In 1838, the 28-year-old Abraham Lincoln gave his first famous speech, an “Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum.” Lincoln’s topic was “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” and his remarks refer to the growing struggle over slavery and the forces undermining both American unity and our institutions of justice.
Lincoln also raises a special threat that he believes even the American constitutional order cannot eliminate. He describes a class of individuals who belong to “the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle.” These unusual individuals—Lincoln names Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon—have rare ability and supreme ambition. They are not like us. Their inner life, their soul, according to Lincoln, “thirsts and burns for distinction, and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.” Their highest ambition lies in the destruction of the existing order to reform it around themselves.