by Matt Sarge
The 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, one of history’s finest and most succinct pieces of oratory, has brought the character of Abraham Lincoln to the forefront of public discourse. With time having eroded most of the controversies of his presidency, Lincoln is now viewed nearly unanimously in a positive light for having guided the nation through one of its most trying moments, and for ending one of America’s greatest enduring sins – slavery. As such a powerful and well-regarded figure, Lincoln has been claimed by both the Republicans and Democrats as being representative of their ideology.
As the first Republican President, the GOP has a partisan identity to cling to. Additionally, given the general historical trend toward more liberal (in the modern sense) ideology, most of Lincoln’s policy positions would be viewed by today’s standards as conservative or even reactionary, though at the time they may have been quite liberal or revolutionary. Lincoln’s rejection of the status quo provides Democrats a basis for the claim that Lincoln, if alive today, would be a liberal Democrat.
A recent YouGov poll found that only twenty-three percent of Americans thought that if Lincoln were alive today he would remain a Republican, whereas thirty-two percent said he would be a Democrat. The YouGov results echo the findings of Votifi’s poll which had only eighteen percent of respondents answering that Lincoln would be a member of the Republican Party or Tea Party movement. As might be expected, a majority of both Republicans and Democrats claimed Lincoln would be a member of their party in the YouGov poll. Similarly, the political profiles of the Votifi respondents show significantly more conservative political leanings for those that claimed Lincoln as a Republican than those who argued he would be a Democrat.
Trying to objectively view which modern party Lincoln would fit in is a difficult task that requires removing oneself from the modern framing of issues. Dick Morris argues that Lincoln was not really a liberal despite the abolition of slavery that is viewed as the hallmark of his presidency. Morris claims that Lincoln’s real commitment was to entrepreneurial capitalism and the wage system. As someone who “pulled himself up by his bootstraps,” Lincoln recognized the importance of a wage system for upward mobility, and viewed slavery as a barrier to an effective wage system.
Morris argues that Lincoln’s seemingly liberal views on slavery were not rooted in views of equality but rather economic efficacy, and in fact Lincoln continued to harbor racist views. Morris’ argument is somewhat supported by the additional fact that Lincoln did not initially intend to abolish slavery but rather simply contain its westward spread until the conditions of the Civil War made abolition necessary. If Lincoln should indeed be viewed as a free-market capitalist rather than a liberal committed to equality, then perhaps the twenty-three percent are correct that Lincoln would be at home in today’s GOP.
Many have made coherent arguments that Abraham Lincoln would instead be a modern day Democrat. Greg Bailey centers his argument on the grounds that Lincoln supported using government power to invest in the public good and fighting against states’ rights arguments and xenophobic rhetoric.
“A reincarnated Lincoln would relive part of his past life listening to the states’ rights arguments contemporary Republican use against any proposal to help working families. The president who levied an income tax on the wealthy would have been shocked at George W. Bush’s disproportionate tax cut to the wealthiest one percent.”
In the intervening 150 years, major realignment within the two major parties has occurred resulting in a nearly exclusively liberal and exclusively conservative Democratic and Republican Party respectively. However, given the impossibility of fully understanding the motivations behind, and complexities of, Lincoln’s political ideology, it is not necessarily clear which modern party he would fall into. However, so long removed from the controversies of his presidency which left the South to single-party Democratic rule until the 1960s,
Lincoln is now viewed in such a positive light that both parties lay claim to being descendant of his ideology.