You’d think that 180 years after farm boy Abraham Lincoln began his political career on the American frontier, we’d have a little more perspective than he did on what it takes to sustain democracy. Well, guess again. Despite his lack of formal education, young Lincoln saw with remarkable clarity that the possibility of self-destruction posed a far greater danger to the longevity of American political institutions than did external aggression. He laid that thesis out, at the age of 28, in an 1838 speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois:
At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.
At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring from among us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.
When Lincoln uttered these words, the Civil War still lay over two decades in the future. There had never been a world war, and terms like communism and terrorism had yet to be invented. Very little of what we today identify as characteristically American existed. And yet somehow Lincoln saw beyond the limitations of his life and times to identify the core danger that all democracies must face. When you give people freedom, you must live with the possibility that they will use those freedoms irresponsibly, even destructively.
It was that realization that led Sigmund Freud to observe, rather improbably, a century later that without repression, civilization would be impossible. Freud was referring to the repression of individual impulses, but that same paradoxical reality applies to the broader community too. Once people have the liberty to think and act as they wish, they acquire the power to destroy the very system that protects their freedoms. We may fervently hope that they restrain impulses to act in dangerous, antisocial ways, but there are no guarantees that in a fit of anger or despair or indulgence, democracy will not consume itself.
Alastair Cooke observed at the conclusion to his PBS series America in the 1970s that the race was on between dynamism and decadence in America. That race is still under way today. The same freedom that empowers us to destroy ourselves also gives us the flexibility to avert danger by changing course before it is too late. But our ability to make the adjustments needed to protect democracy from itself depends in large part on whether we are well-raised and well-led. Each generation must find a way of educating its children and selecting its leaders to avert the threat of democratic self-destruction, because that danger will never disappear.
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