Abraham Lincoln On “Stand Your Ground”

A word from the great president:

Abraham Lincoln discussed this romanticization of violence in 1838, in one of his earliest public speeches, “Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.” What, Lincoln asked, threatened the well-being of American democracy? Only one thing: vigilante violence, “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.” He detailed the epidemic of violence and then located its cause in the need for what we would now call identity politics. Constitutional institutions might be equitable, but they were not lacking in (and it’s striking that Lincoln used exactly this word) “authenticity”—the dry, rational legal system that the revolution had insured could never satisfy Americans’ need for an emotional connection with the past and with each other.

Lincoln’s own call, in response, was for an ever more radical rationalism: “Reason, cold calculating unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense.”

As Adam Gopnik notes, Lincoln even cast the Civil War as the defense of the arid, legal principle that the Union was indissoluble – not a matter of honor or pride or culture. And that, of course, was his key difference with the dueling, honor-driven culture of the South (and Wild West). Adam Cohen also helpfully contrasts English and American self-defense laws:

Nearly 250 years ago, William Blackstone included in his classic Commentaries on the Laws of England a well-established rule: “[T]o excuse homicide by the plea of self defense, it must appear that the slayer had no other possible means of escaping from his assailant.” Sir Blackstone understood why people should be required to retreat before using deadly force: “the right to defend,” he warned, “may be mistaken as the right to kill.” …

[In contrast,] [i]n 1921, in Brown v. United States, the Supreme Court rejected the obligation to retreat. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the author of the decision, later explained: “a man is not born to run away.”

Holmes, our most epigrammatic Supreme Court Justice, got at something profound about the “stand your ground” doctrine. It is not the product of elaborate empirical research or deep philosophical debate. It is, fundamentally, based on a notion of honor: that a man (and presumably a woman, though they seem to invoke it a lot less) should not be required to run away. That honor-based rationale is particularly American. Maybe because of our Wild West origins — the no-duty-to-retreat doctrine is sometimes called the “Texas rule” — or maybe because we are the world’s only superpower, we are a nation that is uncomfortable with retreat. We live in a culture in which avoiding conflict is considered cowardly, or, at best, humorous.