“People will not look forward to posterity, those who never look backward to their ancestors.” Edmund Burke’s famous observation was echoed by George Santayana, who wrote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” With those thoughts in mind, it’s appropriate to look back at the life and times of Abraham Lincoln, born on this date 210 years ago.
Lincoln is famously remembered as the president who saved the Union during the most critical period of our history, the Civil War. The war was close to its end when he won re-election in 1864. The words of his second inaugural address were emblematic of his hopes for postwar America: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Where some might have wished to punish the South for instigating the war, Lincoln called for forgiveness. Where some would have imposed penalties on those who fought against the Union, he asked for compassion. He knew that nothing good could come from a victory laced with vengeance. The Republican Party, which he helped establish, was progressive. Before the war, it opposed the expansion of slavery; after the Civil War ended, it pushed the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments into law. Those “Civil War Amendments” ended slavery, granted citizenship to former slaves, and extended all rights of citizenship to American citizens, irrespective of race. The party called for expanded spending for public education. It looked to increase immigration. Republicans, beginning with Lincoln, were the party of conservation; the GOP established the country’s first national park in 1872. Indeed, the early Republican Party was the party of big government.
In the nearly 70 years following Lincoln’s first election, the parties reversed roles. Liberal Republicans in the mold of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt could be found in Congress and governors’ offices into the 1960s. So called “Rockefeller Republicans” held more mainstream, progressive positions on social, environmental and educational issues, while holding to old-style, pre-Reagan Republican ideas on fiscal policy. Today, moderate Republicans like Lincoln Chaffee can be found in the Democratic Party; they are an endangered species in Republican circles. Perhaps three or four such people can be found in Washington.
Today’s Republican Party is completely disconnected from the principles of its founders on the issues of the day. One need look no further than the current President and his policies.
The State of the Union speech shows how little the Party of Lincoln influences the Party of Trump. The president saluted the service of the few elderly World War II veterans he invited. They fought to make sure that the descendants of those whom Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed could in practice, as well as in words, exercise their right to vote. Modern Republicans systematically worked to exclude African-Americans from the voting booth.
The Party of Lincoln set aside irreplaceable wilderness sites and ancient artifacts for all of posterity to enjoy. President Trump shrank the size of many of them, opening them to oil extraction. Exxon Valdes and Deepwater Horizon should serve as reminders of the enormous risks that oil drilling and transportation expose the environment to; those lessons were lost on the president as he mentioned American energy production.
Where Lincoln prayed for “a just and lasting peace among ourselves,” the president offered “war or investigation” into his administration’s activities, which have produced more than three dozen criminal convictions or indictments.
The Party of Lincoln dealt with treason. The Party of Trump deals in it, accusing the press of being “enemies of the people,” even as questions swirl around the president’s ties to foreign dictators.
The Party of Lincoln sought to reduce tensions between North and South, East and West. The Party of Trump exacerbates them.
History teaches us of the disastrous consequences of abandoning consensus, compromise and commitment to improve the lives of all. The Party of Lincoln committed itself to remedying the root causes of the discord that generated the Civil War. The Party of Trump has ignored those lessons and continues to do so at its own peril — and ours.