The Republican Party: From Lincoln to Romney.


Lincoln_O-60_by_Brady,_1862

“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”
— President Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 21, 1864

“Corporations are people, my friend… of course they are.”
– Mitt Romney, 2012.

There is a rather neat simplicity in Republican circles that insists upon the populace, that the Republican Party of the 21st Century, is a continuation of the Republican Party of President Lincoln. In 2010, Christine O’Donnell, running for Senate seat for Delaware, was one of those running for Congress, asserting that the Republican Party that she belonged to, was the Party of Lincoln. It is as if they believe that had Abraham Lincoln, or Teddy Roosevelt (another name often used to link the GOP to its roots) existed today, they would find a similar Republican Party – in tone, and in policy – to the GOP they left behind, when in fact the history of the Republican Party renders it a completely separate entity from its late 19th early 20th Century counterpart.

It isn’t difficult to draw parallels between Texan Governor Rick Perry’s subtle call for secession, on the re-election of President Obama, shouting States Rights, to the same calls upon the election of President Lincoln in 1860 and the same States demanding secession, shouting States Rights (the Civil War was never about States Rights, as I point out in a previous article here).

Indeed, had Lincoln lived today, I would go as far as to say that the Republican Right might categorise him as a liberal who should be opposed at every opportunity. It would be the Republicans calling for secession. The GOP in 2013 is simply anti-government intervention for the most vulnerable. It is a fundamentalist position. It does not take into account context, or indeed, facts.

In contrast, President Lincoln was not anti-government intervention. Far from it, he pressed for state sponsored subsidies for railway building, canal building, road building amongst other Federally financed projects – a stimulus, as you may call it today. A vast swarm of States at the time – including Maine, Iowa, Minnesota, Maryland, Kentucky – had State constitutional bans on Federal subsidies for infrastructure. In fact, it was such a contentious issue splitting the progressive, Government-spending attitude of Lincoln’s northern Republicans with the Democrats in the South, that the Confederate Constitutional Drafters included the particularly conservative, anti-Federal clause:

“… neither this, nor any other clause in the Constitution shall ever be construed to delegate the power to Congress to appropriate money for any internal improvements intended to facilitate commerce”

– The Confederacy – with logic similar to today’s Republicans – considered internal improvements to be a matter for the individual states, not the Federal government. Lincoln disagreed. To the South, Lincoln was the very epitome of the power of central Federal government. Lincoln believed the Federal government to be a force for good.

In 1862, the Lincoln Administration signed into law, the Revenue Act. What this did, was to create the Commissioner of Internal Revenue; the IRS. Furthermore, the law created the USA’s first ever progressive income tax. If your annual income was less than $600, you paid nothing. If your income was greater than $10,000, you paid 5% (this was increased to 10% in the Revenue Act of 1864). It was designed to aid those who couldn’t afford to pay, whilst placing an increasing burden on those who could most afford to. For its time, this was an incredibly progressive step. We can contrast this today to Republicans in – for example – Wisconsin, who are currently pushing for a State flat tax, that independent analysis suggests is simply a massive tax cut for the wealthiest, whilst increasing the burden on the most vulnerable. The exact opposite of the Lincoln plan.

But it isn’t only Lincoln. Republicans will also mention their party’s ties to Teddy Roosevelt. “We’re the Party of Lincoln & Roosevelt!” is the cry from the Republican faithful. And yet, it is difficult to find any similarities between the Republican Party of 1901 – 1909, and the Republican Party in 2013. For example, in the 2012 campaign, Romney set himself up as the anti-union candidate. For Romney, unions were the problem. They hampered corporate power (the corporate power Lincoln – and in fact, Jefferson – were fearful of). For Romney, any legislation that empowered working people over the managerial classes, was only going to create bigger economic problems. This is no surprise given that when Romney was in control of Bain Capital, his company took over Marion, Ind, laid off one fifth of its workers, sharply cut health benefits, cut wages, and abolished its retirement plan. Romney got rich, by hammering working people into the ground, destroying unions, and fostering poverty.

By contrast Teddy Roosevelt supported United Mine Workers, when they went on strike in 1902 for higher wages and better conditions. The Republican President’s support for unions led UMW to a pay increase, for less hours. This, a year after Roosevelt delivered a speech to Congress demanding the curbing of power of large corporations, earning him the title of ‘Trust Buster’. He then signed into law the Meat Inspection Act making it illegal for a label to be misleading, and banned harmful chemicals. With his trust busting, and his dedication to food safety, Monsanto’s abuses certainly wouldn’t have lasted very long. To today’s Republicans, Teddy Roosevelt is far more to the left, than President Obama.

Moreover, Theodore Roosevelt wished to regain the Presidency in 1912, from his Republican ally William Taft, whom he now distrusted and considered anti-progressive. Failing to do so, Roosevelt then went about setting up the very short lived Progressive Party. The Progressive Party proposed the following; strict regulations on campaign contributions (Senate Minority Leader in 2013, Mitch McConnell has very good reason to oppose campaign finance reform; his loyalties lie entirely with big business); A universal healthcare system, proposed 40 years before the British NHS, and still not realised to this day whilst Republicans spend an incredible amount of money on constant repeal-Obamacare votes in the House; Minimum wage for women; social security to provide for the elderly, disabled and unemployed (all threatened by 21st Century Republicans); an inheritance tax (repealed in Indiana by State Republicans in 2012).
Naturally the Progressive Party died horribly, after funding ran dry given that Corporate interests didn’t particularly favour a progressive position. Nevertheless, in 1912, hundreds of progressive Republicans ran for office.

Let us also not forget that whilst the Republican Party today appears to be having a problem appealing to minorities, and giving the impression that it is willing to suppress voting rights of African Americans the moment the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act; the defining feature of the Ulysses Grant Republican administration, was one of extending voting rights, and progressing civil rights for African Americans. Grant was the first President to sign a Civil Rights Act, in direct conflict with rising anti-civil rights groups in the South.

On the issue of race, it appears to me that the period following the 1876 election, which saw the removal of Federal Troops from the South, allowing Democrats to again mistreat African Americans, lead to Southern Republicans trying to win over those white folk who were naturally drawn to the Democrats, thus we see Republicans actively abandoning the cause of civil rights.

The Democrats had a similar struggle to become the more progressive party we see today. As late as the 1950s we see a Democratic Party that included Hubert Humphrey who strongly advocated a shift in Democrat policy, by including the idea to end racial segregation, at the 1948 Party Platform at the DNC. This moment marks a huge shift for the Democrats. Humphrey took to the DNC floor and demanded that on racial segregation, the Democrats abandon their old position, and:

“…walk into the sunshine of human rights.”

– As Humphrey was making his way through the Democratic ranks, forging new ideas for the Party, another Democrat – Strom Thurmond – was actively fighting the change. Thurmond supported Jim Crow, and segregation. This split eventually lead to Thurmond joining the Republicans, and supporting Nixon’s vastly racist southern strategy. It is incredible to note than in less than a century, the Republican Party went from passing the 13th, 14th & 15th Amendments, reconstruction, and pioneering the way to bring African Americans into politics….. to supporting, and violently enforcing racial segregation. The Eisenhower Republicans of the 1950s, were completely different to the Lincoln Republicans of the 1850s.

By the 1960 election, we see a clear shift of powerful rhetoric, defining what the Democrats now stood for. Less than 100 years after the end of the Civil War, the Democrats were now firmly the party of the progressives, the heirs to Lincoln and Roosevelt. We see this, with Kennedy’s nomination acceptance speech in New York:

“If by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.” ”

– This could easily be repeated in 2013, and the same lines of division between liberal and conservative, Democratic and Republican, would apply.

The Republicans we see today started to crop up around the time of the Roosevelt New Deal era, having been stirring for around the previous 60+ years since the end of Reconstruction. According to Nancy Weiss in “Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR” writes:

“Roosevelt and the New Deal changed the voting habits of black Americans in ways that have lasted to our own time.”

– For a number of years before the New Deal, both Parties were promising some sort of help for the most vulnerable, via the enlarging of Federal Government. The northern Democrats of the Roosevelt era knew fully that the Great Depression gave them the opportunity to reconstitute the entire Democratic Platform. It is only during the New Deal era that the Republicans start becoming the Party of small government, and pressing ahead with much more racially divisive ideas. It is around this time too, that the Republicans start to become involved far more with the Christian Right. President Lincoln did not advertise his religious beliefs, and often questioned Christian dogma. Not as much as Jefferson, but certainly enough to render him the devil in the eyes of a fundamentalist like Rick Santorum.

The name “The Republican Party” is empty & meaningless for the sake of recalling its history. It is the attitudes – conservative or progressive – inclinations, beliefs and policies that form a Party, not its name. The big business, anti-progressive, anti-welfare, rabid obsession with small government fundamentalist vision of the Republican Party in 2013, cannot be identified in any way with the early Republican Administrations, and certainly not with that of Theodore Roosevelt. The Democrats & Republicans of the 19th Century are in no way comparable to their 21st Century counterparts. It is important to point our the complete 180 degree turn the Republicans & Democrats have gone through over the past 150+ years, when confronted with those who claim that today’s GOP is the “Party of Lincoln!“.

21st Century progressivism is the natural heir to the 19th and 20th Century progressivism of Lincoln and Roosevelt.

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2 Responses to The Republican Party: From Lincoln to Romney.

  1. Fred says:

    Right on the money as they say except for one point. There was never a “civil war” in this country. You are referring to The War Between The States because there is nothing in the constitution preventing any state’s secession for any reason. No, I am not a racist, nor do I endorse many of the views proposed by our neighbors to the south but I think this is a good point to keep in mind as the federal government usurps more and more power. Good lord a citizen of Europe has more civil rights and freedom these days than we do. And keep up the good work my friend!

  2. Lance Helsten says:

    Oh if only we had Lincoln’s progressive tax system: 5% on income above $10,000 in the 1860’s (about $500,000 in today’s money). Of course such a system would be lauded as a massive tax cut for the rich in today’s 35% marginal rate on income above $150,000.

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