But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?--Never! Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.--It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. 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? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.
Distinction will be his paramount object, and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.
Here, then, is a probable case, highly dangerous, and such a one as could not have well existed heretofore.
Another reason which once was; but which, to the same extent, is now no more, has done much in maintaining our institutions thus far. I mean the powerful influence which the interesting scenes of the revolution had upon the passions of the people as distinguished from their judgment. By this influence, the jealousy, envy, and avarice, incident to our nature, and so common to a state of peace, prosperity, and conscious strength, were, for the time, in a great measure smothered and rendered inactive; while the deep-rooted principles of hate, and the powerful motive of revenge, instead of being turned against each other, were directed exclusively against the British nation. And thus, from the force of circumstances, the basest principles of our nature, were either made to lie dormant, or to become the active agents in the advancement of the noblest cause--that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty.
But this state of feeling must fade, is fading, has faded, with the circumstances that produced it.--Abraham Lincoln, January 27, 1838, "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions: Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois." [emphases in original; HT Mark Norris Lance]
Lincoln was a young man of 28 when he gave the speech I just quoted. The speech reflects on the possible causes of the implosion of then still relative young, United States. He rules out the possibility of a genuine foreign threat, and so suggests that The United States is in control of its own destiny: "As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide." The 'we' here refers to the United States, which has the possibility to be immortal (recall), and thus, to be godlike.
The speech identifies two main threats: first, Lincoln address the dangers of lynching, mob justice, and various forms of civil disobedience*--all of which undermine the rule of law. Lincoln notes that any particular violation of the rule may be thought harmless (even just), but generates a slippery slope, "by such examples, by instances of the perpetrators of such acts going unpunished, the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint, but dread of punishment, they thus become, absolutely unrestrained." This further encourages the lawless and discourages not just the quiet, law-abiding citizens, but also the best citizens which become alienated from government; thereby, such violations undermine "the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours," that is, "the attachment of the People."
In response, Lincoln suggests a civic religion (he calls it a "political religion") in which "reverence" for the laws is preached. He accepts that this means that bad laws, "if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed." (The previous sentence suggests that Lincoln also rejects non-violent civil disobedience.) Lincoln does not invent the idea of a political religion (it goes back to Plato (recall) and his Islamic interpreters (recall here and here) and via Spinoza and Locke becomes explicit in Rousseau's Social Contract), but it is striking that he makes the rule of law its main dogma and proper aim.
The second threat Lincoln diagnoses is the one that is originally associated with the destabilizing desire for honor (he "thirsts and burns for distinction") of the great-souled man as portrayed by Plato and Aristotle, and commonly associated with Achilles or Alcibiades as well as Alexander and Caesar. Lincoln's vocabulary is modern ("genius,"), but the point is clear. Any existing political institution will, once established, find it difficult to channel the immoderate desire for recognition that is coupled with the desire of originality (seeking "regions hitherto unexplored"). And Lincoln recognizes in ways that modern democratic theorists constantly fail to do, that this is a permanent threat -- unsolved by modern representative government -- because there will always be dangerous talents in a citizenry.
Lincoln is clear that the constitution is endangered by the immoderate desire for fame*** in talented ambitious people even if this ambition for recognition serves, by executive fiat, a manifest just cause ("emancipating slaves")** because in so doing it pulls down the constitutional edifice. (His position is: bad laws may be repeated, but they must be repealed lawfully.)
So, Lincoln has no doubt that a real danger to Republic may take power by legal means. Such a person succeeds because he can exploit the people's ordinary mutual "jealousy, envy, and avarice," which are a by-product of the "state of peace, prosperity, and conscious strength." The talented and ambitious, would-be-constitution-slayer is aided by the natural disunity of the people, which is caused by mutual hatred and the spirit of revenge. In revolutionary times, these passions were counter-balanced by the very same passions directed toward noble ends: "the basest principles of our nature, were either made to lie dormant, or to become the active agents in the advancement of the noblest cause--that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty." But this counter-balancing cannot be relied upon once the revolutionary generation and their immediate off-spring has passed the scene (something that requires a rebirth as he recognizes at Gettysburg).
Lincoln's response to the second threat is not encouraging: he claims that the constitutional order can only be protected by "the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent" (that is, educated). Lincoln explains what he means in the final paragraph:
Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.--Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws:
This means that for a constitutional order to survive there must be a precautionary, robust civic religion that embraces the rule of law, widespread moral and political education such that unity is possible. This is a precautionary, enlightenment project worthy of the self-rule project that may make the United States immortal. But, of course, a unified, moral, and intelligent people (recall the second inaugural) would not elect a would-be-tyrant in the first place. That is to say, Lincoln perceives that the very conditions that will let a would-be-constitution-slayer-to-power will also the destruction of the project in self-rule. For Lincoln there is no faith to be offered in the strength of our institutions when the excellent have lost their attachment to them and their vulnerability lies exposed by mediocrity.+