Lincoln: A Modern Republican in Name Only

I think there’s a whole bunch of stuff the party of Lincoln and Reagan needs to do to persuade people we have a 2030 agenda, not a 20-minute Twitter agenda. Senator Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican

Lincoln and Reagan: Two names that should never be linked. Republicans like to claim they are the party of Lincoln. At the same time, modern conservative Republicans — like Senator Ben Sasse — draw inspiration from Reagan. Hence, the ahistorical attempt to claim both the Great Emancipator and the Great Communicator as progenitors.

Sasse deserves credit for bucking what has become the party of Trump — a Republican Party that is now a cult of personality devoted to former president Donald Trump. It took political courage for a senator from conservative Nebraska to vote to convict Trump in his Senate trial. But, as a student of history, Sasse — and most other Republicans — fail to pass American history 101.

While Ronald Reagan encapsulates the modern conservative notion of limited government, Abraham Lincoln became the spokesman for an active federal government determined to improve the lot of the average citizen. Lincoln, of course, is remembered as the president who freed the slaves, but the Republican Party he led through the Civil War promoted bold policies that benefitted not only the formerly enslaved but also those who had been free. 

The origins of the Republican Party explain its ideological underpinnings. The Republican Party coalesced in the mid-1850s in reaction to the decision — prompted by Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas — to organize the Nebraska Territory (roughly modern Nebraska and Kansas) on the basis of popular sovereignty, which allowed the settlers — at some unspecified point in a territory’s development — to decide the fate of slavery. A seemingly democratic solution to an intractable issue, popular sovereignty was beset by problems. When would the decision on slavery be made? At statehood? Earlier? If slavery were voted down, would the settlers who had brought slaves be allowed to keep them? Once slavery was established, would there be any practicable way to abolish it?

But, what inflamed Northern public opinion most was that the Nebraska bill repealed the Missouri Compromise. In 1820, Missouri was admitted into the Union as a slave state along with the free state of Maine, with a line drawn across the remaining unorganized area of the Louisiana Purchase at 36°30’ North, above which slavery was prohibited. The sanctity of the Missouri Compromise line became gospel in the North. Its repeal led to formation of the anti-Nebraska clubs, which soon morphed into the Republican Party.

The coalition that formed the Republican Party incorporated Whigs, like Lincoln, and Democrats opposed to the extension of slavery into the territories. The latter included many racists who cared little for the enslaved but wanted to keep the territories free for White men and women to settle on small farms. The decision to nominate a former Democrat — Hannibal Hamlin of Maine — as vice president in 1860 to counterbalance Lincoln’s Whiggish origins demonstrates the disparate origins of the Republican Party, as does Lincoln’s careful balancing of former Whigs and Democrats in his Cabinet. 

The Whigs arose as a political party in the 1820s in opposition to Jacksonian Democrats, who preached the doctrine, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, “that government is best which governs least.” In contradistinction, the Whigs promoted an active government: They supported a national bank, hated by Jackson; tariffs to promote industrial development, anathema to Southern planters who sold raw materials, notably cotton, and purchased manufactured goods; and internal improvements, which today would be termed infrastructure. 

After passage of the Nebraska bill, Lincoln slid easily into the Republican Party. The old Whigs were never anti-slavery, but they had more in common with those opposed to the expansion of slavery into the territories than the pro-slavery Jacksonian Democrats. In the years between the formation of the Republican Party and the outbreak of the Civil War, Lincoln and his allies pushed an aggressive federal response to slavery. As James Oakes demonstrates in his brilliant book, The Crooked Path to Abolition, Republicans believed the Constitution was an anti-slavery document giving the federal government power to contain slavery everywhere except in the states where it already existed. Federal authority over slavery, the Republicans maintained, extended to the territories, the District of Columbia, the high seas, and the interstate slave trade.

This breathtaking interpretation of federal power continued to inform Republican policy during the Civil War. Lincoln not only issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he also assented to the arming of the formerly enslaved in the Union Army. Lincoln used the powers he had as president to keep the border states — Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware — in the Union, and he ushered the breakaway counties of Virginia into the Union as the new state of West Virginia. Early in the Civil War, the Republicans enacted important domestic legislation, including the Homestead Act to make Western land available at a nominal price to settlers, the Morrill Land-Grant Act to create agricultural colleges in the states, and the Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864 to build the first transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869.

This expansive use of federal power carried over into Reconstruction, when the Republican Party passed a series of amendments to the Constitution and acts of Congress to guarantee the rights of formerly enslaved men and women. Part of the plan to reconstruct the South included the use of the Federal Army to insure the safety of the freedmen and -women and Republican elected officials.

I doubt that Senator Sasse endorses such a substantial use of the national government. His view of federal authority is closer to that of Ronald Reagan, who said in his first Inaugural Address, and frequently repeated, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Lincoln would have rejected that cramped view of federal authority. The only thing uniting Reagan and Sasse with Lincoln is the “R” that appears next to their names.

Everyone loves the martyred Lincoln. No politician wants to be on the wrong side of the Great Emancipator. So, it is perfectly natural for Republicans — whether they be anti-Trumpers like Sasse or whole-hog Trumpistas — to cite Lincoln. He was, after all, the first Republican president. No harm in any of that. Except, of course, Sasse’s embrace of the 16th president, alongside Ronald Reagan, wrenches Lincoln out of his proper historical context and does a disservice to the memory of Lincoln’s beliefs and accomplishments.

Posted February 19, 2021