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Dr. Larry Arnn On The Baltimore Unrest, Lincoln’s Electric Cord Speech, And The Second Great Crisis

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HH: It’s the last radio hour of the week. Thanks to Lanhee Chen for filling in for me for the first two hours, but I never miss the Hillsdale Dialogue with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College. And you can read all of that Hillsdale has to offer over at, and sign up for Imprimis at the same time. And you can listen to every single Hillsdale Dialogue that I’ve conducted with Dr. Arnn and his colleagues dating back for more than two years now at And of course, Constitution 101 is lit up and running. But Dr. Arnn, we’re going to talk today about Abraham Lincoln. And it’s apropos in a week of racial conflict that we talk about what you call the second crisis, which I’ll come back to in a moment. But as I watch from the nation’s capital Baltimore burning this week, I was reminded of, I think we were both living in L.A. at the time when L.A. burned the last time. I think it was before you had assumed the presidency of Hillsdale College. And it has never made a lick of sense to me when people do this, and it never makes a lick of sense to the community leaders, either, but it is a recurring thing in America, and has been, I guess, since the draft riots of New York in 1863.

LA: Yeah, so if you go to the Daily Caller and do a search for Casey Harper, you will see that one of their reporters, a recent graduate of Hillsdale College, there’s a picture of him. He was hit in the face with a bottle while he was reporting on all that stuff this week. And he’s coming back to walk, and he graduated in December, but he’s walking to get his degree in May, and he’s going to have a big, swollen nose at commencement the end of next week. and they’re describing what they’re seeing there, and it’s just people, looters and violent criminals running through the streets stealing stuff and looting and harming people. And that’s not being stopped very rapidly. And what’s, you know, why is that right? It’s what you said, right? Why is that right? Why should people do that to each other? And why should the law not suppress it?

HH: And when the law does suppress it, people get injured. And a cycle begins where the law is accused of overreacting. And I am usually with the people of the law here. I don’t know the facts or the circumstance of the man in Baltimore who died in the custody of the police, nor do I know the facts about any of these things. No one ever does. Lawyers know that they never know the facts unless they are actually in the jury room and have a chance to deliberate. They never know what people think is material. But I know that it does not justify. And I’m wondering if the framers, to the extent that they took up arms against civil authority, what they would think about these insurrection seriatim that are occurring out there?

LA: Well, that’s, and we know what they think, by the way, because that’s what was going on that led to the Constitutional Convention. Shays’ Rebellion and Nat Turner, they both had gangs of people who were going from town to town and taking over commercial institutions, including especially banks, and preventing mortgages from being collected, which by the way, drives up the mortgage market so people who need mortgages can’t get them. And there was a kind of breakdown of law and order proceeding in many places. And one of the things they thought was that we needed a stronger government, because the security of person and property is the first object of government. And the colonial governments in the Articles of Confederation, the new state governments in the Articles of Confederation, were not securing that.

HH: Now how did they answer when, for example, Jefferson, about whom we spoke last week would say you know, every generation you’ve got to water the tree of liberty with the blood of revolutionaries or whatever that oft-quoted bit of Jeffersonian wisdom is, how did they respond to civil insurrection in the face of authority?

LA: Well, that’s, but see, but the Declaration of Independence, and you know, think of the unfolding of the American Revolution. And there’s tremendous literature that comes from that. So what they wrote was the practical means of oppression that the king and his government were employing upon the colonists. And they did it in open debate with one another, and not violently, until they were attacked, except maybe for the Boston Massacre. And they, and so they were, in other words, they proceeded chiefly by argument. And there’s a rich legacy of argument. And the king, and the loyalists, the Tories, they made arguments back. And you can read those arguments. So first of all, before you break out into violence, you reason. And some of this stuff that’s being described by my student, who was by the way writing notes for an article he was to write, he’s not a student, he’s a graduate of the college now, he was attacked while he was doing that. He didn’t even see the attack coming, and he was hit in the face by a bottle. So that’s a little different than the Declaration of Independence. And remember the Declaration of Independence, they’re writing to an extremely powerful man, and they make one of the most beautiful and famous arguments in history, including a long train of facts in the middle in 17 paragraphs, and then they all signed their names to it.

HH: Yeah, that is true. There is no anonymity whatsoever. Their life, their liberty, their sacred honor, and in the case of [Charles] Carroll, that meant the riches man in America giving up…

LA: Right.

HH: Charles Carroll, I mean, giving up everything that he had, and that was quite a lot. So was Washington, of course, so were all of them. But let me go, because I think it’s important, and I’m not just making up controversy because it’s the news of the week. If I were to channel the proponents of civil disobedience even to violence in Baltimore and elsewhere, they would say that the system will not permit real argument, that it’s rigged, that it’s dominated by Anglo men. It is, you know, our critical legal studies friends say that all the institutions are full of those who will hear only each other and never the voice from the oppressed or the voice from the street, to which you respond what?

LA: Well, you know, first of all, you can say what you want in America today. Second of all, that view that you just named is certainly very powerful and probably the dominant view in the mainstream media.

HH: Yup.

LA: You know, so I mean, you know, there’s that old saying, you know, you get more with a stick than you get with an argument, but it’s also true that you get more with a stick and an argument than you get with a stick. And so they’ve got the argument, and they’re using the stick, some of them are, and that’s, you know, that’s, you can’t have with the rule of law, you can’t have citizens burning things up in the street and harming other fellow citizens. And when you get there, you’re in a revolutionary situation if you permit it, and that means that those arguments that justify the revolution, and the fact whether it’s true that these, some classes are privileged and others are not, and they are, and that, you know, I don’t know the facts of the young man who died in Baltimore, either. But let’s say there were a conspiracy, the allegation is that there’s a conspiracy of, I guess they say rich, white people who are killing young black people like that. And it matters a lot whether that’s true or not. And that’s an argument, right? And you can’t settle that question by looting in the street.

HH: And then we come forward as well to the question of how do you dispose of that argument when it comes forward after the Constitution, because they have the argument, they have the rebellion, the framers resort to violence and they win after seven long years. And we’ve been talking about George Washington for the last three weeks. He wins, and not long into his presidency, he has to saddle up and ride to Western Pennsylvania.

LA: Yeah, sure. And he did.

HH: To suppress another rebellion.

LA: Right. That’s right, and he did suppress it. And you know, you do have to have law and order. And so what makes the use of force legitimate?

HH: That’s the issue.

LA: And the answer is consent of the governed. And so we have an argument with some people about whether we have that or not. And you know, and by the way, I fear that we’re losing that. But I don’t fear it on the ground that the left fears it. I think indeed that they may be the agents of taking it away. That’s an argument, right? And so if I want to make that argument, I make it. But that doesn’t mean I get to go burn the shops and assault the families of people who disagree with me.

HH: And I often say to our friends on the right who make the argument about you know, a blowup is coming, a confrontation with the government is coming, and it can get to the far reaches of the far extreme, you don’t get to just make that argument, make that assertion. You have to persuade critical mass. And no persuasion of anything near a critical mass has occurred, yet, Larry Arnn, and I think you would agree with me on that, correct?

LA: Sure, and also, remember, we still have elections, and you know, we don’t get rounded up for going to church or speaking our mind. And those are very important facts. Also, another thing about the pace and unfolding of the American Revolution, the controversy started in 1763. And it took more than a decade, am I right?

HH: Yeah.

LA: It took more than a decade for it to become a violent movement.

HH: And became, and it took nearly two decades for it to conclude in a new country.

LA: That’s right.

HH: I’ll be right back with Dr. Larry Arnn as we move from Baltimore to the second crisis. We went from Baltimore to the first crisis, the first revolution. The second crisis, other people taking up arms that were not legitimate in the South.

— – – – –

HH: And we are beginning now a sequence of conversations about Lincoln and the second crisis. The first crisis in the American Republic was the crisis of its founding. The second was the crisis of its saving. And you know what’s interesting, Larry, I might be off on this, but 150 years ago last week, Abraham Lincoln was shot to death.

LA: Right.

HH: And I believe 150 years ago this week, his funeral train was passing through Baltimore. I could be off by a week or so, a day or so. But he did that tremendous, that movement by rail reversing his railroad trip to, from Illinois to Washington, D.C. And I believe the last stop of that was Baltimore, so the first stop on the reverse trip would have been Baltimore, correct?

LA: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. Yeah, very good. Yeah, and I had forgotten that.

HH: And so it’s an interesting juxtaposition. Now we’re going to talk about the second crisis. And it’s in this context. At the time that Lincoln presided over the second crisis, the violence had already broken out in Kansas and Missouri, bleeding Kansas. John Brown had gone down to Virginia. People were taking violent measures all over the country. What did Lincoln think about the John Browns and about the self-help abolitionists who existed in the country?

LA: Well, of course, Churchill, sorry, Churchill, I’m confusing the short great statesman for the long one.

HH: (laughing)

LA: (laughing) I’m confusing the man who drank all the time for the teetotaler.

HH: And the man with a beard for the man who never could grow a beard, right?

LA: That’s right. There you go. Lincoln denounced violence. He gave the Temperance Address to, and it was about, it was an appeal against mob rule and for the rule of law. And he gave it to the Women’s Temperance Union, which was allied with the abolition movement. So those two movements sort of came together as cornerstones of the Republican Party, which Lincoln helped to found, and my predecessors helped to found. And so yeah, Lincoln looked for a peaceful and Constitutional and lawful way to get rid of slavery in the United States, and he was prepared for that to be a gradual way. And so he would not condone violence, ever, until, by the way, federal facilities were attacked and secession happened, which Lincoln regarded as unconstitutional. And so you know, if you step back from that, what was the nature of the crisis? In the founding, the Declaration of Independence says all men are created equal, and all of those, and we have the testimony of every serious, prominent person who spoke about it, thought that that included black people. And yet there was slavery, including slaves held among people who signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And so Madison writes that we never mentioned slavery in the Constitution, because we didn’t want to enshrine it there, although we could not get rid of it while we were in the middle of the Revolution and founding a whole new kind of government at the same time. So then the country gets established, slavery is rapidly abolished in much, and soon enough, most of the Union. And in 1787, the Northwest Ordinance passes, and that provides for the first great expansion of the territory of the American Union.

HH: Including the great state of Ohio and the home of the Western Reserve, Warren.

LA: There you go.

HH: There you go.

LA: And that’s land that had been claimed by Virginia, and Virginia gave it to the Union on the motion of Thomas Jefferson on condition that there be no slavery allowed in it ever.

HH: You know, I never knew that until you told me that, and that is actually quite a remarkable fact.

LA: Oh, yeah.

HH: It’s a fact.

LA: And you know, the Northwest Ordinance is beautiful, and remember, the Northwest Ordinance is the first provision in human history for a free government to grow and add new territory and citizens. And it shows the way, right, that we grow across the whole Union, not colonies, but new, equal states full of equal citizens. And then no slaves…

HH: Had that never been tried before? When the Greeks would go out and sail forth, I guess they would not, would they, they would establish colonies?

LA: But the other thing is, the Greeks never achieved, no one ever achieved before us, government by consent of all the citizens, or as Madison said, the great body of the people. No one did that before we did it. And so of course, when we grew, that was the first time such a government grew. And it’s interesting that the Athenians, a democracy, which means a small minority of the adults who were citizens elected, ran the government and provided the legislature by public meeting. When Athens grew, it took colonies. In the Peloponnesian War, which resulted in the destruction of Athens and ultimately of Sparta, that started over fights about colonies with Sparta.

HH: And so our framers decided they would not grow that way, they would grow by accession of citizens organized by in sufficient numbers over sufficient amount of space. And I can’t remember the numbers, but you had to populate an area before you could appeal.

LA: 50,000 people.

HH: 50,000 people.

LA: And then when you got a certain number, you could get a certain kind of election. And first, they just appointed a governor and put some soldiers in there to keep the peace. But then when you got a certain number of citizens, then they could elect a territorial government. And then when they got a certain number more, then the territorial government could draft a constitution and submit it to Congress and apply for statehood.

HH: And this was not error free as we did allow Michigan to join.

LA: That’s right.

HH: And there did follow an Ohio-Michigan war, which Ohio won. And I want to point that out. But nevertheless, we did allow people, if they were contiguous, they got to apply.

LA: That’s right. That’s right. And there was a consensus, understand, that we would accept the Northwest territory on the condition, a contract with Virginia, that there be no slavery in it. And so there was no controversy about admitting only free states, right?

HH: You know, given what happened later with Calhoun, that’s really remarkable.

LA: Oh, yeah.

HH: And we’ve never spent much time on Calhoun and where that heresy, and it’s a heresy, developed.

LA: That’s right, and that’s, and by the way, Calhoun is connected to the historicism that was emerging in Europe in the 19th Century. He studied with a man who had studied with Hegel. And what he thought was not that all men are created equal under the laws of nature and of nature’s God. He thought that the blacks had evolved to an inferior place, and it would be an abomination to live with them as equal citizens. That’s what he wrote. He styled himself, by the way, as kind of an Aristotelian. And but he wasn’t that, and here’s the point, because people have to understand. When this crisis erupts, let me just dramatize the chronology a little bit, in 1787, the Northwest Ordinance is passed, and in 13 years, it’s 1800, and 20 more years, it’s 1820, so it’s 33 years later, one generation later. They can only let Missouri into the Union by a compromise that keeps the slave and the free states equal in number. So it changed at that generation.

HH: And when we come back, we’re going to talk about Lincoln’s response to that. It’s called the Electric Cord speech, and I’m going to ask Dr. Arnn to read the parts of it which he thinks are necessary, because it really does define the beginning of the second crisis.

— – – — –

HH: And what Dr. Arnn just said is somehow between the time of the Northwest Ordinance and the coming of the Civil War, there changed an understanding coming out of Calhounism, although I should add, Larry, Andrew Jackson did not buy into the idea of secession. And I want people to understand southerners did not buy into the idea that the Union was dissolvable at will.

LA: No, many didn’t, right, and that was like the American Revolution, by the way, slow in developing, because by 1820, you have a political force that wants to perpetuate slavery whereas there wasn’t one in 1787. And so the Civil War only breaks out 40 years after 1820. So it took a long time.

HH: And throughout that period of time, abolitionists were traveling, and for actually 150 years prior, they were traveling the country and agitating to abolish slavery. And they never stopped doing so.

LA: And it was abolished in many places.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And then the counterargument comes, and Calhoun’s argument, which is a historicist argument, right, not that we have a nature, but that we are a product of development and change over time like other species. And he doesn’t articulate that historicist thing clearly. He’s a complicated and confused man. And like if we want to punish any of our listeners, we could find a way to compel them to read through until they know the disquisition on government by Calhoun.

HH: Oh, that happened to me.

LA: Yeah.

HH: Bill Kristol made me do that. And you’re right.

LA: Yeah, I’ve had to do it myself.

HH: Do you make the Hillsdale students do it?

LA: We do, parts of it.

HH: (laughing) When they’ve been bad?

LA: And by the way, one of my greatest glories is I was teaching a Constitution class one time to a bunch of freshmen, and I mistakingly wrote that they had to read the whole thing in one week.

HH: (laughing)

LA: And a whole bunch of other stuff, too. And I was so proud of them, because nobody complained. And I thought I don’t know whether you guys are just too young and naïve, or whether you’re incredibly dutiful.

HH: Have you followed their careers subsequent? And how many are on public assistance? Do you know what happened to them after that?

LA: By the way, one of them has clerked on the Supreme Court of the United States.

HH: Oh, my goodness.

LA: (laughing)

HH: Oh, which this week heard, I hope he’s still on there, this week they heard the marriage cases, which might be the fourth crisis in American governance when the Supreme Court…

LA: Oh, man. Well, we’re in the third crisis right now.

HH: We’re in the third crisis.

LA: And that crisis is part of it.

HH: Well, let’s go back, because I’ll save you actually reading the speech afterwards. But Calhoun develops, Jackson develops, so Unionism develops, and this historicism develops, and they put America on a collision course.

LA: And they don’t like the Declaration of Independence, right? And now they read the Constitution with new eyes, because they think that these compromises with slavery are actually the point of the Constitution. And so they think that that’s the authoritative thing. This is a document that protects us in our peculiar institution. And so we can own other people if we please, and that’s what the Union is like.

HH: And they also make an argument, and help the audience understand, they don’t want to limit to the South. They want to break out. They want to in essence repeal Jefferson’s deal on the Northwest Ordinance.

LA: And you’ve also got to understand this, that yeah, so you know, the west, so what provoked the crisis that led to the Civil War? It was the combination of two things. The first was the advancement of the argument that slavery is a positive good. And the second was the vast new territories that we began to settle. And so they made it necessary to make a decision now between these two competing claims, one freedom and one slavery. And so that led to the Missouri Compromise, and that stuck for 30 years, and then it was remade in the Compromise of 1850. And then it was broken by a proposal by Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s archenemy in Illinois that each state just be allowed to vote for itself whatever it wants. Now here’s the problem. All these territories, you know, they live under federal law in the beginning, because there’s no state government to have a law. And slavery, it turns out, requires a lot of enforcement, because the slaves, despite their great happiness being slaves, they keep trying to run away.

HH: Which tells us something.

LA: And so you’ve got to stop them.

HH: Yeah, yeah.

LA: And so you can go read it. It’s in our Constitution Reader, the Alabama Slave Code. And one of the things that it requires, by the way, and there are some people who argued that the South was really the place for limited government. The Alabama Slave Code requires that every free, white male ride posse one night a month looking for runaways whether he was a slaveholder or no. It restricted how many black people could assemble at any one time, how long they could stay together, how long they could go inside a structure. And you had a have a government to look into all those things.

HH: A vast, intrusive, ever-growing government. So that is the repudiation. When we come back from break, we’ll talk about how this began to appear in the rhetoric of young Abraham Lincoln, especially on a July 10, 1858 speech which everyone ought to have memorized.

— – – —

HH: Right now, we want to turn to what is known as the Electric Cord speech. I’ve got a brand new book coming out in about six weeks which quotes this week, which is one of Dr. Larry Arnn’s favorite. Set this up and read any excerpt you want, Dr. Arnn, and we’ll have to come back to it in weeks ahead as we talk about how the crisis of 1858 through 1865 unfolded.

LA: Yeah, so remember about this crisis that like the Revolutionary War, it is a crisis about the meaning of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and whether those principles are authoritative in our land or not. And that, by the way, is what the current crisis has to do with as well. So Lincoln gave the nearest thing to a 4th of July speech he ever gave on July 10th, 1858, and he did it in the middle of one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. He’s debating with Lincoln, and he’s in Chicago, and he stops, and he comments on the fact that there’s been a 4th of July celebration going on for a few days. America was a better party place than it used to be, I guess. So it says that he turns, and he says, you know, these gatherings on the 4th of July have been going on for a long time. And they have their uses. Let me tell you what I think they might be. And this, by the way, is one of the most beautiful things ever written about what it is to be an American. And I, myself grew up proud of this, and I learned this when I was a boy. And I have learned to love it much more deeply as I’ve grown older. But it’s the reason why you and me, Hugh, who are a couple of nobodies, right? I mean, God help us, you’re from Ohio.

HH: (laughing)

LA: And we can have careers and feel like we can do anything we work hard enough to do.

HH: Yup.

LA: We are now a mighty nation. So the point at the beginning of the thing is on the 4th of July, we get together and we talk about how great we’ve all become. You know, we are about 30, or about 30 million people, and we own and inhabit one-fifteenth part of the dry land of the whole Earth. Isn’t that great? Lincoln talked like that. We run our memory back over the pages of history for about 82 years, and we see that we’ve gotten bigger, he says, and more land and a lot more of us. And we think that must be connected back to the beginning. And we fix upon something, he says, that happened a way back, as in some way or another being connected with this rise of prosperity. We find a race of men living in that day whom we claim as our fathers and grandfathers. And this is, you have to, when you read this, you should get this phrase. They were iron men, right?

HH: Yeah.

LA: He’s just saying, you know, they’re out on the frontier, that’s what Illinois was then, and all this has become so big and so much opportunity. And it must have started with those iron men, he said. They fought for the principle that they were contending for. And we understood that by what they did then, it follows that we get what we have now. And we hold this out, and there’s a celebration about that, right?

HH: Right, the 4th.

LA: So that’s a summary, an entire summary of a classic 4th of July speech. But then he stops and he introduces a problem. He says we don’t come from those men. He says we have come later. He says half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe, German, Irish, French and Scandinavian, men that have come from Europe themselves or ancestors came after this race of iron men. And so how are we connected to them? We are not, he said, blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh of the fathers who came before us. Do you hear the Bible?

HH: Yeah.

LA: You see, it’s not the Hebrews descended from the one chosen by God. And those iron men are not our fathers. And we find that we do not have a connection with them of blood. And so what is there for us, he says? But when they look, he says, through that old Declaration of Independence, they find that those old men say that we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. And then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration. And the record shows that there’s loud and long and continued applause when he says that. So you can hear our fathers rising to that, because in the Declaration of Independence, see, they rebel against a king. And the king writes to them and says I am born to this station, and you are born to yours, and we must both fill our stations, and we have no choice about it.

HH: And Lincoln denies that, and he says you are linked, and that’s what gets the standing O.

LA: That is why we are blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration. That, he says, is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, and that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world. Now think about that. First of all, he wrote that. Second of all, he’s in an argument with a man who is claiming that the founding of American, the Constitution of the United States, is neutral about whether a state would vote that some people could own other people. And in the middle of arguing the details of that, which by the way, Lincoln was brilliant, in the middle of arguing that, he stops and he gets everybody on their feet by reminding them of the language that made America, and also relating that language to the language that created God’s chosen people.

HH: When we come back in our last three minute segment in this week’s Hillsdale Dialogue, Larry Arnn, I have to talk about one thing that has always struck me about this speech.

— – — –

HH: In this speech, Larry Arnn, I wanted to point out he used a metaphor, the electric cord, which makes this speech accessible to this era in the second millennium, 150 years later. It’s such an act of genius to have used the electric cord, because that will never not be a metaphor that people will understand. And most speeches can’t cross that hurdle.

LA: So it comes from, it comes from, electric comes from a Latin word that has to do with amber, which was a substance, rubbing substance that causes a kind of a shock or something. You know, if you rub yourself with amber, it produces electricity, and it produces, it’s like eating a lot of raw mint, right? So you know, we named the modern philosophy electricity after that. So Lincoln knew that thing.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And it is powerful, see, and what he thinks is, he’s describing something vibrant and alive. And if you add to that, that this idea of being blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh through a conviction or a principle is kind of like the movement from Judaism to Christianity. And so Lincoln’s appeal is Biblical in two profound senses and as the Declaration of Independence is also Biblical in profound senses. And so our freedom and our equality are established in language that is also Divine.

HH: Yeah, oh, and that will link those patriotic hearts, not just any heart, patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world. There’s a precondition, and we’ll come back to that. One minute, Larry Arnn, you’ve got to have a love of freedom, or it isn’t going to work.

LA: That’s right.

HH: Dr. Larry Arnn of the Hillsdale College, always a pleasure. All of the Hillsdale Dialogues are available at And of course, all of the Hillsdale College online lectures are available at And if you are not getting Imprimis, you ought to get Imprimis, because the next issue of Imprimis is probably going to have their commencement address in it, and greet that young reporter from the streets of Baltimore for me, and thank him for exercising on behalf of all of us the important power of reporting and observing on behalf of people who were not there. Larry Arnn, always a pleasure.

End of interview.


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