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Eugene Paslov: Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum Speech

Eugene Paslov
For the Nevada Appeal

In early October, Susan and I attended a retired state schools superintendents’ reunion. This is a group of men and women we’ve known for more than 30 years. They are dear friends, like family, and we try never to miss the annual reunions.

This year the reunion was held in Springfield, Ill., hosted by Ted and Beverly Sanders (Ted was a former state school superintendent in Nevada and in Illinois). We spent several days doing all things Lincoln. We learned much about our 16th president, his triumphs and tragedies. And we came to appreciate the brilliance, intelligence and humanity of this deeply compassionate man.

Lincoln’s time was not unlike our own – profoundly troubled, filled with hatred, on the verge of dissembling the nation at the beginning of the Civil War and even after its conclusion. Lincoln’s leadership helped the country stabilize and began to heal the deep wounds that are still with us. A friend of mine (an intellectual, historian, and artist) sent me some excerpts from Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum Speech. It’s worth repeating my friend’s observations about the 1838 speech. Some of the same issues are undermining our fragile Republic today.

My friend’s hard-hitting, historically accurate analysis, begins, “I ran across Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum speech … He (Lincoln) talks about the ‘mobocratic spirit’ – those who rail against government to weaken it and separate it from the ‘attachment of the people.'” My friend goes on to describe Lincoln’s concept of how the mobocrats violated the law and when “… government fails to respond, thus undermine belief in the law among supporters of government.” This, my learned colleague asserts, “… is the essence of the Confederates – their disdain for the Union and the Republic. The (original) Republicans believed in restoring faith in a federal government for common people – in contrast to the elitism of the Whigs and the States’ rights stand of the (original) Democrats.

After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, things flip-flopped. The Republicans are now the States’ rights, anti-government party – Reagan’s ‘government is the problem’ – script … The essence of the Confederate effort was a rejection of the Constitution’s General Welfare Clause. Southern political leaders, during the Civil War (and continuing to this day) have rejected this Constitutional provision. The Confederates questioned the entire role of the federal government with respect to domestic policy.’ Their contemporary counterparts still do.

Racism and white nativism are underlying factors for what motivates some political activists today, as they did in the past. Understanding their origins is critical to making fundamental change. Neo-Confederates populate the Congress today. They appear to be in charge. They need to be voted out.

• Eugene Paslov is a board member of the Davidson Academy at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the former Nevada state superintendent of schools.