Sunday, May 17, 2009

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


Religion is not the only potential point of conflict between Lincoln and the GOP's contemporary base. There's also the matter of the former President's all-encompassing commitment to the Union -- a commitment that Robert Allen Rutland highlights multiple times in his book on Republican presidents, starting with Lincoln's famous speech in June 1858, in which he said:
'A house divided against itself cannot stand.' I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
More than a year later, Lincoln visited Kansas -- a state central to the burgeoning civil conflict -- and warned that "if the South should undertake to destroy the Union, 'it will be our duty to deal with you as old John Brown has been dealt with.' " (Rutland, p. 33) John Brown, of course, was the radical abolitionist who was tried and convicted of treason and executed around the time that Lincoln visited Kansas.

So complete was Lincoln's resolve to preserve the Union that in 1862, in seeming contradiction to his "house divided" speech, he wrote (Rutland, p. 51): "If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves I would do it . . . and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would do it."

Now, contrast Lincoln's commitment to the Union to the secessionist fantasies of Glenn Beck and Chuck Norris and Texas Governor Rick Perry, not to mention the outright secession threats made by the Georgia state Senate last month.

It would be unfair to suggest that all or even most Republicans think like Perry, Beck, Norris and virtually every Georgia state senator. In fact, if put to a vote, an estimated three-fourths of Perry's fellow Texans told Rasmussen Reporters they would reject secession. However, nearly 20 percent say they would favor it, and there are some people who suspect this almost-20 percent line up with the far-right GOP "base" -- ie., the most passionate party voters, whose turnout or lack thereof can make or break a Republican candidate's nomination hopes. (For what
it's worth, the results of another poll more than double the percentage of those with a secession-favorable mindset.)

Such developments shouldn't surprise us. The "Old South" or "Confederacy Lite" that once threatened secession and reviled Lincoln is now the GOP's most reliable voting block. The change in party fealty started with the election of President Eisenhower in 1952 "in part out of resentment stemming from Truman's integration of the armed forces." (Rutland, p. 209) The realignment gained momentum behind Nixon's first, failed run for the Presidency in 1960 (Rutland, p. 219). The trend was all but completed when President Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law (Rutland, p. 222) -- and any remaining doubts about the durability of the Old South's newfound allegiance to the GOP were dashed with Regan's landslide victory over Mondale in 1984. (Rutland, p. 241):
As historian Kevin Phillips had predicted, the flag burnings and drug scenes of the 1960s had alienated voters 'who were Democrats largely because a century earlier their families had worn Confederate gray.' Reagan gave them an excuse to leave their Democratic moorings behind.
Beyond Evangelical Christians and Old South secessionists, the other, often-reliable GOP voting factions are self-proclaimed free marketeers and domestic-spending hawks. They too might have found reason to doubt Lincoln.

Roughly 40 years before Teddy Roosevelt spooked corporate chieftains with his "wish to make them subserve the public good" (Rutland, p. 133), Lincoln defined Republicans as being "for both the man and the dollar, but in the case of conflict, the man before the dollar" (Rutland, p. 3).

Moreover, Lincoln and the Republican controlled Thirty-Seventh Congress "probably passed more progressive legislation than any Republican-controlled session before or since." (Rutland, p. 52) -- funding railroad expansion to the Pacific coast, "a system for financing higher education," and a massive, virtual give-away of public lands.

For all of the reasons cited in this essay, I don't believe Lincoln would get very far in today's GOP. Then again, I'm not convinced he would find a home among the Democrats either, despite their tug-of-war attempts to claim him. If that last assumption is accurate, would it make us think less of Lincoln? I doubt it. In fact, I suspect Lincoln's exclusion from both major parties would only reinforce our abiding respect for the singular nature of the man and his legacy.

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.

No comments: