was Lincoln trying to tell us something?

The penultimate paragraph of Lincoln’s “Lyceum Address” (Jan 27, 1838)

[Memories of the sacrifices of the American Revolution] were the pillars of the temple of liberty; and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason. Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.–Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws: and, that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered his name to the last; that, during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place; shall be that which to learn the last trump shall awaken our WASHINGTON.

“Trump” here means to summon loudly like a trumpet, as in John Keble’s Christian Year (1827): “Awake—again the Gospel-trump is blown.” It probably doesn’t mean “To give forth a trumpet-like sound; spec. to break wind audibly (slang or vulgar),” although the OED attests that sense from 1425 onward.

In all seriousness, Lincoln’s address is a timely reminder that high ambition may have motivated the founders to create a republic, but the ambitious gain no renown from keeping an existing republic going. The irony is that Lincoln ended up with a massive memorial on the National Mall because history gave him the opportunity to save and re-found a union imperiled by others.

See also: ambition: pro or con?  and hearing the faint music of democracy

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.