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!  🙂






More to explorer


  1. His administration “invented” fiat currency.

    In 1861, they issued paper that was redeemable in gold: okay. A year or two later, they issued about three times more paper redeemable in US Treasury debt: just like today’s Federal Reserve Notes.

    Prior to the CW, US “money” was constitutional: either gold/silver coins or notes, Congress defining the weights and measures, issued by private banks. In 1871, the SCOTUS ruled that fiat money, the “greenback”, is constitutional.

  2. The greenbacks were an incredible success in helping finance the War T. Shaw. Unlike the Confederate currency which rapidly reached almost zero value, the Greenbacks retained their value well during the War, and were of course paid in full by the victorious Union government after the War.

  3. It takes one Lincoln speech to completely contradict her second point, as you duly noted. Several of her points don’t even apply to the GOP specifically (his looks), and her comment regarding colonization is incorrect (or at least incomplete) from an historical standpoint and really not even germane to the contemporary issue.

    Other than that, truly fascinating.

  4. If Gutenberg had known what his invention would someday spawn, I wonder if he’d not have burned the thing out back.

  5. Lincoln could do sound bites. He may have given long speeches, but every political speech these days gets cut down to 10 seconds for the nightly news, and Lincoln would have done just fine in this atmosphere.

    Was he not a looker? He was tall and slender, 52 years old when he was elected for the first time. I don’t think his looks would have been a problem.

    The reason he couldn’t get the GOP nomination today is his lack of experience. The Republicans place much more emphasis on the resumes of their candidates. Tea partiers may have supported Lincoln as an outsider, though.

  6. Exactly, Mac, the greenback was a highly successful financing/debt vehicle, not really “money.”

    Greenbacks, or variously United States notes, were in circulatiin (alongside Federal Reserve Notes from 1913) until 1966.

    Many blamed the economic panic and depression of 1873 on the Treasury’s contraction of the currency — removed greenbacks from circulation to return to the gold standard, which would require that a $1 note be redeemable for $1 in gold.

    Gold bugs proved stronger in the national debate. In 1878, the total circulation of United States notes was fixed at about $346 million. Eventually, the notes became redeemable (1900 Gold Standard Act) in gold until 1933, when FDR took over; and also confiscated (a stark reversal of his 1932 campaign pledge) all gold coinage held by we the people.

    PS: The second smartest man in history, Isaac Newton, invented the gold standard.

  7. Someone needs to write something similar about JFK or Truman. Two Democratic icons whom I think would get freaked out if they saw what happened to their parties in the 1970’s. Plus trying to bring Lincoln into today’s political world is impossible. Would she say that Andrew Jackson would run for the Democratic nomination today? Let’s compare today’s GOP to Eisenhower or Nixon, but c’mon, a president from 150 years ago?

  8. “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”
    Donald. I totally disagree with this notion. I believe the reason Lincoln was assassinated is because he might have been offered a third term which he would totally have refused. Suffering ambition and not acting on one’s ailings are the makings of heaven. Honest Abe who counseled men: “If you are given a nickel, use the money to reply in thanksgiving”. Did Lincoln not walk miles to return the debt of $2.00. Honest Abe would not have taken a third term. Lincoln would have taken a V.P. and worked as hard as anybody to resurrect the nation, or any post, even as consultant, to further his nation. We, the people, are Lincoln’s constitutional posterity. Honest Abe’s children and his heirs. Ronald Reagan is the closest heir to Lincoln and rightfully, a president, as Lincoln was heir to George Washington. Let us see the next president of the USA emulate Washington, Lincoln and Reagan. Washington who refused the crown of king (and halo) and a third term. Lincoln who freed the slaves and saved the union because this is what Jesus did, and Reagan who freed those tyrannized by the group, by the “masses” mentality of the “state owns you and yours, you have no soul, no immortal destiny, you have nothing but what we say you have”. Ha, and by people who do not even know the treasures of their own immortal soul. No, Lincoln would not have taken a third term. Obama has yet to act as President of the USA.

  9. WK Aiken says:
    “If Gutenberg had known what his invention would someday spawn, I wonder if he’d not have burned the thing out back.” Gutenberg printed the Holy Bible first. There is LIFE in that Book. This alone redeems his printing press.
    Einstein said that if he knew what would be used of his work, he would have become a plumber. All that saId, if one innocent American life was saved by “THE BOMB”, God blessed Einstein’s work.

  10. Mary De Voe says:
    Saturday, July 21, 2012 A.D. at 10:07am
    Donald McClarey: “Coil unwound. Thanks a bit, now off to man the Right to Life Booth at the Cecil County Fair. Prayers.”
    Thanks for your prayers, Right to Life booth did well. I worked alongside a man blind from birth. Not too many right to choosers challenge him. (He gets on a train and goes to work teaching computers to others with his disability) There were many young mothers with four and five and seven children in tow. Many pregnant. It was beautiful.
    The children were especialy beautiful.

    There was at the fair, the Democratic party with a great big red STOP THE WAR ON WOMEN sign. I approached and asked them why it is not on the ballot to voice the will of the people and got no answer. It is their way or no way.

    Please continue to pray. Monday is going to be over 90 degrees. Last year it was 108 degrees, one cow and one goat collapsed from heat exhaustion. A cooler full of ice and a fan work fine.

  11. james says:
    Saturday, July 21, 2012 A.D. at 12:24pm

    My humble apologies for the plagiarism of your Blessed Pastor, Reverend Stanislao Esposito’s words: “There is LIFE in that Book”, found in his preaching but not in his blog Do please continue to pray for my mission in the Right to Life. And may God bless.

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