The party of Lincoln loses its way
In the wake of November's electoral debacle, the Republican Party is picking a new national chairman. On Jan. 5, the six announced candidates held a debate in Washington. Most of the attention of the media focused on a question about whether thes...
In the wake of November's electoral debacle, the Republican Party is picking a new national chairman.
On Jan. 5, the six announced candidates held a debate in Washington. Most of the attention of the media focused on a question about whether these men - and they are all men, of course - owned guns. All do, with the exception of Michael Steele, former lieutenant governor of Maryland. Steele's failure to own firearms is a character flaw indicating dangerous liberal tendencies to some in the "Gun Owners' Party."
More interesting than the gun answer, to my mind, was the candidates' response to the question of who was the greatest Republican president. To a man, they named Ronald Reagan.
This may seem a bit surprising, especially in light of the fact that next month we will celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of the man most historians, myself included, consider to be the greatest president of either party in the nation's history, Abraham Lincoln.
There was a time, within many of our memories, when Republicans were proud to call themselves the party of Lincoln, but things are different now. Lincoln hasn't changed, but the party has, so that he is now less an honored ancestor than an embarrassing one - a funny uncle who just happened to call himself a Republican.
Fact is, the principles for which Lincoln stood make modern Republicans distinctly uncomfortable. Look at his thinking about opportunity. He believed in an activist federal government that provided opportunities to less affluent people. One of the signature measures of his administration, the Morrill Land-Grant College Act, was designed to provide educational opportunities to the "sons and daughters of the industrial classes." Another, the Homestead Act, made free land available to citizens and even - gasp! - non-citizens. Sounds dangerously liberal, if not downright socialistic, doesn't it?
Then there's the matter of religion in public life. As Lincoln's presidency unfolded, he thought more deeply and spoke more frequently about God's purposes for and judgment of the United States. But he didn't claim to speak for God, nor was he so presumptuous as to pretend to know God's will. He didn't claim to enjoy God's special favor, nor did he use God to beat his opponents over the head. Instead, he reflected, most notably in his second inaugural address, on whether the Civil War was God's punishment on all Americans for tolerating the sin of slavery. That doesn't sound very Republican, does it?
Finally, there's that unpleasant reality of slavery. Not only did Lincoln free the slaves, in the largest confiscation of private property in American history, he also hoped for the eventual equality of blacks and whites. Is it any wonder there is declining reverence for a guy like that in a party increasingly dominated by Southern white men?
So it's not surprising that Lincoln's reputation has declined in the party of Lincoln. He has gone from Founding Father to youthful indiscretion, like an ill-advised marriage or a stint in rehab. But that's OK. Republicans have the right to honor whomever they chose, and if they want to worship at the Gipper's alter, more power to them. As for me, I think I'll stick with the Great Emancipator.
Danbom is a university professor of history and regular contributor to The Forum's commentary pages. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org