Lincoln and the Modern GOP

Jackie Hogan, head of the Sociology department at Bradley University in Peoria, wrote a piece for the Christian Science Monitor in which she argued that Abraham Lincoln would have difficulty in winning the presidential nomination of the modern Republican Party.  The article cries out for a fisk, and I am happy to oblige:

1. Lincoln ‘invented’ income tax

While Republican candidates today win kudos for signing Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, it is unlikely that Lincoln would sign on, since he, in effect, invented income tax. That is to say he was the first American president to sign federal income tax into law. And not only that, but it was a progressive income tax, with the wealthiest Americans paying a higher rate.

He made no distinctions between earned income and capital gains – money made was money earned – and Lincoln’s administration needed its cut to pull the nation back from the brink of collapse. Strike one against Honest Abe.

Actually current Republicans would hail the Lincoln income tax.  It had two rates, 3% and 5%.  Many Republicans have been calling for a flat tax for years, and Lincoln’s two tier system with very low rates would receive thunderous  approval from a GOP audience.

2. He didn’t advertise his faith

Strike two: He didn’t advertise his faith. Debate over Lincoln’s religious beliefs is heated. But there’s good evidence that he questioned Christian orthodoxy, perhaps not so surprising at a time when Biblical verses were routinely used to defend slavery, an institution he found morally repugnant.

While it’s true that Lincoln frequently evoked the Divine in his speeches, he never took up membership in a church, and certainly never spoke publicly about his personal relationship with Christ.

I find this to be simply bizarre.  Few Presidents have invoked God more frequently than Lincoln.  This section from the Second Inaugural would certainly brings calls for Lincoln’s impeachment from the American Civil Liberties Union:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

3. He wasn’t a looker

Sad to say, Lincoln’s appearance would be another handicap. When a political rival once accused him of being two-faced, Lincoln replied, “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?”

Gaunt and gangly, with suits that never quite fit, a mop of unruly hair, sunken eyes and an off-kilter smile, Lincoln would be hard-pressed competing for camera time with his well-coifed, media-savvy competitors.

At the time many of his political opponents made fun of Lincoln’s appearance.  However, it was noted that such jeers tended to die away after Lincoln was well into a speech, as his eloquence would move his audiences and leave his stark appearance irrelevant.  I think Lincoln’s appearance would have been no handicap for him if he had lived in the television age, especially when one considers his ability to disarm audiences with his self-deprecating humor.

4. He tended toward moderate positions and long, complex arguments

Nor would his image be improved by his tendency toward moderate positions and long, complex arguments. Of course, today the most beloved of Lincoln’s speeches is his famously brief and achingly beautiful Gettysburg Address. But Lincoln rose to national prominence on the strength of his detailed and nuanced explorations of the most pressing issues of his day.

His pivotal Cooper Union address ran to one and a half hours. His career-defining1854 Peoria  speech topped three hours. And in the now legendary Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, audiences braved the elements as the candidates took turns speaking for up to ninety minutes at a time.

A far cry from the quick and dirty potshots and zingers of today’s slickly produced debates. Another strike for the Great Emancipator.

Actually, compared to most of his contemporaries, Lincoln had a passion for terse and tightly reasoned arguments.  Lincoln could give long speeches, as was the custom of his day when political speeches were looked upon as a form of mass entertainment, but he did not need such lengthy speeches to strongly convey his beliefs.  As for being a moderate, almost all the South in 1860 begged to differ.  Lincoln was not a radical abolitionist, but he was radical enough in his anti-slavery beliefs to inspire wide-spread hatred, and not only in the South.

5. Parts of Lincoln’s record still might score well among parts of today’s GOP electorate


Lincoln’s record would serve him well among some segments of today’s electorate, however.


He was critical of interventionist foreign wars (which would no doubt win him points among Ron Paul supporters).


He also took several actions to curtail civil liberties in the name of national security. During the Civil War he implemented military tribunals for civilians, suspended habeas corpus, and authorized indefinite detention of persons deemed to pose a security risk to the nation (policies that would appeal to defenders of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp).

And he was a longtime supporter of “colonization,” an assisted migration scheme to encourage blacks to leave America for colonies in Africa, Central America, and elsewhere – a policy that would likely track well among supporters of “self-deportation” for illegal immigrants.

So could Abraham Lincoln win the 2012 GOP nomination? As commentators are fond of observing, in this dizzyingly mercurial primary race, anything is possible. Perhaps the more important question, however, is whether Mr. Lincoln would want the nomination.

This closing section of the article shows the hazards of attempting to extrapolate from political positions held by politicians of long ago in very different circumstances.  Lincoln wasn’t against “interventionist wars”.  He was specifically opposed to the Mexican War which he, along with many other Northerners, feared would lead to the creation of many new slave states.  Lincoln did always vote for supplies and pay for the troops and for land grants to reward them for their service.

In regard to civil liberties during the Civil War, both sides undertook measures that gave short shrift to the rights of opponents of the war efforts.  This of course says  nothing about how Lincoln would view such measures in a situation not as extreme as the Civil War.

Regarding colonization, Lincoln’s support for voluntary colonization of blacks in Africa has absolutely nothing to do with current battles over immigration.

Finally, would Lincoln want the nomination?  He of course would be ineligible under the Twenty-Second Amendment, since he had been elected President twice.  Leaving that aside, Lincoln was always an ambitious politician.  If he came back and the nomination was offered to him by acclamation, I wouldn’t be surprised if he agreed to be the Republican standard-bearer a third time.  Lincoln 2012!  I like it!  🙂

Published in: on July 26, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments (8)  
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  1. Hi Don,

    It’s my understanding Lincoln refused baptism during life, although he did attend (though didn’t belong) to the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church each Sunday with Mrs. Lincoln. According to many eye-witnesses, and just not hagiographers, he participated enthusiastically in the services.

    It’s also true that U.S. Grant refused baptism throughout life.

    On the other hand, Jefferson Davis attended a school run by Dominicans while growing up in Kentucky. He also wore the Brown Scapular, and famously received a personally hand-plaited crown of thorns from Pius IX while in imprisoned at Fort Monroe.

    General Lee was also very close to being what we would consider an Anglo-Catholic.

    And when Stonewall Jackson converted to an active Christianity, he was in Mexico during the Mexican War, and first considered joining the Catholic Church, spending nearly a week at a monastery during the occupation of Mexico City, and then meeting several times with the city’s archbishop, with whom he became friends. He of course became a Presbyterian.

    Plunk all that down in the “for what it’s worth” department.


    PS – Btw, back when I first came to the blog, I recognized your avatar as a picture of General Rosecrans, whom I know was Catholic (and used to harangue on the subject around campfires). But being that he was also a committed Democrat, I’ve always been a little baffled as to your choice.

    • There are Democrats and there are Democrats Jon! Rosecrans was actually offered the Veep spot in 1864 with Lincoln, but Rosecrans declined, at least according to Rosie. I have always thought that Rosecrans skills as a commander have been sorely overlooked in most histories of the War and I have a fair amount of sympathy for him.

      Lincoln never was baptized, although there are various tales that he was secretly baptized, none of which have any historical validity as far as I can tell. Lincoln had a strong love and belief in the Bible and in God. I examined his religious beliefs here:

      • In an unpublished essay, I called Lincoln the only Jewish president. He believed in God and in Providence, but not in a Mediator between God and man and not in Jesus as God. His speeches, especially the Second Inaugural, have a sense of the divine justice as both mysterious and inexorable that is far more typical of Jewish than of Christian attitudes; and his God was a God of history in a way that again reminds me more of Hebraic than of Christian views. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. I am myself as much an admirer of the Jews as a Catholic can very well be. However, I can think of a few people today who’d have conniptions at the thought.

      • I think much of Lincoln’s personal theology Fabio can be summed up in the phrase “The Almighty has His own purposes”.

  2. This woman missed, as we soccer players say, an open goal. The obvious and screaming difference between Lincoln’s Republicans and the modern article is that the Republicans of Lincoln, Logan, Seward and so on were all aggressively protectionistic. Logan described Protection as “the great American and national principle” and said that Democrats showed their poor attitude to the country by being Free Traders. I think Bush and Romney would faint if anyone suggested that the GOP went back to that particular founding principle.

    • True Fabio, but I think most Republicans today would acknowledge the factual difference between the world Lincoln lived in, a world of tariffs around the globe, and a world where free trade has a much stronger edge. As a Republican myself, I know that members of the GOP can be surprisingly pragmatic when it comes to economic matters.

  3. glad you spared us the full fool’s article. Pulling tidbits out of context of nation(s) at war where his own family stood on both sides of the fence and arguing as if one knew Lincoln’s mind and heart is very base and crude. My former boss was a Lincoln and while never proving true relationship he was a collector of literature on the man. I read several of those works and have had a life long interest in the Civil War. Lincoln was a man for that age and that job. It is hard haveing read many of his speeches and private letters to believe him to be anything other than a Christian. I am from wertern VZ with a family divided by the War between the States, having some relatives that will look you in the eye today and tell you Lincoln wss the worse President in American history… a claim they can no longer support by the way…
    We would have been much worse off if this man of courage had refused the call.
    In Christ, Dennis

    • Except for Washington, Dennis, Lincoln is the most loved President in US history. He is also the most reviled President in US history. The Civil War marks us still, and will probably always do so, although with ever diminishing impact as the generations roll by.

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