sixteenth president of the United States would have appreciated the compliment, however. This was true even before the events surrounding the seditious putsch attempt by Trump supporters on January 6, but all doubts have been removed by the subsequent behavior of senior Republicans, as they’ve argued in the name of “unity” against impeaching Trump for inciting insurrection and instead urged national “healing”—after months of stoking divisiveness, giving credence to lies that Trump won the election, and voting against the certification of Biden’s victory hours after the mob stormed the halls of government and threatened lawmakers with lynching, rape, and torture.

As such devoted disciples of Lincoln, those Republicans might be expected to know that one of their hero’s earliest major speeches, in 1838, was a denunciation of a “mobocratic spirit” abroad in the land that threatened to destroy “the attachment of the People” (his emphasis) to government by rule of law. “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law,” Lincoln declared, as he warned against “the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts.”

In particular, Lincoln cautioned against turning a blind eye to mob violence in the futile effort to maintain a tenuous and self-devouring peace. Leaving the perpetrators of such violence “unpunished,” he held, would only embolden the mob and inevitably destroy democratic self-government, as “the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice” and “absolutely unrestrained.” Without accountability, such a mob would “make a jubilee of the suspension of [the Government’s] operations; and pray for nothing so much, as its total annihilation.” The answer, Lincoln believed, was “simple”: let dedication to the rule of law become “the political religion of the nation” (again, his emphasis).