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[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.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Convincingly argued, and not only Lincoln (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    GOPGO2H3LL, doc durango

    Your argument is compelling, and I think we could extend it to some other Republican Presidents. Would Teddy Roosevelt fit into the modern Republican Party? Or Dwight Eisenhower, who had no strong party affiliations before both parties courted him as a Presidential candidate?
     As you note with the Stephen Douglas reference, Romney really fits the mold of the "doughface Democrats" like Pierce & Buchanan: northerners who, whether out of conviction or cynical calculation, proved servile to the south. Among Republicans, I might compare him to the slippery and sleazy James Blaine, first Republican to lose a Presidential run after the Civil War. Even Romney's now-famous $50k per plate dinner resembles Blaine's "Belshazzar's feast" with Jay Gould and Commodore Vanderbilt, that may have cost him New York State and the election (along with his failure to challenge  the  religious and ethnic bigotry of the preacher who called Democrats  the party of "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion."

    "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be." - Thomas Jefferson

    by Blue Boomer on Thu Sep 20, 2012 at 11:06:33 AM PDT

  •  Breckenridge, not Douglas, (0+ / 0-)

    Romney represents the dominant economic class the plutocracy, as Breckenridge represented the slaveocracy. Romney is unfettered by Citizen's United as the South was by Dred Scott. Romney defends a plantation economy.
    Douglas was caught in the middle by Lincoln, who split the Dems. Lincoln was not an abolitionist like Seward, but was a conservative originally from the slave belt, an old Whig railroad lawyer. Obama has similar downstate conservative proclivities. There's little to compare in today's Dems, who share power and compromise, with the radical GOP of the 1860's that transformed the nation. Confronted with an economic secessionist GOP today that is bent on offshoring the economy, Obama has to protect national unity to remain relevant.

    •  interesting (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I didn't expect a reply defending 1860s Republicans as radicals.  It's legit to say that the were radical in 1866 but probably not in 1864 or 1868.  No land redistribution to the freedmen.  No real muscle behind the Freedmen's Bureau.  The war, followed by Johnson's intransigence, created a brief window for radical to take control of Congress, but overall I don't see Repubs as radicals in the 1860s and 1870s.

      But your reply is interesting and bears consideration, that's for sure.

      Also interesting that you think Obama has conservative downstate proclivities like Lincoln.  I agree.  Both are compromisers.  It will be interesting to see how true that is in a second Obama term.  I suspect he'll be more forceful, especially if he has a Dem. House and Senate (doubtful that he'll have a Dem House, but possible).

      As I said in my post, I think Lincoln would have been more assertive in his second term, once he understood the full measure of Southern intransigence.

      Thanks for the reply.

    •  also (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Romney as Breckinridge ... hmm.  I'd perhaps put Palin or Perry in that role.  Romney is more like Douglas insofar as he's a sellout, not a pro-secession ideologue.

      •  we're not talking southern (0+ / 0-)

        dominance anymore, the plutocrats took over, checked by TR and FDR now unfettered. They are economically secessionist by offshoring middle class jobs, also their savings and not paying taxes. Romney is the patron saint of that class, Perry and Palin are only actors, Mitt is the real thing as was Breckinridge, not the compromising Douglas.

        •  simplisitc (0+ / 0-)

          We are talking about southerners.  It's still the South that votes solidly R, minus of course Florida, which goes both ways.

          The Republican constituency of 1860, 1864, 1868 is markedly similar to today's Democratic constituency.  And vice versa.

          You can write it all off to the rich being in control, but they're only in control because Southern whites vote solidly R, and have done so for many elections.  And why?  Because Dems supported Civil Rights, beginning in 1948.

          Don't even tell me that this is just that rich people bought off the country.  Money corrupts, but it only does so with the support of a racist South.  Then and now.

        •  put it this way (0+ / 0-)

          I think that Obama gets about 40-43% of the white vote in the U.S. at large.  That's an embarrassment to me as a white person, and I have never understood it.  It's not only racism at work; or, maybe it is, but it's a racism that is expressed as love for hard work.  Meaning that brown or black people are spongers, so we won't vote for them.

          At any rate ... if one subtracts the vote of the entire South, the numbers would be very different.  Take out the Deep South plus the upper South, including Kentucky and Missouri (which both stayed in the Union but did so reluctantly), and I bet you'd find that about 55% of the white vote is for Obama.

          If you take out the Rocky Mtn. West, it would be even higher.

          So the idea that it's all about money buying pols doesn't entirely hold up.  That's a big part of the problem, but it's a problem in large part because Southern whites vote knee-jerk for Republican candidates.  And they do so because they're products of a racist culture.  I'm not saying it's the same racism as 1860 ... far from it.  It's much milder ... even seemingly benign.  It's now merely "black people are dependents," rather than black people are inferiors.

          At any rate, the problem here is not all about money.  That's a Nader perspective and it is almost willfully blind, and counter-productive.

          •  Thanks, love it, what an important point. (0+ / 0-)

            After Buckley  the newly racist,  carpetbagging GOP stopped the New South. Carter's New South had to fight both Northern Dems (Congress, Teddy Kennedy) and the GOP. It was a battle the New South lost within the Democratic Party, which became more of a regional party thereby. Wallace in the 80's was a proponent of civil rights and remains the model for completing the civil rights revolution. The GOP offered basically resegregation, and a moneyed structure. As Reed, Abramoff, talk radio  demonstrate, racist politics is not self-sustaining, it takes a lot of rich people's money, and in elections available after Buckley. It's not that we have plutocrats, it's that they get to dominate free speech. What Carter started would get completed a lot sooner without big money in politics, then you could go back to the model that elected Wallace to his final term. The GOP is not going to permit transformation without a money war. The historic failure is with the Dems who simply abandoned their homeland and historic identity as democrats rather than take on a transformative mission, basically ignoring the full import of Fannie Lou Hamer, Bayard Rustin, Carter, a reconstructed Wallace, and of course LBJ. What the Dems lost in the bargain was a tradition of genuine populism now channeled into GOP fringe secessionism. Clinton showed what the task would be like, but didn't go all in. Hillary, now a New Yorker, really has a shot at it if the party shifted. The GOP is way ahead of the Dems in promoting Rubio. The opportunity for a transformative landslide in this election is not even thought about or intended. My own personal preference is that the Dems take on a money out of politics agenda, and certainly a 50-state agenda which if done well, will realign the parties, with the Dems retaking the South, providing the model there for integration and secular democracy, and the GOP either out of business or acquiescing to this new model of politics. What's history for, if not to think outside the box from time to time?    

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