Lincoln and Watergate: The American Past Speaks to the American Future

by William E. Johnston, Jr.

Mr. Johnston is a doctoral candidate at Claremont (California) Graduate School.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, June 25, 1975, pp. 629-634. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


A cogent defense of democratic ways already exists for us; we have only to render anew the counsel Lincoln offered in 1838. Included here is Lincoln’s address, set in the context of the 1970s.

Recent political events have compelled us to ask how we may know our way when it comes to law, morality and the tests of loyalty demanded by complex political and social lives. Easy partisanship seems gone. Partisanship itself is perhaps permanently embarrassed by the recent excesses of partisanship. The demise of partisanship and the demise of Presidents -- for our age may be said to have begun on November 22, 1963 -- have made us the unavoidable witnesses. But witnesses to what? We do not know with certainty. The perspective of the age remains unclear.

Allegiance to the Law and Its Enforcers

It is no small thing that a President should reveal himself -- and with little shame -- as a criminal conspirator. To have subverted the laws of the state is very near to treason. But in America, treason -- an attack on the American constitutional regime -- is disguised as a higher patriotism. Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee made this clear to us. Nixon tries to follow a noble -- or so we were to believe -- tradition of committing crimes against the state in order to save the state. We are made half-sympathetic witnesses to the peregrinations of a master conspirator who is in our employ. We wander in the moral wilderness with him. And his detractors -- the Judas Deans, for instance, to use I. F. Stone’s phrase -- become an offense to us as they remind us of that greater offense we have committed, indelibly, to our history.

And we are obliged to pardon the master criminal -- for his mastery still bewitches us. We are first enraptured by crimes, then trapped in a kind of criminal negligence, the odor of which is perhaps what reminds our age’s Russian seer of the spirit of Munich, the stench of appeasement.

When we are witnesses to crimes, we naturally tend to dwell on the matter of the law. Watergate posed questions of the law to us from the very beginning. We are made to wonder about ourselves and the law. We are removed, of course -- well away from the center of things. Still we wonder about our own ability to stand up under the heavy weight of the law. Could there be a religious interest in the manner of this bearing up? There is, doubtless, a large dose of self-righteous speculation about our strengths and virtues as a nation of laws and not of persons.

On one thing, at least, we ought no longer to speculate: that a nation of law must have a nation of persons who enforce the law. There’s the rub, as Lincoln once said in a different context. By seeing this rub for what it is, a permanent problem for a nation which would live under its own laws (not to speak of the laws of nature’s God), we are all made into conservatives -- and liberals. For conservatives have always lived by the persons who would enforce the laws, and liberals have always lived by the laws that would govern the persons who enforce the laws.

Could Watergate have made both liberals and conservatives of us all? If such a hybrid political monster is now in fact what we are, we had best know that full well so that we can become accustomed to our convoluted moral economy. The convolutions will call attention to the permanent character of divided but joined allegiances: to the law and to the persons who enforce the law. This psychological honesty -- whereby the soul understands that it must govern the body and the body learns that it is empty without the soul -- may become a great strength in the face of a world untutored by this tension, unbound by this problematic, even comic posturing of devotion to the law and its enforcement. Such devotion, like most things religious -- like most things moderate -- is easily subject to ridicule.

An Apologia for Self Government

We thus find ourselves slightly ridiculous: we are conservatives who have not ceased to be liberal, liberals who have not ceased to be conservative. Because we do not live in a kind and tolerant world -- at least not kind and tolerant to such experiments in self-government as ours -- we are in need of a defense. A defense not in the sense of a new weapon, but in the sense of an apologia. We need to be convinced that our devotion, tinged as it is with religious contours, will not be laughed or badgered to extinction by our own self-doubts.

We are not at all certain that we have come through the past few years intact. The toll may prove higher than we can now determine accurately. We have learned to fear the worst while hoping for the best. Our dilemma may be summed up in the words of Bernard De Voto (in The Year of Decision, 1846 [Little, Brown, 1943], p. 4):

Sometimes there are exceedingly brief periods which determine a long future. A moment of time holds in solution ingredients which might combine in any of several or many ways, and then another moment precipitates out of the possible the at last determined thing. The limb of a tree grows to a foreordained shape in response to forces determined by nature’s equilibriums, but the affairs of nations are shaped by the actions of men, and sometimes, looking back, we can understand which actions were decisive.

Our defense must acknowledge that we came close to losing our way. How close we do not yet know -- and that is the point. But we have learned a few things over the past decade and a half. We know, for example, that in the midst of decision it is hard to know what elements will be decisive. Thus we cling to the hardness of the law. We have learned too that, whatever the elements, decision is necessary. Thus we would cling to the persons who decide by reasoned judgment that our clinging to the law is worth the price of the enforcement of the law. And in these lessons we may perhaps have learned a very great truth: that the failure of decision against corruption of our republican morality means that corruption will seize the day. For it is plain to the discerning devotees of our strange, experimental republican morality, faithful believers in the vanity of self-government, that the corrupt do not decide -- no, they need not be burdened with such heavy tasks. The corrupt act according to necessity. Nothing about the comedy of democracy (the formal name we give to our republican experiment) is necessary; it is all a luxury of the decision to have a law and to raise up persons to enforce the law. This is the meaning of self-government.

Consequently, our apology must understand, or allow us to understand, that in our folly of self-government, the luxury of luxuries in an unkind and intolerant world, we had best not press on unashamed, undaunted, with eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear the continuing dangers to democratic life.

That the apology is available to us, that a cogent defense of freedom and democratic ways already exists for us, should come as no surprise. That this defense was first uttered by Abraham Lincoln may surprise. We do not have to devise a new defense; we have only to render anew the counsel that Lincoln originally offered in February 1838, in other, perhaps more troubled -- though less dangerous -- times. The occasion then was to pay appropriate honor to founding father George Washington. The speech was an "Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum" of Springfield, Illinois (The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler [Rutgers University Press, 1953], Vol. I, pp. 108-115).

There is a continuing piety in the land that dictates the inclusion of a Lincoln quotation in every major political address -- most commonly, if unintentionally, to justify a crude departure from the high standard of Lincoln’s judgment. Lesser figures cite Lincoln’s better angels to distract from the flaws in their own reasoning and integrity. Let us endeavor to avoid this stultifying piety by committing a grave impiety. What follows is an effort to modernize Lincoln by recasting his 1838 remarks as though they were delivered yesterday -- that is, according to the strictures and opportunities of the present. By being thus presumptuous -- and unfair to Lincoln -- I hope to read Lincoln "straight."

Recall that Lincoln spoke of the perpetuation of our political institutions. One hundred thirty-seven years have passed since Lincoln’s address, but whatever the recent excitements, our republican institutions and Constitution are essentially the same as those of Lincoln’s day. May not his good sense become our common intelligence as a people, as it has become our common heritage? A heritage is salutary to the extent that it energizes the intellectual and moral discriminations of the present. If we worship at political shrines that call forth only empty pieties, we risk the death of this heritage through simple neglect. Here, then, is Lincoln’s address set in the context of the ‘70s:

The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions

As a subject of our thoughts, the perpetuation of our political institutions is selected. This is no arbitrary selection. We have recently seen the extraordinary and unprecedented inauguration of a new President following hard upon the resignation of a President who gave us clear and convincing evidence of his own criminality. Thus, the question of the perpetuation of our political institutions is no idle one; neither is it merely abstract. As we rest secure in the sight of a new President, elevated to that office by unusual circumstances, yet acting with full authority and confidence, we are obliged to recognize exactly how our surviving insecurity and doubts arose, what made us see how fragile are the ligaments of political trust, how easily abused the tissues of our confidence. That we have passed through this crisis does not assure that the crisis has been inconsequential or that no others of similar or greater proportions shall someday test us. And indeed, we may well ask, have we truly passed through this crisis? Is this affair of meanspirited, lawless men a chapter in our history the pages of which we as a free people must close ourselves? And how are we to know when it is closed?

In the great journal of things happening under the sun, we, the American people, find our account running under the date of the 20th century of the Christian era. We find ourselves in the peaceful possession of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting this stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquisition or establishment of them -- they are a legacy bequeathed us by a once hardy, brave and patriotic but now lamented and departed race of ancestors.

Theirs was the task -- and nobly they performed it -- to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys a political edifice of liberty and equal rights. It is ours only to transmit these, the former unprofaned by the foot of an invader, the latter undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task gratitude to our forebears, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.

Threats from Within

How then shall we perform it? At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?

Remain strong, you say -- a transatlantic military giant. To be sure. But is this the only measure of our strength, or our danger? Have we not just learned otherwise? At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up among us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free people, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

I hope I am overwary; but if I am not, there is still something of ill omen among us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country, from savage mobs to executive ministers of justice. This disposition is fearful in any community; and that it now exists in ours, though grating to our feelings to admit, it would be a violation of truth and an insult to our intelligence to deny. Accounts of outrages committed by mobs and ministers (of the cloth and the sword) form the every day news of the times. They have filled the country, from New England to California; they are peculiar neither to the eternal snows of the former nor the burning suns of the latter -- they are not the creature of climate. Whatever, then, their cause may be, whether they are the corruptions of public officials or the ravages of private citizens, it is common to the whole country.

It would be tedious as well as useless to recount the horrors of all of them. That willful negligence is not always of a violent sort is clear. We have seen over the past several years a traumatic addition to our miserable lexicon of awful disorders. The mob passions and outrages which afflicted many parts of America in the 1830s and ‘40s, and most recently in the 1960s, when the terrible emotions of racism and violent dissent would have substituted the wild and furious passions of mob law for the sober judgments of the courts and legislatures -- these continue to plague us. But of this new addition, some might say that it, having no such widespread violent outbreaks, is unimportant. Its direct consequences at first seemed, comparatively speaking, but small evils; indeed, most of its dangers consisted in the proneness of our minds to regard its immediate effects as its only consequences.

Abstractly considered, the burglarizing of a psychiatrist’s office is of but little consequence. Similar, too, is the nearly comic escapade of spies at the Watergate. But the example in either case, we soon found, was fearful. When men take it in their heads today to break and enter, to tap the phones, steal the papers, and otherwise offend the rights of citizens, in the confusion usually attending such transactions they will as likely burglarize or steal from someone who is innocent of any wrong and who has, as befits citizenship, opposed violations of the law in every shape. But is it any less unseemly that the government should attack criminally one who is claimed to be a criminal? What then is the difference between the two?

The Anarchic Spirit

And perhaps most disturbing of all, these recent attacks by government upon citizens have been, as well, attacks on the foundations of our political organizations. They thereby are offenses against the democratic process itself.

And thus we were witness to individuals and parties alike falling victim to unofficial and official lawlessness. What is the danger? Step by step, they may fall, all the walls erected for the defense of persons and property of individuals, and all the securities of free association -- trodden down and disregarded by unchecked government and unrestrained persons. Simply stated, the very sense and safety of government is endangered.

But even all this is not the full extent of the evil. 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 accustomed to no restraint but dread of punishment, they thus become absolutely unrestrained. Having ever regarded constitutional government as their deadliest bane, they may again make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations. By the machinations of this anarchic and arbitrary spirit, for a time wholly in command of the executive power, the strongest bulwark of any government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed -- I mean the attachment of the people.

Whenever this effect shall be produced among us -- whenever an unbridled elite shall be permitted to break the law at will, or to suspend wholly its operation, feeling bound only by its will -- depend on it, this government cannot last. By such things, the feelings of the best citizens will become more or

less alienated from it, and thus it will be left without friends, or with too few and those too weak to make their friendship effectual. At such times and under such circumstances, we have discovered to our pro-found regret that persons of sufficient talent and ambition will not be lacking to seize the opportunity, strike the blows, and overturn that fair fabric which for the past two centuries has been the fondest hope of the lovers of freedom throughout the world.

I know the American people are much attached to their government; I know they would suffer much for its sake; I know they would endure evils long and patiently before they would ever think of exchanging it for another. Their patience and endurance of the past several years, extending to this moment, bears silent but awesome witness to this devotion. Yet, notwithstanding all this, if the laws be continually despised and disregarded, if their rights to be secure in their persons and property, and to feel secure in their political affiliations, are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, in the executive mansion or out, especially the caprice of an individual President’s will, the alienation of their affections from the government is the natural consequence; and to that, sooner or later, it must come.

Reverence for Law: A Political Religion

Here, then, is one point at which danger may be expected, and where in recent fact we have seen it displayed. The question recurs.: "How shall we fortify against it?" The answer is simple. Let every American, every lover of liberty, everyone who wishes posterity well, swear by the blood of the Revolution never to violate in the least particular the laws of the country and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of ‘76 did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and laws let every American pledge life, property and sacred honor. Let every person remember that to violate the law is to trample on the blood of one’s parents, and to tear the charter of one’s own and one’s children’s liberty. Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American parent to the child that babbles on his or her lap; let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges -- even especially in our law schools; let it be written in textbooks, spelling books, and in TV guides; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, of all sexes and tongues and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.

As long as a state of feeling such as this shall universally, or even very generally, prevail throughout the nation, vain shall be every effort, and fruitless every attempt, to subvert our national freedom. Having so recently observed the consequences of an absence of such reverence among too many, and the benefits of such among more, we may bear firm witness to this truth.

When I so pressingly urge a strict observance of all laws, let me not be understood as saying that there are no bad laws, nor that grievances may not arise, for the redress of which no legal provisions have been made. I mean to say no such thing. But I do mean to say that although 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. So also in unprovided cases. If such arise, let proper legal provisions be made fof them with the least possible delay; but till then let them, if not too intolerable, be borne with.

There can be no grievance -- or emergency -- that is a fit object of redress by mob law, or licentious government.

Continuing Dangers to Democracy

But, it may be asked, why suppose danger to our political institutions? Have we not preserved them for almost 200 years? And why may we not for 50 times as long? Have not these latest troubles, filling our times with unprecedented events, proven for all times and all challenges the durability of our institutions?

We hope there is no sufficient reason. We hope all dangers may be overcome; but to conclude that no danger may ever again arise would itself be extremely dangerous. There are now and will hereafter be many causes, dangerous in their tendency, which have not existed heretofore and which are not too insignificant to merit attention. I need only mention the condition in which for the first time in our long history as a free people the President and Vice-President both have not been chosen for their offices by the people in regular election. This means that for the first time our government comes perilously close to departing from its original form and nature. Is this not to be wondered at? Our government has had many props to support it through its great periods, which now are tested by these unprecedented changes. To be sure, these newest challenges have been provided for by amendment, and constitutional procedures are duly respected. Even so, this fact of unelected executive power, coming as it does after the corruption of such power, is sobering.

The experiment auspiciously begun by our founders continues. Their ambition aspired to display before an admiring world a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition which had hitherto been considered at best no better than problematical; namely the capability of a people to govern themselves. They succeeded; the experiment is successful. But it continues problematical to the extent it continues at all. Its future success is not assured by its past glories. The game is not caught, not finally ended. The field of glory of our founders is harvested, and we see that the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field.

It is to deny what the history of the world -- and our most recent history -- tells us is true to suppose that persons of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up among us. And when they do -- as we now may better appreciate -- 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. Can any continue to doubt this? Many great and good persons sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake may ever be found whose ambition would aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion or the tribe of the eagle. What? Think you still these places would satisfy a Nixon? Never!

Towering ambition disdains 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 making a war or making a peace, at making laws or breaking laws, at preserving national security or abusing such security. Is it unreasonable then to expect that some person possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time again spring up among us? And when such a one does, we have found with certainty that it requires the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to frustrate successfully his designs.

Each new year appears an era unto itself. The events of the past 12 eras have renewed in us the conviction that we loose great dangers when our devotion to our Revolution, for the Declaration and the Constitution, lie dormant; or, equally great dangers when this devotion becomes unchained passion, a tempestuous agent to cloud our judgment when incautiously directed against distant nations. We now know better these dangers of forgetting our origins, or of remembering too well only ourselves in advancing the noblest causes, that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty.

What were the pillars of the temple of liberty continue to be the chief burdens of our political lives. We may not take these pillars for granted; they are not self-supporting. The temple must fall unless we supply renewed devotion -- new pillars of loyalty -- hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason. Passion and compassion have helped us -- and injured us. They will in the future be our enemy. Reason -- cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason -- must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense. Let these materials be molded into general intelligence, sound morality, and, in particular, a reverence for the Constitution and laws: and, by these, improved to the last, we will remain free to the last.