Lincoln Would Not Recognize His Own Party

He would see the Republicans as the antithesis of everything he fought for.

by David W. Blight

In 2012, I took part in the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage, an annual trip to Alabama led by Representative John Lewis. On a Sunday afternoon I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma next to Kevin McCarthy, now the Republican House minority leader, his wife and children at his side.

At the time, Representative McCarthy seemed to embrace the nature and purpose of this excursion to the sites of some of the transformative events of the civil rights struggle. I saw him smiling, even singing along with the ever-present freedom songs that animated that amazing experience.

Today, that memory makes me wonder: What does Mr. McCarthy — or any Republican, for that matter — tell his children about his place in a party that continues to sink deeper into the grips of Donald Trump and his personal brand of racial divisiveness?

Last week a reporter asked Mr. McCarthy if the president was a racist, following his derogatory comments about four Democratic congresswomen. Mr. McCarthy not only vehemently denied the charge, he also insisted that the furor over the president’s remarks was not a problem for Republicans, because it was the “Party of Lincoln.”

Really? In this national struggle over the nature of racism in high places, to which “Party of Lincoln” might the Republican leader be referring?

Is it the party that in the 1850s forged a potent coalition of diverse political interests, linking radical abolitionists, nativists and moderate former Whigs and Democrats into a party devoted to cordoning off slavery, stopping the expansion of the peculiar institution and demanding an American future for “free labor, free soil, free men”?

Is it the party that denounced the Dred Scott decision as immoral and destructive of the future of the Union?

Is it the party that won the Civil War by an unprecedented exercise of centralized federal power, passed the Homestead Act, created our system of land-grant colleges, and evolved into the political force that not only crushed the white supremacist insurgency known as the Confederate States of America, but freed four million African-Americans from centuries of bondage?

Or, might it be the party of John Bingham, Lyman Trumbull, Thaddeus Stevens and many others who devised the “Second American Constitution” and Republic in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments? That party gave us birthright citizenship, equality before the law and a much expanded right to vote.

That was Lincoln’s party, whether Mr. McCarthy and his colleagues know it.

That party had its share of racism to overcome; it was the 19th century, after all. But what are Republicans now? Mr. McCarthy now leads the party that has done its legal and illegal utmost to suppress the votes of brown, black, young and old people who do not tend to vote Republican. His is the party that has become essentially America’s white people’s party, following the racial rants of its leader.

Which party did Mr. McCarthy claim as Lincoln’s party? The one that has now given a safe haven for Confederate memory and neo-Confederate ideas? Which side was Lincoln on?

In fact, the Republicans have not been the party of Lincoln on race relations for at least 60 years, since President Dwight Eisenhower reluctantly sent National Guard troops to Little Rock, Ark., and established a small civil rights commission. A few years later, a number of Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. But by then the party had long since allied itself with corporate interests over those of everyday Americans.

In one of his first public addresses, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” delivered in Springfield, Ill., in January 1838, a young Abraham Lincoln, long before any Republican Party existed, worried eloquently and hauntingly about an “ill omen amongst us.” The omen then, he thought, was internal division within America over race and slavery.

Lincoln feared that bitter, polarized rhetoric would lead to blood. He feared “mobs” that held sway wherever people feared and hated one another. He described a “mobocratic spirit” directed especially at black people and abolitionists. People with unpopular opinions, practices or religions had been attacked or hanged; their “dangling” bodies along roadsides rivaled the “Spanish moss of the country, as a drapery of the forest.”

All people, Lincoln asserted, “the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions,” needed the protection of the law. He declared that “if destruction be our lot,” it would never come from abroad. “We must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” A quarter-century later, this same Lincoln led the Union through its greatest crisis and did much to save his country from national suicide.

What are Mr. McCarthy and his party doing now to prevent such a result in our own time?

 Rather than encouraging the president’s mobs to shout “send her back,” perhaps they should encourage their fellow Republicans and their surrogates to rediscover the original Republican Party. They might not recognize it; Abraham Lincoln and his sometimes ally, Frederick Douglass, would surely not recognize them, except as the antithesis of everything they fought for 160 years ago.

Yet one thing would be familiar: Our issues and divisions today are all too similar to the era of the origins of the Republican Party. Mr. McCarthy and his colleagues might take that lesson to heart. And when Mr. McCarthy looks himself in the mirror, what does he propose to say to his children with whom he marched across the Pettus Bridge?

David W. Blight is a professor of history at Yale, is the author of “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.”

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