Grand Theft Lincoln [With Update by Marco Rubio]

On this 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, the Wall Street Journal’s William McGurn performs a public service today rebutting the relentless liberal/“Progressive” attempts to pry Lincoln from the Republican Party and claim that Lincoln, were he alive today, would surely be a Progressive Democrat:

On this the 150th anniversary of the day John Wilkes Booth fired his fatal bullet at Ford’s Theater, we have a consensus: Today’s Republicans have no right to claim Abraham Lincoln as one of their own.

The story line runs like this: Honest Abe was first and foremost a believer in government’s power to do good and used it, among other ways, to liberate the slaves. In this reading, the modern Republican is Lincoln’s polar opposite, with its distrust of Washington and its evolution into the Southern white establishment Lincoln fought and defeated in the Civil War.

This is hardly a new thing from the Left.  I offered the following observations in Reason magazine way back in 1991 about how Mario Cuomo, among others, was leading the “Lincoln the Leftist” campaign:

Before he became president, FDR said, “I think it is time for us Democrats to claim Lincoln as one of our own.” Later, FDR stepped up his attack. “Does anyone maintain that the Republican party from 1868 to 1938 (with the possible exception of a few years under Theodore Roosevelt) was the party of Abraham Lincoln?” Like Mario Cuomo, FDR cited Lincoln’s passage about government doing what the people cannot do for themselves as justification for New Deal measures. Despite Republican protests, FDR was so successful that by the 1940 campaign Republican nominee Wendell Willkie pleaded for an armistice in the partisan fight over Lincoln’s legacy: “It will do us no good to draw these historical illusions [sic].”

Anyway, after an inventory of this favorite liberal talking point, McGurn summons Allan Guelzo as his witness for the defense:

In a paper still available online at the Heritage Foundation, Mr. Guelzo takes on the Lincoln chestnuts one by one, e.g. that he bequeathed America a huge centralized government—in fact, the federal government shrank back to prewar levels in the years after the war. That he promoted federal activism through programs such as the Homestead Act—Mr. Guelzo prefers to call it “the greatest privatization scheme in history.” That Lincoln was an authoritarian—the narrow limits of the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves only in states in rebellion, shows Lincoln’s reluctance to exert powers he did not have. And so on.

Lincoln Cover copyBut there is a simpler and more direct way of prying Lincoln back from the Left: Lincoln’s entire outlook and constitutional statecraft was based in his understanding of and commitment to natural rights as the Founders understood them.  And if there’s one thing modern liberalism is viscerally opposed to, it is the Founding philosophy of natural rights.  If the Left had its way, John Locke would be locked up.

By all means let us reopen this argument, which Republicans are amazingly bad at (which is why the Left is getting away with Grand Theft Lincoln).  As I wrote in that long-ago Reason article:

It is astonishing that no Republican has used Lincoln’s many statements that clearly run against the redistributionist ethic at the heart of modem liberalism. In his letter to the Democratic Republican Workingmen’s Association of New York, for example, Lincoln wrote, in words that could instantly correct Cuomo’s moral indignation about wealth, that “Property is the fruit of labor—property is desirable—it is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich, shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.” . . .

For the most part, people on the right have abandoned Lincoln to the left. But in doing so we have given up solid ground on which to base a principled argument from the American tradition about the meaning and proper application of equality and, by extension, for limiting the expansion of government power. This requires making a case for Lincoln’s understanding of politics. The case for Lincoln requires not only recovering the natural-rights understanding of equality, but also understanding how these principles relate to the questions of states’ rights, majority rule, and the rule of law. . .

Today in many respects public opinion about the principles of free government is in a worse state than it was before the Civil War. The mainstream of political science today teaches that the idea of natural rights is nonsensical. Today’s heresy about equality is that rights belong to groups, not to individuals. . .

Reforming our government along the lines designed by the Founders may require a division of the house no less severe than that caused by Lincoln’s “house divided” speech. Rather than vilifying Lincoln as the author of centralized government (surely the blame for the centralizing effects of the Civil War must be shared equally by the South), we should study Lincoln as the model of how fundamental political realignments are made by reclaiming and rearticulating the principles of the Founding. For in one sense the poets and sentimentalists are right: The American Revolution and the Civil War are never over. Every time the people forget what they mean, they have to be fought again.

So let’s suit up again and head into battle.  Thought: One of the GOP presidential candidates really needs to deliver the Cooper Union speech of our age, describing in capacious detail the crisis of our time.  A perfect topic for someone gifted in public speaking like Marco Rubio.

JOHN adds: So, what, the Democrats are still the party of Thomas Jefferson? Or–the horror!–Andrew Jackson? Two can play this game.

JOHN adds more: Actually, Steve, it looks as though Marco anticipated your suggestion. He has an op-ed in USA Today:

We mark the 150th anniversary of the assassination of America’s greatest president, the man who established the Republican Party to be the party of opportunity — Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln was perhaps the most transformational figure in our history. He had the courage to measure America as it was against America as it was intended to be, and to recognize the terrible distance between our founding ideas and the reality of slavery.He aspired to reform government to empower all our people equally, to break the powerful hold slaveholders had over Washington and to break the chains of slavery itself.

By demanding America live up to its calling as a nation where our rights come from God, and where government exists to protect those rights without prejudice, Lincoln took it upon his generation to test, as he put it, “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived or so dedicated, can long endure.”

In the century and a half since, America has proven that it can, in fact, endure. Each generation after Lincoln’s has carried on the tradition of bringing America one step closer to its founding ideal of equal opportunity for all. The result has been the rapid spread of the American Dream — a Dream that in its short history has transformed millions of lives and altered the course of human events. …

I believe the Republican Party is best equipped to reclaim the promise of America in our time. We are the party of Lincoln, built on the belief that equal opportunity and equal rights under God are ideas so powerful they can unite people of every culture, tongue, race, and creed. We have been that party in the past. At times we have fallen short. But I believe we are that party today.

Responses