Michael Lind: How would Lincoln vote today?





... So are we all Lincolnians now? Maybe not. It's perfectly reasonable to ask what political movements and factions today would attract someone with Lincoln's political values. Lincoln was not King Arthur, living in a wholly alien society. Many of the issues of the mid-19th century -- from the role of the federal government in the economy to whether America is a Christian nation to evolution vs. creationism -- remain issues in the early 21st century.

In his long career as a Whig and Republican politician, Abraham Lincoln expressed views on many subjects other than unionism and slavery. Americans are rightly curious about the beliefs and values of the most iconic American president. Contemporary historians are inclined to deflect such questions by mumbling that Lincoln was "mysterious" or "puzzling." But there is no lack of evidence. Lincoln's ideas about race, religion, economics and the Constitution are well known to scholars. What Lincoln might think about today's American politics is not only a legitimate question, but one that can be answered with a reasonable chance of success.

Let's begin with race and immigration. Lincoln was not a radical abolitionist committed like all but a few modern Americans to a colorblind society. If he had been, he would have been a marginal figure in national politics. Like most Republicans who were not radicals, Lincoln wanted to keep slavery out of the Midwest and the North in the interests of white farmers and workers. At the same time, Lincoln sincerely believed that slavery was utterly incompatible with the natural rights liberalism on which the U.S. was founded. He passionately and eloquently denounced efforts to "dehumanize the negro -- to take away from him the right of ever striving to be a man ..." A "colonizationist" like his hero Henry Clay, as well as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln initially favored a gradual end to slavery, followed by the federally financed, voluntary emigration of freed blacks to Africa, Central America or the Caribbean. During the Civil War, however, Lincoln abandoned his support for colonization, and shortly before his death, in words that reflect his prejudices, he was recommending that states consider granting the right to vote to "intelligent" blacks and black Union veterans. More important, Lincoln firmly defended the principle of natural equality that was invoked as the basis for the much later Civil Rights Revolution. Unlike the states' rights conservatives of his day and ours, the author of the Emancipation Proclamation did not have philosophical objections to federal enforcement of civil rights.

What about immigration? While Lincoln did not question the white-only immigration policy of his time, he did reject the anti-Catholic, anti-European nativism of many of his fellow Whigs: "I am not a Know-Nothing," he wrote his former law partner Joshua Speed in 1855. "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.'" Someone with Lincoln's basic values might be concerned that ill-devised immigration policies could reduce wages for some citizens; that, after all, was one of the arguments of the Lincoln Republicans against the expansion of slavery. But Lincoln's dismissal of prejudice against Irish and German Catholics naturally leads to dismissal of all arguments about immigration based in bigotry.

What about economics? In his first campaign manifesto of 1832, the young Whig Party politician declared: "My politics are short and sweet, like the old woman's dance. I am in favor of a national bank ... in favor of the internal improvements system and a high protective tariff." In short, Lincoln was in favor of a strong federal government that actively promoted American infrastructure and manufacturing.

Would a modern Lincoln denounce infrastructure spending projects as boondoggles? Unlikely. As an Illinois legislator, Lincoln promoted an ambitious infrastructure scheme that bankrupted the state. Undeterred, Lincoln led the federal government to lavish subsidies on the railroads, which as a result nearly doubled American track miles between 1860 and 1870....


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