Abraham Lincoln. Calvin Jackson (October 1, 1858) Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/98504517/.

Brett Van Gaasbeek's Students Talk about Preserving Self-Government

On May 7, 2024

Recently I emailed a question to teacher friends who are graduates of the Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) program. 鈥淗ow do you teach students about the challenge of preserving self-government?鈥 Brett Van Gaasbeek replied that he relied on Abraham Lincoln鈥檚 analysis of the challenge.

Brett Van Gaasbeek's fascination with Abraham Lincoln owes much to his powerful and relatable rhetoric
Brett Van Gaasbeek, MAHG graduate and teacher at Cincinnati Northwest High School in Ohio.

Van Gaasbeek teaches a 鈥淐ollege Credit Plus鈥 US History course to sophomores enrolled simultaneously at Northwest High School in Cincinnati and at Sinclair College, where they earn college credits for course. The fast-paced survey covers American history from Columbus to the present day. Early in the fall, Van Gaasbeek鈥檚 students had read Lincoln鈥檚 1838 speech to the Springfield Lyceum on 鈥淭he Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.鈥 They 鈥渘ailed the section on mob rule,鈥 he said. Since that time, they had recalled the speech during discussions of 鈥渢he Civil War, the formation of unions leading to violent strikes, the rise of the KKK in the 1920s, and unrest associated with the Great Depression.鈥  

Impressed, I asked Van Gaasbeek to tell me more. He replied, 鈥淲hy don鈥檛 you chat with the students themselves?鈥

We arranged a Zoom meeting, where I met Van Gaasbeek鈥檚 honors-level students, a diverse mix of African-, European-, and Asian-Americans. I asked them, 鈥淲hat have you learned about the challenge of preserving self-government? What problems have Americans repeatedly faced in our history?鈥

A tall young woman with intricate, shoulder-length braids stepped forward to the video monitor. 鈥淚鈥檓 Madisyn,鈥 she said. 鈥淥ne thing that seems to come up a lot in our history is corrupt government leaders, people who go into politics just for power, not because they want to make needed changes.鈥

Jyair introduced himself, then spoke of unequal economic outcomes. Not all Americans are financially successful. 鈥淓ach new president tries to find ways to help people earn enough to avoid going bankrupt.鈥 But none have yet solved the problem.

Amora, thin and blonde, pointed to the many disputes over taxation. Government needs money to operate, but citizens object to taxes, whether these are the tariffs of the 19th century or the income and capital gain taxes of today. Meanwhile, those with fewer earnings to tax worry about workers鈥 rights, wages, and benefits.

Janessa spoke of tensions among people with different experiences. People get divided by race, while those with generations of family history in America are suspicious of more recent immigrants.

Maliya added that citizens who 鈥渄on鈥檛 believe their government is doing the right thing鈥 have staged protests.

鈥淚s that a problem?鈥 I asked.

鈥淚 think most of the time it is a good thing,鈥 Maliya replied.

True, said a student named Cory; but protest movements reveal the country鈥檚 problems. People protest when they feel their concerns are unheard. He mentioned the Black Lives Matter movement.

I asked, 鈥淒oes preserving self-government require giving representation and a voice to all citizens?鈥 Van Gaasbeek thought Lincoln could help on this point. He turned the conversation to Lincoln鈥檚 Fragment on the Constitution and Union. 鈥淒o you remember?鈥 he asks the class. 鈥淎bout the apple?鈥

Casey remembered Lincoln鈥檚 analysis, based on an allusion to a verse from Proverbs鈥斺淎 word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.鈥 Lincoln related the 鈥渨ord fitly spoken鈥 to the central promise of the Declaration: that all men are created equal. To Lincoln, the Constitution was a structure of laws created to safeguard this promise. Casey, Van Gaasbeek later told me, was the student who first realized what Lincoln meant.

Now Casey offered a colorful synthesis of Lincoln鈥檚 comments on the sectional crisis over slavery: 鈥淭he apple was like the Declaration, and it was held in place by the framers of the Constitution. But there was a court case about a slave named Dred Scott. And in his ruling, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court said that the enslaved man was not even worth three-fifths of a person. That ruling really threatened the golden apple.鈥

鈥淒oes the Constitution make any sense if we don鈥檛 believe in human equality?鈥 I asked. 鈥淔or example, Casey, why doesn鈥檛 Jyair鈥檚 vote count for twice as much as your vote?鈥

鈥淲ell, that wouldn鈥檛 make sense if all of us are created equal,鈥 Casey responded.

鈥淪o, majority rule means everyone鈥檚 vote is worth the same as everyone else鈥檚.鈥

I鈥檇 delayed getting to what I really wanted to discuss with the class: Lincoln鈥檚 analysis of the most dangerous threats to American democracy. 鈥淵ou鈥檝e read a lot of Lincoln鈥檚 writing,鈥 I said. 鈥淵our teacher says you read the Lyceum speech that he gave as a young man. Tell me about that.鈥

Amora said, 鈥淗e鈥檚 criticizing mob rule. He鈥檚 saying that if we disagree with a law, we still have to follow it. We can fight to change it, but until it鈥檚 changed, we have to follow it. We have to follow the Constitution in order to maintain our independence.鈥

鈥淲hen Lincoln speaks of mob rule, what sorts of things does he mean?鈥

鈥淭hey were tarring and feathering and hanging people,鈥 Amora recalled.

Madisyn added, 鈥淭here was a newspaper editor saying things they didn鈥檛 like, and they threw his printing press in the river.鈥

Van Gaasbeek recounted the story. 鈥 was an abolitionist newspaper editor. He was printing his anti-slavery message in 1837 in southern Illinois and sending it to Missouri, a slave state. People said, 鈥榊ou can鈥檛 publish that here!鈥 So now the rights of Southerners to hold slaves are pitted against freedom of the press. Lincoln argues that no matter what he鈥檚 printing, you have no right to break his press鈥攐r to shoot him, as they did! And remember, Lincoln also mentions the riverboat gamblers. They were assumed to be swindling people, so a mob took them off a riverboat and hung them. Lincoln says, you can鈥檛 do that鈥攚e have a court system for a reason. And if there is no law against cheating while gambling, change the laws.鈥

鈥淒o you all feel that mob rule is a threat today?鈥 I asked.

鈥淵es!鈥 several students answered.

The anti-abolition mob attacking the Warehouse of Godfrey Gilman & Co. Alton, Ill. on the night of the 7th Nov. 1837. Elijah P. Lovejoy, whose presses were destroyed, was killed that night. Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Division.

鈥淛anuary 6, 2021,鈥 DiWash said. 鈥淭hat insurrection was a perfect example of what Lincoln was criticizing 200 years earlier. It was trying to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power provided for by our Constitution.鈥

鈥淐an you think of any other instances of mob rule occurring today?鈥

Madisyn said, 鈥淐ory mentioned the Black Lives Matter movement. I know we have a right to peaceful assembly, but when protesters start to fight, break into stores, or hurt other people, it goes from being a peaceful protest to rioting鈥攖o mob rule.鈥

鈥淗ow does that make other citizens feel鈥攕ay, those who are watching events on TV?鈥

鈥淭hey can get scared. If I were to see a protest turn into a riot, it would discourage me from wanting to help the protesters鈥 cause. I would feel unprotected, and I鈥檇 look for someone to protect me.鈥

鈥淚t could lead to the breakdown of democratic institutions,鈥 DiWash added. 鈥淟incoln says a strong man, a tyrant, could take advantage of the situation.鈥

鈥淒o you guys remember what else Lincoln said?鈥 Van Gaasbeek prompted. 鈥淭hat Americans would not be conquered by a foreign nation . . .鈥

鈥溾攖hat we could only be conquered by ourselves,鈥 Cory said.

As the period drew to a close, students discussed the reasons for Lincoln鈥檚 success as a leader.

 鈥淗e was moderate,鈥 Cory said. 鈥淗e could see both sides鈥 goals, and he wanted to prevent the coming war鈥斺 so he tried to persuade the South that war was not in their interest. 鈥淚 think he was elected because people thought he might be able to lead everyone.鈥

鈥淏ut the South didn鈥檛 listen. They fired on Fort Sumter anyway,鈥 Van Gaasbeek said.

The bell rang, and students began to gather their books. But DiWash wasn鈥檛 finished. 鈥淕uys, before we go, I want to say something else. Lincoln got elected because his rhetoric was so good. It was a cut above everyone else鈥檚.鈥

鈥淚 would love to talk with you about that sometime,鈥 I said, as DiWash grabbed his books and hurried to his next class.


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