Saturday, April 18, 2015

Abraham Lincoln and America's Great Switcheroo

Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president, was assassinated 150 years ago this week. But commemorations of his untimely death might well provoke thoughts on another American tragedy: the veering of the Republican Party away from the principles with which he imbued it.

This transformation, so evident in the north-south switcheroo that Republicans and Democrats have undergone since 1865, is compellingly explored in Heather Cox Richardson’s recent book, To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party.

Richardson brings to light an important part of the GOP’s birth through the story of Lincoln’s own family. Abraham’s father, Thomas Lincoln, actually left Kentucky in 1816 because wealthy interests were taking over the state and stifling the opportunities that Thomas, and others like him, had hoped to exploit.

Here’s the tale as she tells it:

Kentucky permitted slavery, and planters began to buy up great swaths of its rich land, putting pressure on small farmers like Lincoln, who could afford only poorer and poorer fields…Fights over land ownership flooded the courts, but only wealthy planters had enough money to hire lawyers to establish their deeds. Finally, unable to defend the title to his property, Thomas Lincoln had to leave Kentucky (page 3).

Thomas Lincoln was crushed, in other words, by the power of the slave-owning aristocracy.

Slavery was not only an abomination for enslaved people, it was also a device that allowed the wealthy to control state governments and courts, and use that control for their own benefit. It was in reaction against the slave-owning elite that the Republican Party was founded.

A powerful person who appears as a kind of villain in Richardson’s account is South Carolina Democrat, James Henry Hammond. Richardson describes Hammond as a “wealthy and well-connected slave owner with predatory sexual appetites, which ruined the lives of his white nieces as well as those of his slaves” (p. 15).

James Henry Hammond: Southern Conservative, ca. 1860

In 1858 Hammond gave a speech in the Senate in which he explained why poor people – both black and white – needed to be kept in their places.

According to Hammond, the lower ranks of American society were made up of losers, slow-witted drudges, whose lot was to follow the orders of their betters – the refined and civilized types such as himself. He didn’t specify that these drudges, or “mudsills,” as he called them, made up 47% of the population, but he did warn against the prospect of their influence. The South was better than the North, he specified, precisely because northern mudsills (mainly white) could vote, while the South, with its population of black mudsills, was in no danger of letting these undesirables have any say in the government.*

Hammond’s speech was influential, and, in fact, it provided what Richardson calls a “foil” against which the Republican Party set itself. Early Republican ideology said that America was populated by capable individuals, many of whom, though poor, could, when given the opportunity, and with government help, raise themselves to prosperity. That, in fact, was the essence of the early Republican ideology: give every citizen the opportunity and governmental support that would make the industry of each a guarantee of national well-being. And above all, don’t allow the aristocratic conservatism of the slave-holding class dominate the nation as a whole.

The conservatism of the southern Democrats of Hammond’s day is the very twin of modern GOP ideology, with its small government policies, favoritism for the rich, and relentless efforts to deny voting rights to the poor. In fact, Richardson highlights a number of cases in which the Republicans, once they had abandoned their founding principles, worked at suppressing the voting rights of poor people even in the nineteenth century.

It is actually surprising just how quickly the GOP abandoned its original principles. Lincoln was the only Republican president in the nineteenth century to effectively embrace them, and the only twentieth-century ones to do so were Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower.

What happened was that shortly after Lincoln’s death, and with the exceptions noted above, the Republicans shifted their focus toward favoritism for the rich – the very thing that their founding was supposed to oppose. Now, not only do GOP leaders sound like reincarnations of Southern Democrat James Henry Hammond (minus the sexual predation), but the entire white South, Hammond’s original base, has switched its loyalty to the Republicans.

Election of 1876: The Near Solid Democratic South

2012: The South Rises Again - Now in the Republican Camp

In the meantime, it is the Democrats, now entrenched in the north - Lincoln’s old territory - who fight on behalf of a higher minimum wage for workers, the right to universal health care, and the right to a safe retirement protected by Social Security. So the Democrats now embrace the ideology that Lincoln promoted: government action on behalf of ordinary citizens allowing them to attain economic security or even, in some cases, prosperity.

Next year’s election offers some interesting prospects, given that the GOP now argues that it wants to help ordinary citizens improve their lot. But these ordinary citizens are the very ones whose lives have been threatened by Republican support for the Citizens United case and its opposition to a livable minimum wage and to Social Security. From where I stand, it’s hard to see how Republicans can possibly help ordinary Americans as long as they continue to argue, contra Lincoln, that the government just needs to step away.


Richardson, Heather Cox. 2014. To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party.  New York: Basic Books.

*Interestingly, conservative heroine, Ayn Rand, in Atlas Shrugged, makes a similar case about the unworthiness of ordinary American citizens. They are hopeless losers, her novel argues, whose lives would fall apart if the elites were to withdraw their leadership.