Republicans and Lincoln: A party divided cannot stand
SAN JOSE, CA, May 9, 2016 – The Republican Party was formed in 1854 by a coalition of abolitionist activists, former Free Soil supporters, and ex-northern Whig Party adherents. The party formed at a time of great divisiveness, political turmoil, and deadly violence within the United States. Abolitionists had impacted the entire nation with their inflammatory rhetoric and tabloids of the denunciation of slavery, and the old opposition Whig Party of Henry Clay was not able to retain a semblance of legitimate cohesion and it split over the issue of slavery.
As young Abraham Lincoln grew and developed into more of a political animal, he gravitated toward the Whig Party. He was attracted to the Whigs partly because they were the party in opposition to the southern aristocrats who tended to always be in control the affairs of the government, even at the national level, for their own benefit and for the benefit of Party.
The Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson was indeed the nemesis of Senator Henry Clay’s Whigs (named after the American Whigs of 1776, who had fought for the nation’s independence). The name was also a bit of a carry-over from Great Britain, and “Whig” was understood to mean opposition to the British type of aristocratic tyranny.
Henry Clay’s Whigs included people, like himself, who had once been part of President Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party. He and President John Quincy Adams were the prime leaders of the new party created in opposition to Andrew Jackson, the founder of the modern Democratic Party. They castigated their enemy as “King Andrew,” as they saw his presidency as flagrant governmental overreach, especially after Chief Justice John Marshall declared Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies unconstitutional. Many active Protestants joined the Whigs in opposition to Jackson’s actions.
The tragedy is that the Whig Party only existed from the 1830s to the mid-1850s, and then essentially self-destructed because of the political divisiveness brought on by the expansion of slavery to the developing territories in the West. More specifically, the party divided into the Northern Whigs, favoring abolition, and the Southern Whigs, tolerant of slavery.
The 1852 presidential election was the most devastating blow to the Whig Party. Anti-slavery advocates were so adamant that they undermined the nomination of their own incumbent, President Millard Fillmore, the former vice president who had taken the oath of office of the presidency after Whig President Zachary Taylor mysteriously died in office. At the time of the national convention in Baltimore in June of 1852, Fillmore stood as the strongest contender on the first ballot, with Lieutenant General Winfield Scott coming in second, and Secretary of State Daniel Webster pulling the third place spot.
The convention was hotly contested, and the divided Whig Party went through 53 ballots and was never quite able to emerge from the fragmentation of dissension and divisiveness. The Whigs eventually settled on nominating the other Mexican War hero, General Scott (Zachary Taylor was the one the party had previously been able to get elected). However, although the Whigs had finally decided on their candidate, the American people decided on someone else.
The 1852 presidential campaign was particularly one of the dirtier ones on record, with many unwarranted degradations of each candidate, but the Whigs were in general disarray and their general lost the general election in a landslide. On the other side of the political realm, despite the Democrats being equally divided on an appropriate candidate, the decision was a little less tragic. The Democratic Party managed to nominate Franklin Pierce on their 49th ballot, after his associates entered his name on the 35th ballot hoping a dark horse could pull their party back together. Pierce was a genuine dark horse candidate, and relatively unknown outside of New Hampshire, but he won a landslide victory with 254 electoral votes to the better known war hero, Scott, receiving 42 votes.
For the Whig Party in 1852, it proved disastrous as it disintegrated, and many of the Whigs simply withdrew from politics into the shadows, or they joined another political party. Northern Whigs tended to join the newly created Republican Party. The Whigs in the South tended to join the Know Nothing Party, and although they turned back to support Millard Fillmore in the presidential election of 1856, he lost. By this time, the time the Whig Party had become virtually defunct, although the ideology or policies of the Whigs did persist for a long time afterwards.
Abraham Lincoln was one of those displaced Whigs in the North, and when the Republican Party organized in Illinois at a convention held in Bloomington in 1856, Lincoln apparently gave one of the greatest speeches of his life. It has been reported that Mr. Lincoln’s speech was given without any manuscript, and apparently the news reporters present were “so absorbed and so entranced” that they had not taken substantial notes. It is now known as Lincoln’s “Lost Speech,” yet it established Lincoln as the Republican leader in Illinois.
Two years later, the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln to run for the Senate seat for Illinois against Democrat Stephen Douglas. On June 16, 1858, Lincoln delivered a very well-remembered speech to accept the nomination. This speech was offered in Springfield, and in it Lincoln expressed a profound understanding of the dangers facing the United States preceding the Civil War in his “House Divided” speech:
A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this Government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.
Lincoln actually made 18 clear points in the speech, but he had the audacity to tell the truth about how the Republic had been divided from the beginning over the issue of slavery. Lincoln was not afraid to speak the truth, while other politicians would be vague, or lie to the people, as they still do. Unfortunately, even before he delivered the speech, many of his friends whose opinions he sought condemned his words, and none whom he consulted approved of it. One told him it was “Damned fool utterance.” Yet, Lincoln delivered it.
Lincoln defended his intent in his speech:
“My friends, this thing has been retarded long enough. The time has come when these statements should be uttered, and if it is decreed that I should go down because of this speech, then let me go downlinked to the truth; let me die in advocacy of what is just and right.
After Lincoln delivered his “House Divided” speech, the Republican establishment of his day, or some of the more “adept” of the leaders, criticized Lincoln for what he had said – it is possible that he had been too honest – or not “politically correct” enough for his day. They were afraid that Stephen F. Douglas would use his words against him. Many were dismayed that he had been so honest and brash – some said “impolite.” Much stronger conservative members of the Party did not appreciate it, and many thought it would sink Lincoln into political oblivion.
True to form, Stephen A. Douglass, in the now famous debates, took advantage of Lincoln’s honesty by saying that the Founders accepted division over slavery, and had not any concerns over it (a half-truth that Lincoln destroyed); so, who was young Abe Lincoln to want to change what the Founders had created and accepted? Lincoln did lose the election, and the Republican leadership attributed it to his brash words in the Springfield acceptance speech.
Eventually, when Abraham Lincoln responded to his critics, he said:
If I had to draw a pen across, and erase my whole life from existence, and I had one poor gift or choice left, as to what I should save from the wreck, I should choose that speech, and leave it to the world unerased.
Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech is one of the most famous of his speeches, and many think that it was a prediction of the coming Civil War. Yet, Abraham Lincoln was speaking as honestly as he could about the nation’s history, and he was not trying to make a prophecy. Lincoln truly grasped that tyranny had never been fully destroyed when the United States was conceived and created. He was stating a fact that the Union was not so united from the beginning, and had been forced from one generation to the next to deal with the issue of slavery through one compromise after another.
Now, in the 2016 presidential election, there is incredible irony that the Republican Party looks a bit like the old Whig Party, and the words of the greatest Republican of all, Abraham Lincoln, seem to fit to the unfolding situation of the division and disintegration of the GOP. It is almost as if the leadership, or their puppet masters in the GOP donor class, cannot see the handwriting on the wall. With Donald Trump the presumptive Republican nominee, many within the party leadership have stated that they would rather vote for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders than Trump.
Additionally. the Bush triumvirate, Romney, and even Ryan are now publically opposed to a Trump candidacy. How hypocritical of the Party after so many years of the GOP telling the regular Republican voters they had to accept the nominee. Early in the primaries, after making the 17 candidates pledge publically they would support the eventual nominee, it is entirely a farce now as the GOP is losing whatever credibility that existed among their “faithful.”
In fact, it is now becoming doubtful whether the Republican Party is a legitimate opposition party or rather a sidekick (to be kicked around like a foil) for the Democratic Party.
In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “…this thing has been retarded long enough.” Is the GOP still the party of Lincoln? Can the Republican leadership still claim that they still stand for the “advocacy of what is just and right?” The nation is watching, possibly Mr. Lincoln as well.