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State of American History, Civics, and Politics

R.I.P. Party of Lincoln (1856-2016)

Lincoln Memorial

In the past few days, some Republicans have mentioned the name no Republican presidential candidate dares mention: Abraham Lincoln. No self-respecting candidate seeking to survive the primary gauntlet would be so foolish as to utter the name of America’s greatest president. There simply is no place in the Party of Malice for Lincoln.

Democrats deserve no kudos either. They opposed Lincoln when he was alive and with their relentless pursuit of victimhood and identity politics, there is no place for him there either today.

We face the prospect of a presidential election when the candidates of the two national parties are under indictment and instead of hope, hate will be watchword.

Despite the abandonment of Lincoln from national discourse, it is still worth considering what he had to say both for what he achieved then and what he could achieve today if only there was a place for him in national politics. In a debate with Stephen Douglas on July 10, 1858, in Chicago, the future President redefined how one was to define an American in a way those today who despise him have not yet learned.

“We are now a mighty nation…We run our memory back over the pages of history for about eighty-two years [to 1776] and we discover that we were then a very small people in point of numbers, vastly inferior to what we are now, with a vastly less extent of country,-with vastly less of everything we deem desirable among men….We find a race of men living in that day whom we claim as our fathers and grandfathers; …they fought for the principle that they were contending for; and we understood that by what they then did it has followed that the degree of prosperity that we now enjoy has come to us. We hold this annual celebration [on July 4] to remind ourselves of all the good done in this process of time of how it was done and who did it, and how we are historically connected with it; and we go from these meetings in better humor with ourselves-we feel more attached the one to the other and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit.”

Notice what Abraham Lincoln was doing here. He reminded Americans that it is the annual celebration of July 4 that links the people of the present to the heroic forefathers who had created and built this prosperous country four-score and two years ago. This connection he referred to seems biological in nature. But suppose one wasn’t a Son or a Daughter of the American Revolution? Could one still fully celebrate July 4? Now listen to Lincoln’s answer:

“We have besides these men-descended by blood from our ancestors-among us perhaps 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 whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things. If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us,”

How is it possible for immigrants to this country to celebrate a holiday to which they have no biological connection?

“but when they look 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 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, (loud and long continued applause) and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.”

For Lincoln, one did not need to be a blood-descendant of the American Revolution to be one with the spirit of the event. Immigrants were entitled to have their shot at living the American Dream. Through adherence to the principles of the Declaration of Independence every American stood as one with those who had fought and died for America’s birth. The new Republican Party that Lincoln had joined was the immigrant party (except maybe not so clearly the party of the Irish) and later the Black Party, the party whose political interests were served by reaching out newly arrived and newly enfranchised. By disavowing immigrant restrictions it succeeded in holding on to a fair share of the foreign-born vote, especially among younger Protestant voters. These immigrants from Scandinavia, France and Cornwall, among other places, supported Lincoln, Union and America.

So now think again about these familiar words from the Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” When Lincoln said “our fathers” he knew that many people in the audience were not descendants of those who had founded the country. But Lincoln was not excluding them by this word choice, for by examining his words from five years earlier we see that he knew how much of America and the support of the Union depended on the immigrants to this country. In 1858 he had merely referred to the “moral sentiments” that connected the immigrants to the Founding Fathers; now, in the midst of the Civil War, he asserted they had been baptized by blood into the American covenant community. Those who fought to preserve the Union stood as one with those who had fought in the war to create the Union. They sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic with the same gusto that Americans once had sung Yankee Doodle Dandy. They were Americans by Choice.

As we just celebrated the Sesquicentennial of the Homestead Act, the Morrill-Land-Grant Colleges Act, and the Pacific Railway Act launching the Transcontinental Railroad, I am reminded that even without the Civil War Abraham Lincoln was a great President who understood America as a great work always in progress, that he acted to ensure people would have a home to call their own, the education to be able to live the American Dream, and the infrastructure to connect the country. To fulfill the American Dream in the 21st century, our immigrant country needs to be inspired not just by Lincoln’s monument and legacy, but by people who reach for his vision, his eloquence, and his leadership. Who will tell his story? Lincoln may belong to the ages, but does he still belong to the Republican Party?

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

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