All Commentary
Thursday, October 1, 1964

Lincoln on Power

At age 28, Abraham Lincoln de­livered perhaps the most profound speech he ever made. He was warn­ing his audience to beware of the man with a lust for political power.

Actually, he could have been un­knowingly talking about himself when he said, “Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored… 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?

“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.”’

The idea advanced by Mr. Lin­coln in that speech is just as true today as it always has been. Cer­tain persons seem born with the desire to rule over others. And they will do almost anything to get to the top. Adolf Hitler was one of them. So were Al Capone and Napoleon. And many religious leaders have also instigated and directed the repressions and slaughter that are necessary to compel men to conform to the opin­ions of others. Kings, business­men, generals, priests, labor lead­ers, elected officials—history and the daily newspapers are filled with them, large and small, highly re­spected and generally hated, tower­ing geniuses and cunning thugs, all wishing to compel men to con­form to their plans. They will promise anything and do anything, as long as it advances their ambi­tions to rule over others.

Such Power Must Be Thwarted

I do not really understand why anyone wants to force another per­son to conform to his viewpoint. Doubtless the psychiatrists and psychologists can explain it. I can’t.

I merely know that such persons exist (in the United States as else­where) and that I will do every­thing in my power to stop them. That includes this appeal to you to beware of the mass hysteria that threatens to place the fate of this nation (for any reason) in the hands of some “savior.” For however necessary such action may seem at the moment (and however honorable the leader may be), the ultimate result will be disaster.

Mr. Lincoln also recognized that danger when he said, “When such a one does [spring up among us], 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.”

The founders of this nation, from whom Abraham Lincoln de­rived his general philosophy, were also acutely aware of this danger. It is spelled out in various words and in various ways in the Decla­ration of Independence, the Fed­eralist Papers, and other docu­ments that pertain to our revolu­tion and to the birth of the United States. Perhaps Thomas Jefferson phrased it best when he said, “In questions of power let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”2

That is why the Founding Fathers deliberately constructed a most cumbersome form of government that was designed to prevent any single person or small group from gaining the power to force all of us to conform to their opinions and viewpoints, good or bad.

If We Value Freedom

True enough, this division of powers among many units of gov­ernment is often inefficient and costly in an economic sense, and it is also often the source of some injustices. We could doubtless save money and increase efficiency, for example, by putting all local and state police systems under the au­thority of the FBI in Washington. And that solution might also de­crease gangsterism and stop much of the corruption and miscarriage of justice that is uncovered from time to time in local police forces. Let us never forget, however, that the temptation to rule over others seems to be present to some de­gree in every one of us. That is why I am willing to pay almost any price to frustrate the designs of the ambitious genius with a de­sire for power, whatever his pur­pose.

True, he might use his power to build up instead of to tear down, to free slaves instead of to enslave free men, to feed hungry people instead of to regiment them. But the record of history is most dis­couraging on that point. Yet, year after year, we American people continue to permit and to encour­age the increasing concentration of power in one place, Washington, D. C., and in the hands of one per­son, the President of the United States.

I am not here talking about the party in power. I am here talking about the power itself and the fearful temptation it offers to those who are politically ambi­tious. If we value freedom, we must begin to disperse that power back to the states, the local govern­ments, and the people themselves.



1 From an address before the Young Mens’ Lyceum, Springfield, Illinois, Jan­uary 27, 1837. New York: Appleton Century-Crofts, Complete Works, I, 46, edited by John G. Nicolay and John Hay.

2 Kentucky Resolutions, 1798.