I don’t understand the modern Republican Party. Why conjure the ghost of Ronald Reagan rather than the living presence of Abraham Lincoln? Unless you have moved so far away from the spirit of Lincoln that his biblical language is no longer an inspiration, but rather an embarrassment.
In the mid-1850s, the appearance of the Know-Nothings in the US political scene threatened the integrity of the two-party electoral system. The Know-Nothings, according to James McPherson, “generally favored temperance and always opposed tax support for parochial schools. Their main goal was to reduce the power of foreign-born voters in politics.” In a letter to his friend Joshua Speed, Lincoln countered the threat of the Know-Nothings:
Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.[i]
Last July, the Republican nominee for president criticized a Gold Star Mother, Ghazala Khan, for her silent appearance on the stage of the Democratic National Convention of 2016. Here is how Lincoln, in a letter (quoted by Robert Rodat in his screenplay for Saving Private Ryan) to Mrs. Lydia Bixby, who had lost five sons during the American Civil War, addressed the grieving mother:
I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.[ii]
At Gettysburg, Lincoln proclaimed “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” (words that brought to mind not the US Constitution, but rather the Declaration of Independence). Donald Trump went to Gettysburg last week to reveal his agenda for the first 100 days of his presidency. He had pledged not to contest the results of the national election “if I win.” Before listlessly reading his program, Trump complained about “the rigging of this election” and the “dishonest mainstream media,” characterized the women who allegedly suffered unwanted sexual advances by him as “all these liars,” and also threatened to sue them.
What is the nation to do in the face of such profanation of the ground consecrated by the deaths of thousands of American soldiers and the poetry of Abraham Lincoln?
In his “Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois” (1838), Lincoln warned against complacency in the face of danger to our political institutions by an Alexander, a Caesar or a Napoleon:
Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.[iii]
It may be fruitless to ask, in our time, for another Lincoln, but we should heed the warning and emulate the spirit of a Great Emancipator who cautioned the people to unite in their respect for a government of laws against the wiles of a dictator. Paraphrasing the words that Tony Kushner gave to Lincoln’s son Robert in Steven Spielberg’s film, we should not be nothing. We may not be Lincoln, but we should not be Donald Trump.
[i] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Ballantine Books, 1989), 135-141.
[ii] Andrew Delbanco, ed., The Portable Abraham Lincoln (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 318.
[iii] Ibid., 24.