Claiming Lincoln

Republican 2008 Video

In 1992, the Republican National Convention met in Houston to re-nominate George H.W. Bush.  Ronald Reagan took to the podium to both endorse Bush and to offer some words about Lincoln.  Reagan used the speech to remind Americans what Lincoln meant to the country and how he re-affirmed Republican Party values, in a way to remind his audience that Lincoln was a great Republican.  Then, Reagan offered some words from Lincoln:  “You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.  You cannot help small men by tearing down big men.  You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.  You cannot life the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.  You cannot help the poor man by destroying the rich.”

Great stuff- except that Lincoln never said any of those words.  They come from William John Henry Boetcker, an ordained minister, who published the book, Lincoln on Private Property, in 1906, nearly 41 years after Lincoln died at the hands of John Wilkes Booth.  As Harold Holzer points out, columns around the nation reprinted the words of Lincoln and triumphed the connection between Lincoln and the modern Republicans, that is, until a historian came forward to set the record straight.  This story is not meant to criticize Reagan, or his speechwriters, but to point out how Reagan took Lincoln and gave him policies and principles that were applicable to the current Republican party and candidate. 

Reagan is not the only candidate to do so.  As we have seen in this election, and in my previous blog note, Obama paid homage to Lincoln whenever he could in the campaign and election.  He noted the language of Lincoln and acknowledged how Lincoln handled a  crisis, though he was not willing to see Lincoln as perfect, acknowledging his racism.

Historically, claiming Lincoln goes back to the moments following his death, where some politicians and political orators denounced him for his actions.  At the same time, many Republicans embraced Lincoln in eulogies and denounced Johnson for daring to try to use Lincoln as leverage to get his policies passed.  Republicans evoked Lincoln’s name to local black districts across the south to ensure republican rule would continue and told black voters that they had to vote fo Lincoln because he was the martyr of their liberty. 

After Johnson, presidents routinely sought Lincoln’s endorsement from beyond the grave.  Republican rallies took place after 1887 on Feb. 12.  In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt attended a celebration at the Waldorf-Astoria.  There, with 500 men dressed to the nine and eating a seven course dinner (segregated away from their wives), Roosevelt told the crowd, “I feel that not merely the Republican Party, but all believers in the country, should do everything in their power to keep the memory of Lincoln alive.”  In a way, TR made Lincoln bi-partisan, for a moment anyways.  The rest of the speakers that evening declared that Lincoln as a Republican and that the Republicans were the party to ensure that the nation would be grand and hold an immortal destiny.

Of note, Democrats carefully tip-toed around Lincoln.  Grover Cleveland, in 1887, did not stop in Springfield because he knew that the city had become a Republican shrine.  Historian and President Woodrow Wilson, also a Democrat, spoke on Lincoln’s birthday, as did other Democrats, but he said, in one instance, “I sometimes think it a singular circumstance the present Republican party should have spring from Lincoln, but that is one of the mysteries of Providence.” 

The partisan nature of Wilson’s remarks should not surprise anyone, as Lincoln had become a lightning rod for political rhetoric by 1912.  William Taft called Lincoln a man who would never ally with the Progressives of Teddy Roosevelt, even though Lincoln clearly had some Progressive views, when it comes to black equality.  T.R. noted this, arguing, “The official leaders of the Republican party today are the spiritual heirs of the men who warred against Lincoln, who railed at him as a revolutionist, who accused him of being radical, an innovator, an opponent of the Constitution and a enemy of property.”  T.R. had a point, as he noted the political backlash that Lincoln took time and again during his tenure in office. 

Herbert Hoover made a stop in 1932 in Springfield to pay homage to Lincoln.  This created a major political mess for him, as Americans, disatisfied with Hoover, cried foul, that he would dare to look to Lincoln for guidance in the crisis.  In fact, leading Democrats argued Lincoln would not even be nominated if he was a Republican in 1932.  This prompted FDR to allow a revision of history.  He asked, “Does anyone maintain that the Republican party form 1868 to 1938 (with the exception of a few years under TR) was the part of Abraham Lincoln.  FDR, who took up the mantle as the new emancipator, ranked Jefferson, Jackson, Wilson and Lincoln as the men who helped shape the New Deal.  Notice FDR made Lincoln a Democrat, as other Democrats continued to note that Lincoln had nothing in common with the current Republican party. 

The Republicans were not willing to surrender Lincoln easily.  They continued to celebrate the birthday and gather to give speeches.  In 1939, Hoover returned from obscurity to say, “Whatever this New Deal system is, it is certain that it did not come from Abraham Lincoln.”  Surely, Lincoln would denounce 3 terms as president, high taxes, social security, the court packing scheme, among other things. 

Just as in 1912, in 1948, everyone backed Lincoln, as the Dixiecrats evoked him to deal with racial issues, that Lincoln believed they would work themselves out.  The Progressives argued that they came from Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln.  Dewey bore a resemblance to Lincoln- well, not physically but spiritually.  Truman stated that if Lincoln were here, he would be a Democrat. 

So where does Lincoln stand today?  Who can claim him today?  I think it is hard to know what party Lincoln would be a member of, particularly since the Democrats have come along way in their history.  A few generations ago, they benefited from the KKK intimidating voters and pushed to block Civil Rights legislation.  Now, they have a successful black nominee and president.  The Republicans, who pushed for the 13, 14 and 15 amendments, now have a problem getting blacks to vote for them, even though they overwhelmingly kept the Republican party afloat in election after election from 1866 to the New Deal, except in cases of voter suppression in the South.  Where is Lincoln today?  He seems to be wherever you want him to be.  The fact that both parties, as seen in the above video and in Obama’s homage, have claimed Lincoln.  Maybe the term to describe Lincoln is not Republican or Democrat, but rather American. Well, a Northern American.

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