Sunday, May 10, 2009

Abraham Lincoln: Once Nominated By But Now Alien To The Republican Party

Earlier this year, Abraham Lincoln took the top spot in C-SPAN's second "Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership." It's one distinction among many that he might have never achieved were it not for some crafty antics at the 1860 Republican Convention, held in Chicago nearly a century and a half ago this week.

The frontrunner for the party's nomination at the 1860 convention was not Lincoln, but William Seward of New York:
Confident that Seward would not have enough votes to lock up the nomination on the first ballot, Lincoln intended to get the second highest vote county on the first ballot and line up additional votes for the second ballot in order to show increasing strength. He hoped that this strategy -- combined with the presence of an enthusiastic band of followers, on the floor -- would be sufficient to win the nomination on the third or subsequent ballot.
To help execute this strategy, Lincoln turned to David Davis, "a trusted friend," as well as Norman Judd, whose influence was key to securing the convention in Chicago. In their pursuit of victory, Lincoln asked Davis and Judd to "make no deals that bind me" -- counsel that Davis ignored when he promised a cabinet position to Pennsylvania's Simon Cameron to secure the state's backing on the convention's second ballot.

In addition, Davis and Judd "made certain that Seward's New Yorkers were seated far from other critical delegations with whom they might collaborate," and they "printed hundreds of counterfeit tickets and distributed them to Lincoln supporters with instructions to show up early in order to displace Seward's supporters." The latter trick worked like a charm on the convention's third day: An estimated one thousand Seward boosters were denied entrance to the convention hall because Lincoln supporters had used their counterfeit tickets and taken the Seward group's seats.

From there, the first-second-third ballot scenario played out much as Lincoln had hoped it would, securing him the nomination.

I doubt that Lincoln would have fared as well with the GOP nomination in 2008.

The contemporary system of selecting candidates via state contests long before party conventions are held negates the opportunity for convention deceits like those mounted by Davis and Judd -- which means Lincoln's fate would have been decided by a group of Republicans who might not recognize him as one of their own.

Of course, some people said the same thing about John McCain -- before he won the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries; before the party closed ranks around him; before he proceeded to play footsies with the "agents of intolerance" he had once denounced. I just can't see Lincoln making a similar 180-degree turn -- and no, I don't find the opportunism of Lincoln's lieutenants in 1860 comparable to McCain's suppression of his own principles in 2008.

There are at least a few traits in common between Lincoln and today's GOP.

For instance: Like Sarah Palin -- the base's once and and perhaps future queen -- Lincoln was the product of small-town America. Also, much as contemporary Republican leaders contend with Rush Limbaugh, Lincoln tangled with his own larger-than-life loudmouth, Horace Greeley. And then there's "W," who effectively channeled Lincoln as he stubbornly executed a war that didn't go according to its original vision, stretching the limits of executive power in the process, including the selection suspension of habeas corpus.

Such similarities notwithstanding, the list of differences between Lincoln and today's GOP strikes me as far more substantial. We'll review one of those differences today and several more next Sunday.

The pervasive influence of Evangelical Christians within the Republican Party has been well documented by Kevin Phillips and others. If anything is consistent about these Christians, it's their conviction that their interpretation of Christ and Christianity is unassailable. Lincoln would have been hard pressed to satisfy that litmus test.

Last year, the Chicago Tribune's Eric Zorn liberally excerpted from a portrait of Lincoln's conflicted religious views drawn by Professor Gerald Prokopowicz in his 2008 book on common questions about Lincoln. Among other things, Prokopowicz writes:
The answers to questions about Lincoln's church membership are not the ones that most people are hoping to hear. He was never a member of a church you attend, or any church. His religious beliefs were dynamic, complex, and powerful, but not conventional.
Prokopowicz goes on to acknowledge that the Lincoln of 1864 was perhaps a different man than the one nominated in 1860:
. . . Lincoln's old friend Joshua Speed paid a visit to Washington. In a lecture he gave after the war, Speed claimed that he came upon Lincoln reading the Bible, and gently mocked him for it, asking if Lincoln had recovered from his youthful skepticism. Lincoln, according to Speed, said that he had and urged Speed to do the same. Indicating the Bible, Lincoln told Speed that he should "take all of this book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier man."
If accurate, Speed's anecdote suggests a later-life Lincoln who might have won the confidence of today's evangelical Christians -- but that assumption relies on several things not happening:

First, the alleged transgressions of Lincoln's youth would not have come back to haunt him. (Those transgressions included a rumored association in his early 20's with "freethinkers who doubted the divinity of Jesus," and an essay Lincoln purportedly authored around the same time "mocking the idea that Jesus was the son of God." The latter, according to Prokopowicz, was subsequently destroyed by "friends, anxious to protect [Lincoln's] budding political career.")

Second, that Lincoln's wife, if questioned, would not have made statements like the one she made in an 1866 interview, wherein she was quoted as saying Lincoln "was not a technical Christian."

Third, that his political opponents would not have accused Lincoln of being a non-believer -- or that they would have been as unsuccessful in doing so as was Peter Cartwright, the Methodist preacher whom Lincoln defeated in his 1846 race for the U.S. House.

I'm going to make a half-educated guess that one or more of those three factors would have tripped up Lincoln with today's Evangelicals.

At the very least, it's
reasonable to assume contemporary Evangelicals would have been less than satisfied with statements as vague as the one Lincoln issued in response to Cartwright's accusations, which (per Prokopowicz) was "the longest explanation of [Lincoln's] religious beliefs he would ever write." In it, Lincoln said, "I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular."

Granted, there are Republican-inclined voters today who would likely embrace Lincoln's "dynamic, complex, and powerful, but not conventional" faith. David Brooks appears to be one of them. Unfortunately, it has been a long time since Brooks-style Republicans have called the shots on the party's presidential nominee.

IMAGES (Top to bottom): Lincoln is nominated in the Republican "Wigwam" in Chicago; Torch-wielding "Wide Awake" adherents march in support of Lincoln; William Seward; Lincoln; Joshua Speed; Peter Cartwright; Mary Todd Lincoln.
Pete Abel is managing editor of He has two decades of experience in public affairs, first as a freelance reporter and later as a full-time staff writer for the St. Louis Suburban Journals, covering municipal politics and local businesses. From 1989 to 2003, he contributed to and managed projects involving public policy and other issues for Fortune 500 clients. Today, in addition to his freelance writing, he is a public affairs executive and avid supporter of health and arts organizations.

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