Abraham Lincoln's 1838 Lyceum Address

Mob Murder of Abolitionist Printer Inspired Early Lincoln Speech

Daguerreotype of Abraham Lincoln taken in 1846
Early daguerreotype of Abraham Lincoln, taken in 1846. Library of Congress

More than 25 years before Abraham Lincoln would deliver his legendary Gettysburg Address, the 28-year-old novice politician delivered a lecture before a gathering of young men and women in his newly adopted hometown of Springfield, Illinois.

On January 27, 1838, a Saturday night in the middle of winter, Lincoln spoke on what sounds like a fairly generic topic, "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions."

Yet Lincoln, a little-known lawyer serving as a state representative, actually gave a fairly ambitious speech. Prompted by the murder of an abolitionist printer in Illinois two months earlier, Lincoln spoke about issues of great national importance, touching on slavery, mob violence, and the future of the nation itself.

The speech, which has become known as the Lyceum Address, was published in a local newspaper within two weeks and is Lincoln's earliest published speech.

The circumstances of its writing, delivery, and reception, provide a fascinating glimpse at how Lincoln viewed the United States, and American politics, decades before he would lead the nation during the Civil War.

Background of Abraham Lincoln's Lyceum Address

The American Lyceum Movement began when Josiah Holbrook, a teacher and amateur scientist, founded a volunteer educational organization in his town of Milbury, Massachusetts in 1826.

Holbrook's idea caught on, and other towns in New England formed groups where local people could give lectures and debate ideas.

By the mid-1830s more than 3,000 lyceums had been formed from New England to the South, and even as far west as Illinois. Josiah Holbrook traveled from Massachusetts to speak at the first lyceum organized in central Illinois, in the town of Jacksonville, in 1831.

The organization which hosted Lincoln's lecture in 1838, the Springfield Young Men's Lyceum, had probably been founded in 1835. It first held its meetings in a local schoolhouse, and by 1838 had moved its meeting place to a Baptist church.

The lyceum meetings in Springfield were usually held on Saturday evenings. And while the membership comprised young men, females were invited to the meetings, which were intended to be both educational and social.

The topic of Lincoln's address, "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions," seems like a typical subject for a lyceum address. But a shocking event that occurred less than three months earlier, and only about 85 miles from Springfield, surely inspired Lincoln.

The Murder of Elijah Lovejoy

Elijah Lovejoy was a New England abolitionist who settled in St. Louis and began publishing a stridently anti-slavery newspaper in the mid-1830s. He was essentially chased out of town in the summer of 1837, and crossed the Mississippi River and set up shop in Alton, Illinois.

Though Illinois was a free state, Lovejoy soon found himself under attack again. And on November 7, 1837, a pro-slavery mob raided a warehouse where Lovejoy had stored his printing press.

The mob wanted to destroy the printing press, and during a small riot the building was set on fire and Elijah Lovejoy was shot five times. He died within an hour.

Elijah Lovejoy's murder shocked the entire nation. Stories about his murder at the hands of a mob appeared in major cities. An abolitionist meeting held in New York City in December 1837 to mourn for Lovejoy was reported in newspapers throughout the East.

Abraham Lincoln's neighbors in Springfield, only 85 miles away from the site of Lovejoy's murder, certainly would have been shocked by the outburst of mob violence in their own state.

Lincoln Discussed Mob Violence In His Speech

It is perhaps no surprise that when Abraham Lincoln spoke to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield that winter he made mention of mob violence in America.

What may seem surprising is that Lincoln did not refer directly to Lovejoy, instead mentioning acts of mob violence generally:

"Accounts of outrages committed by mobs form the every-day news of the times. They have pervaded the country from New England to Louisiana; they are neither peculiar to the eternal snows of the former nor the burning suns of the latter; they are not the creature of climate, neither are they confined to the slave-holding or the non-slave-holding states. Alike they spring up among the pleasure-hunting masters of Southern slaves, and the order-loving citizens of the land of steady habits. Whatever, then, their cause may be, it is common to the whole country."

The likely reason Lincoln did not mention the mob's murder of Elijah Lovejoy is simply because there was no need to bring it up. Anyone listening to Lincoln that night was entirely aware of the incident. And Lincoln saw fit to place the shocking act in a broader, national, context.

Lincoln Expressed His Thoughts on the Future of America

After noting the menace, and very real threat, of mob rule, Lincoln began to talk of laws, and how it is the duty of citizens to obey the law, even if they believe the law is unjust. By doing that, Lincoln was keeping himself apart from abolitionists like Lovejoy, who openly advocated violating the laws pertaining to slavery. And Lincoln did make a point of emphatically stating:

"I do mean to say that although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still they continue in force, for the sake of example they should be religiously observed."

Lincoln then turned his attention to what he believed would be a grave danger to America: a leader of great ambition who would attain power and corrupt the system.

Lincoln expressed a fear that an "Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon" would rise in America. In speaking about this hypothetical monstrous leader, essentially an American dictator, Lincoln wrote lines which would be quoted often by those analyzing the speech in future years:

"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?''

It is remarkable, that Lincoln used the phrase "emancipating slaves" nearly 25 years before he would, from the White House, issue the Emancipation Proclamation. And some modern analysts have interpreted the Springfield Lyceum Address as Lincoln analyzing himself and what kind of leader he might be.

What is apparent from the 1838 Lyceum Address is that Lincoln was ambitious. When given the opportunity to address a local group, he chose to comment on matters of national importance. And while the writing may not show the graceful and concise style he would later develop, it does demonstrate that he was a confident writer and speaker, even in his 20s.

And it is noteworthy that some of the themes Lincoln spoke about, a few weeks before he turned 29, are the very same themes that would be discussed 20 years later, during the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debates that began his rise to national prominence.