Prosperity and Tyranny in Lincoln's Lyceum Address

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1 hour 22 minutes 30 seconds

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American Politics | Political History | United States History


Usually tyranny is seen as a consequence of misery or as a response to emergency. When people are in a state of profound suffering, attention to process and to the rules seems to indicate a lack of human sympathy. Indeed, a focus upon due process at such a time can easily be taken as a sign of a desire to take the side of what the prospective tyrant might take to be the oppressor. Alternatively, a tyrant and his supporters might imagine themselves to be in the midst of such an emergency that an urgent suspension of the rule of law and the rules of ordinary politics seems to be required. Both of these streams come together in the cases of idealist tyrants like Robespierre and Lenin. In the Lyceum Address, Lincoln addresses the common fear that the American Revolution might take the course of the French Revolution, passing through tyranny and violence into an imperial society which tramples the liberties it claimed to profess. Lincoln's account of this fear differs from most in that it is success, not failure or danger, which endangers the Republic; a society devoted to satisfying the material needs and worldly desires of its citizens, Lincoln argues, is subject to an anomie so profound that people will embrace tyranny rather than endure it.


Lecturer: John Burt; Discussant: Richard Ellis.

This lecture was part of the conference The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, which took place May 8-10, 2014 at Linfield College.

Sponsored by the Linfield College Frederick Douglass Forum on Law, Rights, & Justice, the Jereld R. Nicholson Library, and the Linfield College Office of Academic Affairs.