The Party of Lincoln in the Time of Trump

The Republicans are now going the way of the Whigs—by embracing the politics that helped destroy them.

Gary Cameron / Reuters

One hundred and sixty years after the founding of the Republican Party, Donald Trump has evoked Abraham Lincoln as a standard for his branding. “I can be more presidential, if I want to be,” he said. “I can be more presidential than anybody … more presidential than anybody other than the great Abe Lincoln. He was very presidential, right?” But Lincoln became “presidential” by resisting not only slavery but also isolating nativism. While some Republicans decry defining “the party of Lincoln” down to the vulgarity of Trump, others in their nostalgic longing to make their unraveling party great again, have forgotten their own origins and how Lincoln forged the Republican Party. The Republicans are now going the way of the Whigs by embracing the politics that helped destroy them.

Lincoln served in the House of Representatives for a single term as a stalwart Whig. In 1849, he returned to his law practice in Springfield and entered the political wilderness. After the Whig presidential candidate, the apolitical General Winfield Scott, was defeated in a landslide in 1852, the identity of the Whig Party shattered.

Suddenly, a new party emerged on its ruins—the Know Nothings, or the American Party. Between 1845 and 1854, 3 million immigrants arrived in the country. About 40 percent were poor Irish Catholics fleeing the ravages of the potato famine. About another 40 percent were Germans escaping from the failed revolution of 1848. Conservative Protestants viewed the Irish especially as a source of crime, corruption, and poverty. Both the Irish and Germans were beer drinkers, a habit that aroused temperance crusaders who condemned them as drunken, lazy, and sinful.

The Know Nothing Party sprang from a small nativist sect in New York City called the Order of the Star Spangled Banner. Within months after the 1852 election, it attracted an estimated membership of more than a million. Its program held that only Protestant-born citizens should hold public office, under the slogan: “Americans Only Shall Govern America.”

As nativism spread, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, Lincoln’s constant rival, proposed his Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 to repeal the Missouri Compromise, which prohibited slavery in the North, and leave the question of slavery to be decided by settlers. Rising from obscurity, Lincoln delivered incisive speeches laying out the political and constitutional case against the extension of slavery. Douglas, appealing to white supremacy, smeared his opponents as “black Republicans.” “He might call names, and thereby pander to prejudice, as much as he chose,” replied Lincoln.

Amid the deepening crisis, Lincoln wondered in 1855 how he could be effective fighting slavery while maintaining his identity in the crumpling Whig Party. “I think I am a Whig; but others say there are no Whigs, and that I am an abolitionist,” he wrote. But he had no doubt that nativism was thwarting the antislavery cause:

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. 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.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

Finally, on February 22, 1856, a group of antislavery newspaper editors invited Lincoln to join them as their political leader at a meeting to found the Illinois Republican Party. But when one of them, George Schneider, editor of the German-language newspaper Staats-Zeitung, proposed a plank denouncing Know-Nothingism, the nativists present strongly rejected it. Schneider responded that he would submit his resolution to Lincoln and “abide by his decision.”

“Gentlemen,” declared Lincoln, “the resolution introduced by Mr. Schneider is nothing new. It is already contained in the Declaration of Independence and you cannot form a new party on prescriptive principles.” For Lincoln, opposing nativism was consistent with opposing slavery. “This declaration of Mr. Lincoln’s,” Schneider recalled, “saved the resolution and in fact, helped to establish the new party on the most liberal democratic basis.” Lincoln’s judgment made possible the creation of the Republican Party, which became the instrument that would carry him to the presidency.

On October 16, 1885, under the open U.S. immigration policy of the time, Frederich Drumpf, from Germany, entered the Castle Garden Emigrant Landing Depot in New York City, and his name was changed to “Trumpf.”

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