Op-Ed: The Party of Lincoln?

The Party Of Lincoln?

After hearing a comment that the two leading political parties of his day seemed to have swapped positions over the years, Abraham Lincoln responded with a story that compared both parties to a couple of drunks:  

I remember once being much amused at seeing two partially intoxicated men engage in a fight . . . which . . . after a long, and rather harmless contest, ended in each having fought himself out of his own coat, and into that of the other. 

If the two leading parties of this day are really identical with the two in the days of Jefferson and Adams, they have performed about the same feat as the two drunken men.  

The same metaphor can be used today.  After all, the Republican Party of Lincoln’s day supported labor unions and the right to strike, was pro-immigration, believed in science, and favored a strong national authority.  As a matter of fact, Abraham Lincoln’s administration oversaw the largest expansion of the federal government in American history (up to that point in time).  Republicans founded the precursor to the IRS, implemented the first income tax, and taxed the wealthy at a higher rate.  They founded the National Academy of Sciences, established Land-Grant Colleges, created the Department of Agriculture, and gave away millions of acres of government land to private citizens (through the Homestead Act).  His administration also passed “An Act to Encourage Immigration,” which created the U.S. Immigration Bureau.  And it was Lincoln’s party that produced the first federal program devoted solely to America’s veterans.  On the other side, the Democratic Party was fiercely conservative.  It was made up mostly of farmers and uneducated city laborers, reflecting America’s largely agricultural society.  They believed in non-government intervention for almost everything, were against establishing a public education system, and were mostly pro-slavery.  

How things have changed.  Just like the two drunks in Lincoln’s story, over time the two major political parties have wrestled themselves out of their own coats and into that of the other.  And each side believes that the other is too extreme – either too far to the right or too far to the left.  So whatever happened to the middle?  Where are all the moderates?  

In his own time, Abraham Lincoln was viewed as a moderate.  Taking a position between two opposing factions was a trademark of his leadership style.  He was a middle-of-the-road politician who could look at any issue, have empathy for both sides, search for common ground, and balance the extreme factions.   

In the presidential election of 2016, both Republicans and Democrats claimed Abraham Lincoln.  Donald Trump said he “could be more presidential than anybody other than the great Abe Lincoln.” Democratic vice presidential candidate, Tim Kaine, said that the Republican Party “has moved too far away from the party of Lincoln.”  But Republican speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, steadfastly maintained that “This is the Party of Lincoln.”  

So which side can legitimately claim Abraham Lincoln?  Well, the United States of America to Abraham Lincoln was more than just another nation.   It was hope for the future of all humankind.  He believed that the Declaration of Independence articulated the principles of liberty and equality, which not only go hand-in-hand, but are nothing less than the principles of humanity.  The U.S. Constitution then created a new form of government that advocated, nurtured, and protected those principles.  With its three branches — the executive, the legislative, and the judicial — this new system of government was carefully designed to have checks and balances so that no one person, nor one faction, could oppress or terrorize the great majority of citizens.  And to Abraham Lincoln, that “government of the people, by the people, for the people” was worth preserving, worth fighting for, and worth dying for, if necessary.  

Lincoln’s example represents the best of the America to which we may aspire.  He showed us the kind of people we can be.  Not an America that divides, but an America that pulls together.  Not a shortsighted America, but an America that sees beyond and deeper.  And until American political leaders understand that, neither the Republican or Democratic parties will be able to rightfully claim that they are the Party of Lincoln.  Until then, they’ll be just like those two drunks wrestling with each other, selfishly trying to influence and placate voters to their own self-seeking ends. 

Excerpt: Lincoln On Leadership for Today


“Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man, this race and that race, and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position . . . .  Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.”

Lincoln, in debate with Stephen A. Douglas

October 13, 1858



  Abraham Lincoln guided through Congress the first major federal immigration law in American history (creating the U.S. Immigration Bureau and the Office of the Commissioner of Immigration). He entitled it “An Act to Encourage Immigration,” termed it a great policy, and said it would give America’s immigrants “effective national protection.” Lincoln often referred to immigrants as “one of the principal replenishing streams.” America, he said, has a system that allows people to prosper, to rise, and to get rich. But when that system is successful, it creates a shortage of affordable labor. New immigrants fill that void. In Lincoln’s day, it was filled primarily by Irish and Chinese immigrants. Today, it is filled largely by people from Latin America, particularly Mexico.

  Unfortunately, the once-mighty U.S. immigration system has been degraded to a point where it is no longer effective, as witnessed by the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the country today. An ongoing argument pits conservatives — who say that undocumented workers take jobs away from Americans, don’t pay taxes, and are a drain on local and state resources — against progressives, who say that opposition to immigration is rooted in racism. Some propose building a wall along the entire 1,954-mile border between Mexico and the United States. Others want to deport the entire undocumented population, as well as 300,000 so-called anchor babies (children born in the U.S. to undocumented immigrants).

  My sense is that if Abraham Lincoln were surveying all of this today, he would remind us that the United States was built on immigration, and that, except for Native Americans, we are all descended from immigrants who journeyed to America looking for a new and better life. In my opinion, he would clearly agree that our immigration system is broken. But he would also say that closing the borders is not the answer, that building a multibillion-dollar wall along the border is ill-advised, and that forcibly deporting 11 million people is unfeasible. He would ask us to consider who provides most of the affordable labor in this country. Lincoln’s view of immigrants as “one of the principal replenishing streams” is still as valid now as it was in his day.

  A leader like Lincoln, however, would definitely take action on such a broken system. He might propose change in two steps. First, he might implement a plan to legitimize those undocumented immigrants who are already here through a onetime offer of amnesty. Concurrent with that program, he would probably create a more effective and comprehensive immigration system similar to what the United States had at the turn of the 20th century, when most European immigrants came through Ellis Island. With our technological capabilities today, there is no excuse for not being able to keep track of everybody who goes through the system. And once a new national immigration structure is reset, it must be strictly enforced.      

  Abraham Lincoln knew that all people everywhere desire freedom and opportunity. So let us all remember that for millions of oppressed people the world over, America is still the “last best, hope of earth."


    By studying Lincoln’s life, along with his words and actions in the context of history, I believe we can glean meaning from the remarkably moral and ethical life he led. And the lessons learned just might become a model for more effective leadership in our own time. Abraham Lincoln’s example represents the best of the America to which we may aspire. He showed us the kind of people we can be. Not an America that divides, but an America that pulls together. Not a shortsighted America, but an America that sees beyond and deeper. That is the Lincoln of this book. In the end, though, it’s up to each of us individually to determine what part of Lincoln we might use in our own daily lives to help make this world a better place in which to live.



     The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him.

     This is free labor — the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all — gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.

Abraham Lincoln
September 30, 1859

Handling a Recession

Abraham Lincoln experienced two major recessions during his political career — the Financial Panic of 1837 and the Financial Panic of 1857. The actions he proposed as a state representative to deal with the first recession were not enacted because he did not have enough power or support. But as president, the actions he took to counter the next recession (which were essentially the same as those he had previously proposed) not only worked, but helped to garner victory for the North during the Civil War.

Periodic recessions are a normal part of the modern business cycle, having occurred at an average of one every seven years since World War II. Most recently, the Great Recession of 2007–2009 (the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of 1929–1933) resulted in unprecedented levels of unemployment, mortgage foreclosures, and global banking credit crises. Its impact was eventually relieved by extraordinary and intense federal government intervention. Major controversy erupted about whether or not to enact forceful new laws to prevent the unscrupulous actions that precipitated the Great Recession, and whether or not to prosecute those who had been involved.

Judging from his views on recessions during his time, I believe Lincoln would have approved of using the power of the federal government to take actions such as saving the automobile industry, bailing out “too big to fail” corporations, and implementing the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). But he would have deplored the unregulated, greedy, and dishonest practices (such as the subprime mortgage crisis) that helped precipitate the Great Recession in the first place. My sense is that he would propose to Congress and push for tough legislation to prevent such abuses in the future. And Lincoln would prosecute those responsible and advocate harsh prison sentences to send a message so that such abuses should never happen again.