[NOTE up front: a much shorter version of this blog was published by the excellent History News Network]
On the 150th anniversary of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, who would Lincoln endorse?
Almost all presidential candidates spice their speeches with mentions of Abraham Lincoln. Romney and Obama follow suit. Obama likes to paraphrase Lincoln’s idea that “through government, we should be able to do together what we can't do as well on our own.” Romney claims Lincoln’s legacy more directly. “The ‘last best hope of earth,’” declares his website, “was what Abraham Lincoln called our country. Mitt Romney believes in fulfilling the promise of Lincoln’s words.”
Who is right? Would Lincoln endorse Romney? Or Obama? It's a big and complex question but it has a straightforward answer.
Lincoln penned the words quoted on the Romney website—“last best hope”—150 years ago in early December 1862. Nine weeks earlier—on September 22, 1862—he had issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which promised to free all slaves in rebellious states that failed to return to the Union by January 1. No state came back. Lincoln’s “last best hope,” then, was an activist U.S. that would free slaves and win the war. It was also a Union that promoted the greater good through economic intervention. When Obama notes that Lincoln could not elected in today’s Republican Party, he is correct. Were Lincoln alive, one suspects he would endorse Obama.
Far from being Lincoln’s heir, Romney is heir to his 1860 opponent, Stephen Douglas, the states’ rights Democrat called “The Little Giant.” It was Douglas who convinced Congress to renounce its power to stop slavery’s spread by passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. Each territory would now decide whether or not to legalize slavery prior to statehood.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act spawned civil war in Kansas overnight. It also decimated Northern Democrats, who promptly lost two-thirds of their Congressional seats. That fiasco left room for a new party, the Republicans.
Republicans drew not only disaffected Democrats but also Whigs. The mighty Whigs—who had elected two presidents—failed to nominate a standard bearer in 1856. In replacing them, Republicans retained a Whig philosophy. Lincoln himself was a former Whig.
Republicans, like Whigs, touted the “American System,” meaning subsidies for infrastructure—railroads, telegraphs, harbors, canals, roads—and universities. In many respects, they prefigured Obama’s platform.
When confronted by Lincoln’s dedication to economic intervention, Tea Party conservatives resort to backflips and handsprings to prove that Lincoln was one of them. Bill O’Reilly, author of a pedestrian Lincoln book, insists that Lincoln was nothing but a laissez-faire man who wanted government out of the marketplace. Some very famous scholars agree, including one of the ancient dons of the Leo Strauss school, Harry Jaffa, who, as speechwriter for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign penned the line “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is not a virtue.” Jaffa wrote two provocative volumes on Abraham Lincoln. Essentially, he argues that Lincoln brought political history to an end by freeing the slaves and creating a level playing field for free-market capitalism to thrive. With all his brilliance—Jaffa is a genuine scholar, not a Fox News pundit playing scholar—he refuses to understand the core of Lincoln’s economic philosophy, which was interventionist. Nor does Jaffa recognize that it took much more than the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment to create a level playing field ... the struggle for a level playing field continues today.
It was in Lincoln’s presidency that Henry Clay’s “American System” triumphed. Obama notes that even “in the middle of the Civil War,” Lincoln “helped to make the Transcontinental Railroad possible, the land grant colleges, the National Academy [of Sciences].” Obama is right. Lincoln—with his Republican supporters in Congress—financed a bevy of railroads, including trans-continentals. Equally important, they created land-grant universities, which put the U.S. on the high road to technological preeminence. They also promoted small business—and helped people get homes—by passing homestead acts, acts that modern Republicans would call “government giveaways.” Lincoln’s Republicans, finally, extended the vote to blacks.
That brings up the question of Lincoln and race. Not to put too fine a polish on the matter, Lincoln was a racist. He did not foresee a black president. Indeed he foresaw—and tried to create—a vast black emigration to Africa. Even on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation, he was still touting plans for African-American “colonization” outside the U.S. His racial attitudes reflected those of his Midwestern constituents, where whites tended to oppose slavery but did not view blacks as equals.
Unlike most Midwestern whites, however—unlike the Democrats who backed Stephen Douglas—Lincoln committed himself to stopping slavery’s spread. In no uncertain terms, he called slavery a moral wrong. Yet he did not overreach; he crafted his racial politics to suit political realities. He knew how to hold together a coalition to bring about change. He took pains to craft an Emancipation Proclamation that freed no slaves in the loyal border states, realizing full well that any such move might cause them to secede (“I hope to have God on my side,” he once said, “but I must have Kentucky”). Had Lincoln pushed for abolition at the outset of his administration, he would have lost the war.
As the war wound down, Lincoln continued to steer a moderate line viz. civil rights. He pursued a soft Reconstruction policy that asked—did not demand, but simply asked—southern states to permit educated blacks and black veterans to vote. Lincoln was eager to end resistance and restore peace; to accomplish that he softened his politics. I suspect that had he lived, his dedication to progress and justice would have pushed him toward more assertive plans. He simply did not live long enough to fight the “black codes” that in effect reinstated slavery. Nor did he live long enough to see former Confederates engage in campaigns of terror to stop blacks from voting.
The cause of civil rights, indeed, was never far from Lincoln’s mind, despite his moderation. It was Lincoln, indeed, who instructed Congress to create a Freedmen’s Bureau to protect freed peoples’ voting rights—and to protect their right to get educations and be heard in court. In addition to its civil rights mission, the bureau—like modern FEMA—provided whites and blacks alike with provisions and medical care so they could weather the war’s devastation. Unlike Romney, Lincoln used government to help those in need.
In the final analysis, Lincoln’s vision comports not with Romney and his Tea Party base, but with Obama and the Democrats. Obama, like Lincoln, promotes growth by subsidizing infrastructure—roads, bridges, broadband, clean energy—and higher education. Obama also enhanced a different “infrastructure”—health insurance—by making it universal. Like Lincoln, he uses government to help Americans weather devastation. Obama saved Detroit, extended unemployment benefits, cut taxes on middle-class families, and seeks to spare FEMA and Medicare from Romney’s cuts. Like Lincoln, finally, he upholds voting rights by opposing voter ID laws.
It is critical to remember, too, that Lincoln helped create Obama’s coalition of middle- and working-class whites in alliance with people of color. Some of Lincoln’s fellow Republicans sought to add women to the mix by granting suffrage and new rights. Women’s suffrage, however, awaited Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, when Democrats and Republicans switched roles as reformers. Women now comprise a key part of Obama’s electorate. Opposing Lincoln’s Republicans, meanwhile, were Southern whites (former Confederates) and their states’ rights sympathizers in the lower Midwest. Mormons, too, opposed Republicans, who had attacked the “twin relics of barbarism,” polygamy and slavery. All three groups now support Romney.
Were Lincoln alive, he would see Obama as a kindred Illinois legislator who, with minimal national experience, became president (both served two years in Congress before launching their campaigns). Lincoln would see Romney, by contrast, as a latter-day Stephen Douglas who refuses to use federal power to solve problems.
By the standards of modern Republicans, Lincoln was a socialist. By the standards of his 1860s opponents, he was a “dictator” and a “black Republican” who would force white women to marry blacks. Obama’s detractors, similarly, deny he’s American, call him a “welfare king,” a Nazi, a communist, a Muslim, or whatever is handy. Some mutter of overthrowing his “dictatorship,” just as Southerners overthrew Lincoln by seceding. Given the unprecedented number of threats against Obama—not to mention actual plots—only vigilant police work keeps John Wilkes Booth at bay.
To vote Obama is to vote for the future Lincoln wanted. To vote Romney is to vote for something else.