Before Michelle Obama announced the Best Picture to a large group of Democrats at the Oscars Sunday, Daniel Day Lewis’s triumph as Best Actor for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln was as close as the gathered crowd came to cheering anything that remotely resembled a Republican.
That applause of course comes with the redundant caveat from the ideological entertainment industry and academia that Lincoln would be a Democrat today. “Lincoln” screenwriter Tony Kushner and “Team of Rivals” author Doris Kearns Goodwin, for whose book the movie was based, both asserted this. Nevertheless, the movie itself did not attempt to cover the 16th president’s party affiliation.
“Opposing slavery and supporting the free market were, for the early GOP, two sides of the same coin,” said Michael Zak, a Republican Party historian and author of “Back to Basics for the Republican Party,” a book on the party’s heritage, connecting the achievements of Lincoln with that of Ronald Reagan. “Slavery impoverishes an entire society.”
Lincoln seemed to say as much on numerous occasions.
During one of his notable debates with Democrat Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Illinois Senate contest, Douglass sought to corner Lincoln on whether slaves were equal to whites. Lincoln answered, “I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects—certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.”
The first half of that response must be put in the context and politics of that era, as Lincoln was enlightened on racial matters for his time. But the second half is key: Lincoln’s belief in the right to keep what one earns.
David Von Drehle, author of “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year,” made a similar point in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in December, writing, “Lincoln’s determination to resist and finally defeat the slave system wasn’t based on ideas of racial equality, however, or on abstract ideals of human dignity. It was grounded in his belief that liberty of all kinds begins with economic freedom.”
Drehle continued in the WSJ piece, “Bondage broke the link between work and prosperity. It dictated that certain people would always be poor while others would always be rich, not because of their efforts but because of their parentage.”