The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions

by Abraham Lincoln

Address before the

Young Men's Lyceum

January 27, 1838


Discussion Questions

1. What is the "ill-omen" that makes Lincoln doubt the perpetuation of the political freedom won by the revolutionary generation?

2. Why, when Lincoln admits that the murderer in St. Louis deserved to die and that Mississippi would be better off without its gamblers, does he condemn the lynching of both?

3. What case can such mobs make to defend their actions? Can there be, contrary to what Lincoln says, any "grievance that is a fit object of mob law?" Is not a mob in a small town that demands immediate justice a perfect example of democracy at work, since a majority of the people decide, and then implement their decision? Or what is there that distinguishes democracy from the collective decision taken by a crowd?

4. Lincoln describes a possible series of events that lead to the destruction of political freedom, and says (in the tenth paragraph) this is "one point at which danger may be expected." Step-by-step, describe this series of events. What are other points of danger to our political institutions described in this essay?

5. Lincoln admits there are bad laws, but says any law that continues in force should be "religiously observed," and that "every American, every lover of liberty, and every well-wisher to his posterity" ought to make an oath swearing "never to violate in the least particular, the laws of this country." Why? Are you willing to make such an oath? Why or why not?

6. Lincoln says that our founding generation sought to give a practical demonstration of "the capability of the people to govern themselves." What does Lincoln mean by the capability of a people to govern itself, and how did our founding generation give a practical demonstration of it?

7. What sort of persons belong to the "family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle?" What motive do they share with the founders of the United States? Why do such individuals pose a greater danger now than they did at the time of the founding generation?

8. Why is it fitting for this speech to evoke the name of George Washington near its end?

9.How does Lincoln contrast ambition and its operation during times of revolution and during times of peace? What problems arise for our country in Lincoln's view as a result of the success of its revolution?

Paper topics

1. What do you make of the many allusions to religion throughout the speech? How many can you find? How does the speech endorse traditional religion? Is it good for Lincoln to recommend allegiance to the laws and political institutions of the United States as a kind of religion?

2. Might Lincoln's audience suppose that the task or duty that he attributes to their generation is a less ambitious task than that of the founding generation? How does Lincoln guard against this supposition? In what ways does Lincoln present the task of his generation at as a greater one than that of the founding generation?

3. Does Lincoln simply attempt to warn against ambition, or does his speech attempt to appeal to those of "towering genius" to serve the American experiment in self-government? If so, how does he do so?

Lincoln Reading

Guide to unit 2

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