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Inconvenient History: Lincoln and the GOP

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

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.”

Drehle quoted Gettysburg College professor and Lincoln scholar Gabor Boritt, who has focused heavily on Lincoln’s economic views from the time he was in the Illinois state legislatures to his time as president, in what Borritt called Lincoln’s belief in the “right to rise,” similar to the modern conservative view of upward mobility.

Zak argues in his book that the modern welfare state undermines individual initiative to the point it essentially creates a “permanent underclass.” Even some Democrats – namely former President Bill Clinton – have conceded Democratic welfare programs became a trap for the poor.

“Property is the fruit of labor -- property is desirable -- is a positive good in the world,” President Lincoln said in a March 21, 1864 letter. “That some should be rich, shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise.”


Someone who would be a Democrat today almost certainly wouldn’t make such a statement.

Nor would a Democrat today say, “I take it that it is best for all to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can. Some will get wealthy. I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it would do more harm than good. So while we do not propose any war upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else.” Yet Lincoln said this before he was president during a March 6, 1860 speech in New Haven, Conn.

This basic philosophy about freedom and free markets is ignored by partisan historians, Zak said.

“Historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin are acting as partisan Democrats when they claim that the parties have switched,” Zak said in an interview. “They can’t defend decades of Democrat villainy, so instead they smash and grab Republican achievements. I resent just as strongly Republican willingness to let Democrats get away with it.”

Republican revisionism doesn’t end with Lincoln. Last year was filled with liberal commentators and even a few establishment Republicans – Jeb Bush included – declaring that Ronald Reagan would never be nominated in today’s Republican Party. This is an indication that Reagan’s standing in history is no longer a matter of partisan dispute. It’s also a likely intermediary to the media and academia one day declaring “Reagan would be a Democrat today.”


“Ronald Reagan’s greatest strength, even more than his communications ability, was understanding that in their quest for power, Democrats would say anything,” Zak said. “Just as Democrats are trying to claim Lincoln as one of their own, it would be no surprise for them one day to claim Reagan too.”

Applying current circumstances to the past is tricky. For instance, would the founders who favored a Constitution (with a functional federal government) over the Articles of Confederation (with virtually no federal government) thus favor the massive federal leviathan of today? Doubtful.

Of course there is no way to know absolutely if Lincoln – or for that matter Reagan – would be Republicans today any more than we can know if the tax-cutting, hawkish John F. Kennedy would be a Democrat today. We can only make a logical deduction about political affiliations. But as long as the left keeps insisting every successful president was one of theirs, it’s fair for the right to respond with inconvenient history.

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