Sunday, February 17, 2019

WHY LINCOLN REMAINS BASIC TO AMERICAN POLITICS


Remarks by Chris Powell
Vernon Republican Town Committee
American Legion Post 14
Vernon, Connecticut
Saturday, February 16, 2019


For the first two decades of my adult life I was a Democrat. I became a Republican back around 1991, if for peculiar reasons that may be best explained by a scene in the old Marx Brothers movie “Horse Feathers.”

Maybe you remember it. Groucho has been appointed president of Huxley College and announces that the problem with Huxley is that it has been neglecting football for education. So he appoints himself coach of the football team in time to coach it for a game against Huxley’s big rival, Darwin College.

There’s a very confusing play on the field and Groucho ends up in the Darwin huddle. Groucho’s son runs over to him and says, “Dad, Dad -- You’re coaching the wrong team.”

Groucho replies: “I know that but our team wouldn’t listen to me.”

But I admit that these days it can be as difficult to be a Republican as to be a Democrat. When your chairman, Bob Hurd, invited me to talk at your Lincoln Day breakfast, I first thought that I would title my remarks: “How Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln Are Alike.”

A week ago I started making notes for such a talk. Let’s see, I thought: Trump and Lincoln both had two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears. ... and then I realized that as far as anyone today knows, Lincoln never had bone spurs.

So I decided that I better talk only about Lincoln.

The real title of this talk is:

WHY LINCOLN REMAINS BASIC TO AMERICAN POLITICS

Dying may be the best way of leaving elective office -- at least it can throw off a grand jury. And leaving office by assassination can confer secular sainthood, as it did with John F. Kennedy.

In the historical record Abraham Lincoln has both advantages -- dying in office and assassination. But other than that martyrdom, is Lincoln relevant today for his politics?

Like Kennedy, Lincoln is remembered as a saint of American politics. But he was not always a saint. In fact, as a politician he was capable of foolishness. As the leader of the Whig Party’s minority in the Illinois House of Representatives in 1840 he jumped out a window at the state Capitol to try to prevent a quorum from being called on banking legislation he opposed. During his single term in the U.S. House of Representatives he was among a number of congressmen exposed for padding their expense accounts by Horace Greeley, who then was both a member of Congress from New York and editor of the New York Tribune. (Eventually all was forgiven, for a decade later Greeley helped get Lincoln nominated for president.)

But saints aren't born; they are made. There's nothing unique in that about Lincoln.

Of course Lincoln remains admired for his rising to the top from humble beginnings, from hardscrabble farming and the log cabin. But many people rise from nothing, even as few people in politics today can relate much to that because few people today enjoy the retrospective advantage of a log-cabin childhood. These days even a minority kid in a tenement in Hartford has it easier than that.

Persistence in adversity is a time-honored example drawn from Lincoln’s life.

He lost his first election to the Illinois House. He twice lost his party’s nomination to the U.S. House of Representatives from Illinois in the 1840s, and, after he finally won that nomination and was elected to Congress, he declined to seek a second term because he almost certainly would have been defeated.

As a leader of the Republican Party in Illinois he lost the 1858 U.S. Senate election to Stephen Douglas, even though he well might have won if the election had been a direct one, not an indirect one through the Illinois legislature, whose districting heavily favored the Democrats. (Republican candidates for the legislature got more votes than Democratic candidates, but those votes were not distributed widely enough to win a majority of legislative districts.)

Even when Lincoln was first elected president it was only because the other party was divided three ways. He won 1.8 million votes, a million fewer votes than his three opponents won altogether.

In the summer of 1864 Lincoln seemed sure to be defeated for re-election as president. The Civil War was going badly for the North. Lincoln was renominated by the Republicans only because his party was too demoralized to find someone else. Then, in late July, General Sherman took Atlanta and began marching to the sea, and most voters decided to stick with Lincoln after all.

Lincoln’s presidency was almost entirely one of bloody war, more costly and horrible than any war this country has ever been part of, and he confessed that he had not controlled events but that they had controlled him.

At least in being controlled by events he was patient and yet decisive, humble and yet clever, simple and homespun and yet eloquent beyond anything we are likely to hear again. While the Gettysburg Address has become a commonplace, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, delivered in March 1865, is biblical in its explanation of the Civil War, which then, thankfully, had barely a month to continue.

He said:

“Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. 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 the believers in the 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 bond-man’s 250 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 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said: ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

But then many people persist in adversity. There is nothing unique in that. Indeed Calvin Coolidge argued that it was the sole prerequisite of human success.

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence,” Coolidge said. “Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

So can we learn anything from Lincoln’s positions on the issues of his time?

In politics in Illinois he repeatedly put himself at risk in support of a national bank and a state bank, the latter issue being so important to him that he jumped out of the Capitol window to try to prevent the state bank from being diminished. He supported what then were called “internal improvements” -- state financing of canals, roads, and railroads -- and perhaps not so coincidentally went on to become a lawyer for the Illinois Central.

But this may not be much help to us either in the search for Lincoln’s enduring political relevance, for back in the 1800s “internal improvements” never would have been defined to include today’s hockey arenas and baseball and football stadiums.

Of course Lincoln is remembered for ending slavery, as a war measure with the Emancipation Proclamation, and he opposed the extension of slavery throughout his political career -- indeed, he made opposition to slavery’s extension the center of his politics once he reached the national stage. But slavery is long gone as an issue; even modern Confederate sympathizers decline to defend it in the context of its time. So that doesn’t do much for us today either.

No, Lincoln’s enduring political relevance is bigger even than slavery.

It is devotion to principle and righteousness without self-righteousness.

Lincoln was not an abolitionist, insofar as he would not hate slaveholders. He often said Northerners would behave as Southerners did if their personal situations were reversed.

But he held to his position as a matter of moral necessity when politics was trying to diminish the slavery issue by making it a matter of local option and national indifference. This principle at Lincoln’s core won him the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, enabling him to defeat far more established politicians, like Senator Seward of New York and Senator Chase of Ohio -- particularly because he had expressed that principle so well in his speech at the Cooper Institute in New York in February that year.

Lincoln said:

“If slavery is right, all words, acts, laws, and constitutions against it are themselves wrong, and should be silenced, and swept away. If it is right, we cannot justly object to its nationality -- its universality.

“If it is wrong, they cannot justly insist upon its extension -- its enlargement. All they ask, we could readily grant, if we thought slavery right. All we ask, they could as readily grant, if they thought it wrong.

“Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy.

“Thinking it right, as they do, they are not to blame for desiring its full recognition, as being right. But, thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield to them? Can we cast our votes with their view, and against our own? In view of our moral, social, and political responsibilities, can we do this?

“Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation. But can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the national territories, and to overrun us here in these free states? ...

“Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that RIGHT makes MIGHT, and, in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

Lincoln’s central principle was actually his devotion to the Declaration of Independence. To him the Declaration was the legal and moral proof of the evil of slavery. More than that, he knew that the Declaration was universal in its application and thus revolutionary on a world scale. Because of his martyr’s death Lincoln has been likened to Christ, as many martyrs have been. But the better comparison – Lincoln’s distinction from other martyrs -- is that, like Christ, he came to renew the law of his fathers -- for Lincoln, the Founding Fathers.

Debating Senator Douglas in Chicago in July 1858, Lincoln explained it most eloquently.

“Now it happens that we meet together once every year, sometimes about the Fourth of July, for some reason or other. These Fourth of July gatherings, I suppose, have their uses. If you will indulge me I will state what I suppose to be some of them.

“We are now a mighty nation; we are about 30 million people and we own and inhabit about a fifteenth part of the dry land of the whole earth. We run our memory back over the pages of history for about 82 years, and we discover that we were then a very small people in point of numbers, vastly inferior to what we are now, with a vastly less extent of country, with vastly less of everything we deem desirable among men.

“We look upon the change as exceedingly advantageous to us and to our posterity, and we fix upon something that happened away back as in some way or other being connected with this rise of prosperity.

“We find a race of men living in that day whom we claim as our fathers and grandfathers. They were iron men; they fought for the principle they were contending for; and we understand that, by what they then did, the prosperity we now enjoy has come to us.

“We hold this annual celebration to remind ourselves of all the good done in this process of time, of how it was done and who did it, and how we are historically connected with it; and we go from these meetings in better humor with ourselves. We feel more attached, the one to the other, and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit. In every way we are better men in the age and race and country in which we live for these celebrations.

“But after we have done all this we have not yet reached the whole. There is something else connected with it.

“Besides these men descended by blood from our ancestors we have many among us -- perhaps half our people -- who are not descendants at all of these men. They are men who have come from Europe -- Germans, Irish, French, and Scandinavian -- men who have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things.

“If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood they find they have none. They cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us.

“But when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that that moral sentiment, taught in that day, evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration -- AND SO THEY ARE.”

Lincoln thus lectures us about our immigration policy today. Immigration must be put back under control, and immigrants must assimilate into the national democratic and secular culture and not pursue separatism and theocracy. But how can we deny those who prove that they want to be Americans because most of all they believe in the principles of the Declaration?

In another debate with Douglas in 1858 Lincoln again drew from the Declaration:

“These by their representatives in old Independence Hall said to the whole race of men:

“‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’

“This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures.

“Yes, gentlemen, to ALL his creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on and degraded and imbruted by its fellows.”

We should think about that sentence some more: “Nothing stamped with the divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on and degraded and imbruted by its fellows.” While we no longer bear the shame of slavery, we should examine our welfare system in the light of Lincoln’s observation -- the fatherlessness and poverty it perpetuates, the lives it maims and brutalizes to sustain poverty as a big business. And we should protest the atrocity of abortion of post-viable fetuses and the atrocity of infanticide.

From his belief in the principles of the Declaration flowed Lincoln’s belief that the country was worth keeping together and fighting for, and that the national interest had to be put first in everything in politics.

Go through all his works and his reliably attributed remarks and you will be hard-pressed to find any of the pandering that dominates politics today, just as it dominated politics in his time. For this Lincoln was unusual too.

Again, debating Douglas in 1858:

“Senator Douglas is of worldwide renown. All the anxious politicians of his party, or who have been of his party for years past, have been looking upon him as certainly at no distant day to be president of the United States.

“They have seen in his round, jolly, fruitful face post offices, land offices, marshalships and cabinet appointments, chargeships and foreign missions, bursting and sprouting out in wonderful exuberance ready to be laid hold of by their greedy hands.

“And as they have been gazing upon this attractive picture so long that they cannot, in the little distraction that has taken place in the party, bring themselves to give up the charming hope. But with greedier anxiety they rush about him, sustain him, and give him marches, triumphal entries, and receptions, beyond what even in the days of his highest prosperity they could have brought about in his favor.

“On the contrary, nobody has ever expected me to be president. In my poor, lean, lank face nobody has ever seen that any cabbages were sprouting out.

“These are disadvantages all taken together that the Republicans labor under. We have to fight this battle upon principle, and principle alone.”

Kennedy’s exhortation a hundred years later – “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” -- was a distant echo of this thought. It may not have been expressed by a high elected official since Kennedy. Even our Republican hero Ronald Reagan asked us only if we were better off today than we were four years previously when the president he was challenging took office.

All this -- his political meaning, not the mere circumstances of his life and death -- is why Lincoln was both the greatest Republican and the greatest American. In recent years the Republican Party has not done well in making him relevant -- nobody has -- has not reached back to him for the precedent that could be decisive today. But he left plenty for us if we will only take it.

“Not with the politicians and the office-seekers,” he said, “but with you, my fellow citizens, is the question: Can the liberties of the country be preserved unto the last generations?”



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