Prior to the Civil War, Americans frequently faced the specter of mob violence, which authors justified as necessary to prevent or eliminate perceived threats to their communities. But then, as now, mob violence aimed to subvert democracy and the rule of law to violently enforce a group’s idea of justice.
During Lincoln’s young adulthood in the 1830s, mob violence in the United States was common. Historian David Grimsted has identified nearly 150 recorded incidents of mob violence in the United States in 1835 alone, most targeting individuals and groups who threatened the white Protestant status quo. In the northern cities, they were often Catholic immigrants. In the South, white mobs targeted free and enslaved black men whom they perceived as defying the racial caste system. The mobs also claimed victims of those who advocated for causes, such as abolition, that threatened rapid and sweeping change.
Contrary to the common stereotype of mobs as some sort of peasant rabble, 19th-century American mobs included people from all walks of life, including merchants, professionals, and elected officials. In fact, many participants in the mob violence held respected positions in their city or county. Led by pillars of the local community, the mobs believed they represented the popular will and that their mob violence was justified in the name of preserving civic order.
Crowd sizes ranged from a few hundred to hundreds, and the violence they committed consisted of everything from intimidation and destruction of property to torture. Arrests were rare and prosecutions were even rarer. Partly because mobs often included influential members of the community, they outnumbered local law enforcement who rarely sought punishment.
In fact, some mobs have worked anxiously to portray their violence as reasonable and legally justifiable. In 1845, in Lexington, Kentucky, a group of white men wanted to prevent the publication of an anti-slavery newspaper in their town. They held multiple public meetings during which they denounced the newspaper’s editor as an arsonist and demanded that he cease publication. When the publisher refused, they forcibly removed the printing press and brought in attorney Thomas Marshall to publicly defend their actions. Marshall agreed and gave a speech claiming that the offended citizens were not a mob but a “general assembly of the people” who had come together to suppress a public nuisance. The group of Lexingtonians followed suit, defending their actions against those who might “misrepresent [their] motives and conduct,” caring not for prosecution but for judgment.
But despite these claims, these activities were contrary to democratic government and the rules that underpinned it. That is why in 1838, at age 28, Lincoln addressed this issue directly.
His speech followed the murder of Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist preacher and editor. It was nothing new, as Lincoln understood, for mobs to threaten and harass anti-slavery activists, but Lovejoy was the first to die at the hands of his attackers.
By the 1830s Lovejoy had moved from New England to the slave state of Missouri and started an anti-slavery newspaper. His denunciations of slavery made him many enemies and Lovejoy decided to move again. He moved to Illinois, where the locals were equally hostile, confiscating and then destroying his printing press. When Lovejoy ordered a new press to continue publishing, he and friends stood guard inside the warehouse in Alton, Illinois, where he was. When a mob arrived, shots were fired and Lovejoy was killed.
For the Missouri and Illinois men who made up the crowd, Lovejoy was an outsider who had come to their communities to bring about unwanted change. These men, like many white Americans of the time, equated anti-slavery advocacy with support for the slave rebellion and saw their violence as a legitimate way to restore order.
At the heart of mob violence was the assertion that a group of citizens can know what is best for their city, their community, their country, and are justified in using violence to enforce their will and carry out their vision of a decent society.
In his speech, Lincoln identified this assertion of legitimacy by mobs—that they could legally act without government approval—as the fatal threat of mob violence. If the government allowed crowds to go unchallenged, public confidence in the republic would crumble, he argued. Even good people “who love peace, who want to respect the law” would wonder why they should support a government that cannot or will not prevent violent groups from attacking their fellow citizens.
It was this erosion of faith in democratic civil authority that Lincoln lamented when he predicted that “if destruction is our lot, we ourselves must be the author of it.” When the mobs were rampant and the government did nothing, Lincoln argued, Americans would wonder why they should bother with such a government.
His observations remain important today. Like the mobs of the 19th century, the January 6 attackers believed that their country was threatened and that an outburst of just violence by law-abiding citizens was necessary to restore order. In this context, incidents of the riot that seem disturbing and incongruous – like rioters chanting “USA! UNITED STATES!” as they broke into the Capitol, or a rioter telling a police officer, “We’re doing this for you, mate” – can be identified as mob behavior consistent with this long history of violence against men like Lovejoy.
Nearly two centuries ago, Lincoln said, “There is no grievance that can be redressed by the law of the mob.” He was right. Mob violence undermines the principle that government should be based on the participation of everyone – not just those who feel aggrieved. This was as true in Lincoln’s day as it is in ours.