Lincoln’s warning to the anti-abortion vigilantes

On Sunday, May 31, Dr. George Tiller of Wichita, Kansas was killed as he was walking into his church. Dr. Tiller was perhaps one of the most controversial practitioners of abortion in the United States. He repeatedly and defiantly performed late term abortions at the Women’s Health Care Services in Wichita, where he worked.

Robert George, Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, one of our nation’s strongest and most eloquent opponents of abortion, wrote the following upon learning of Tiller’s killing:

Whoever murdered George Tiller has done a gravely wicked thing. The evil of this action is in no way diminished by the blood George Tiller had on his own hands. No private individual had the right to execute judgment against him. We are a nation of laws. Lawless violence breeds only more lawless violence.

The point made by Professor George is identical to the concern expressed by Abraham Lincoln in his Lyceum Address of 1838. The title of Lincoln’s speech was “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” Lincoln addressed his concern about a growing attitude of lawlessness as exhibited by increasing instances of public vigilantism. In what he described as an ill omen, Lincoln explained the circumstance:

I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice. This disposition is awfully 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.

Lincoln referenced some of the instances of lawlessness: the hanging of gamblers in Vicksburg, Mississippi and the burning to death of a black man in St. Louis who had committed murder. Lincoln recognized his audience’s skepticism and whether there was in fact any great loss to society, now rid of these people, and what difference it made to the larger matter, the topic of Lincoln’s address:

But you are, perhaps, ready to ask, “What has this to do with the perpetuation of our political institutions?” I answer, it has much to do with it. Its direct consequences are, comparatively speaking, but a small evil; and much of its danger consists, in the proneness of our minds, to regard its direct, as its only consequences.

So perhaps society was better off having fewer gamblers. And wouldn’t the man who had committed murder ultimately have been executed had he been put on trial and been found guilty? Didn’t the mob simply expedite the inevitable?

This was not, according to Lincoln, a justification for lawlessness. For a spirit of lawlessness begets a greater spirit of lawlessness. For “the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint, but dread of punishment, they thus become, absolutely unrestrained.”

So what did Lincoln prescribe in order to prevent our degeneracy into lawlessness?

Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, 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 seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor;—let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children’s liberty.

Many opponents of abortion may be tempted to conclude (like the mob in Vicksburg or the vigilantes in St. Louis) that society is better off with one fewer abortionist. But our society, based upon the Rule of Law, does not permit citizens seeking individual vengeance. The temptation to find a good that justifies murder is the same temptation of lawlessness that so worried Lincoln.

The means of ending abortion in the United States are not by murdering abortionists. They are by winning the minds of the American public through persuasion and prayer, and by legislating through proper means the end of state-sanctioned abortion. Tiller did indeed have blood on his hands, but the evil of his murder is in no way diminished by that fact.

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