Lincoln’s Warning for Us – Can We Read It?

Lincoln and his son Tad sharing a book.

Many folks say all history is old news – pun intended.

However, believe it or not, “history” is also EXACTLY what shaped our present attitudes and mindsets.

Some call it “experience.”

As I mentioned in the Why This Site section, my motivation to begin blogging came from the 2016 Presidential Election. All the misinformation, or “fake information,” [or just plain “wrong information”] that I read or saw circulated during that campaign – especially regarding America’s history – stunned me.

It was apparent this wrong information influenced many people’s attitudes, the candidates’ positions/promises, which issues dominated, and finally, even the election itself.

And this trend still continues after the election – our country’s social and political history lies forgotten or misconstrued – oftentimes ENTIRELY!

There is a danger to this.

Even Lincoln recognized it early on in his political career. He noted in his first Political Announcement in 1832 [ All bolding is mine for your attention]:

Upon the subject of education…I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in. That every man may…thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance…[1]

Even in 1832, Lincoln saw the complicated obstacles to Democracy’s survival looming.

The growing American population, at that time, needed a more thorough education apparatus in place to assure that most of them could at least read. Lincoln felt that with the ability to read, they could study the history of the U.S. and the histories of other nations.

Old High School American History Textbook
U.S. History Textbook (c.1887)

Why history?

Because Lincoln understood that as more generations of our citizens were raised in this free country, the more those citizens would take their freedom for granted, and he knew that complacency destroys vigilance.

Education, to Lincoln, was the answer.

With the ability to study the history of our country, he reasoned, we would glean a more thorough understanding of our “free institutions” – (right to vote, the courts, the legislatures, the presidency, etc.) – how they work, and the evolution of those ideas throughout the history of the world – starting with the Greeks to their birth on our shores and our struggles to keep them.

Then he believed that learning the history of other nations would help our citizens vicariously experience the effects of other non-democratic forms of government, and how they ruled their citizens, rather than risk our freedoms to experiment with those forms.

Through this vicarious experience, Lincoln hoped, would come a greater appreciation for our “free institutions.”

At any rate, knowing history IS vital to a Democracy, and remembering/understanding our true past is essential to moving into a bright, secure future.

Abraham Lincoln Presidential candidate
1860 Photo of Abraham Lincoln taken in Springfield, IL

Does the current administration and its Secretary of Education understand this importance?


Is controlling information/history with regards to what is taught, one of the reasons they advocate the “freedom of choice” for students to pick their school?

During a campaign speech at Lewiston, Illinois in 1858, Lincoln gave an example that points to this very issue of the importance of true information, and indirectly, his earlier point about education.

He said the men who wrote and signed our Declaration of Independence:

erected a beacon to guide their children…and the countless [others] who should inhabit the earth in other ages. Wise statesmen as they were, they knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants, and so they established these great self-evident truths…[2]

Are Lincoln’s speeches and today’s issues just eerie coincidences, or do his words serve as warnings of a certain, inevitable future?

Good thing we can read history isn’t it?

Food for thought.


Works Cited

[1] New Salem, March 9, 1832, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. v.I:8.
[2] “Speech at Lewistown, Illinois, on August 17, 1858.” Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. v.II:546.

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