Abraham Lincoln’s Party Politics

We celebrate Lincoln’s birthday this week (Thursday), and with it we celebrate the often misguided mythology of what presidential leadership actually is. Lincoln’s popular image tends to rest on his status as a war president (which has particular moral significance in light of the end of slavery), his biography outside of politics, and his rhetorical legacy. Not surprisingly, these aspects have overshadowed one of Lincoln’s most important legacies: as a party politician.

Lincoln came into office as the first Republican elected to the presidency, a former Whig. Both Whig and Democratic approaches had failed to address the nation’s sectional crisis. The Republican Party formed out of this wreckage. Jacksonian Democratic ideas about popular sovereignty and sectional balance had produced a series of compromises, each more divisive than the last. Whig anti-partyism and refusal to address the slavery issue head-on had resulted in a splintered party, with future Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens leading the Southern Congressional faction. Northern Whigs, along with some Northern Democrats, Free Soilers, and other opponents of slavery, joined to form a new party. One of the key ideological tenets of this party was that slavery should not be extended, noting in their 1860 platform:

That the normal condition of all the territory of the United States is that of freedom: That, as our Republican fathers, when they had abolished slavery in all our national territory, ordained that “no persons should be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law,” it becomes our duty, by legislation, whenever such legislation is necessary, to maintain this provision of the Constitution against all attempts to violate it; and we deny the authority of Congress, of a territorial legislature, or of any individuals, to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States.

Lots of scholars in political science and history, including the late David Herbert Donald, have considered the implications of Lincoln as a party politician. The early Republican Party functioned very much in the nineteenth century tradition, with factions, patronage, a localized campaign apparatus. Lincoln’s political career was inextricably bound up with that system of party politics.

Lincoln illustrates why presidential rhetoric is so important (despite serving in an era when presidents were fairly limited in their rhetorical opportunities). But while contemporary notions of rhetoric envision a president speaking directly to the people, avoiding party intermediaries, Lincoln’s instead draws on his party’s ideas about the purpose of the American nation. People talk about the second inaugural today, which is terrific political rhetoric. One of the key functions of inaugural addresses is to reconcile the nation after an election, and Lincoln’s does this with both meaning and grace.

But when it comes to Lincoln’s best rhetoric, I’m partial to the Gettysburg Address. For one thing, the Inaugural is a much more ready-made opportunity for a president to say something memorable. In November 1863, Lincoln was just part of the oratorical program for the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg.

And there, in the number of words most of us use for our Midwest abstracts, Lincoln reinterpreted the Constitution and American national identity. (See a short version of Garry Wills’ classic argument.) By identifying the Declaration of Independence as the key moment in the American Founding (four score and seven years ago=1776), Lincoln not only reminded his audience that the purpose of the war was to save the nation – he also clarified the substantive values of the nation. For Lincoln as a Whig and as a Republican, respecting the Constitution meant following its process – the reason why no attempt was made to end slavery through executive fiat (see J. David Greenstone’s The Lincoln Persuasion). But the Gettysburg Address fused the substantive ideals of the Declaration of Independence – equality, liberty – with the procedural content of the Constitution.

This fusion of substance and process is still highly relevant today. Both liberals and conservatives have used arguments about process to shy away from difficult debates. This speech also stresses the civic national identity of the United States: a country defined by its commitment to a greater idea than our immediate needs or preferences. This was a direct challenge to the “popular sovereignty” solutions that dominated Jacksonian Democratic leaders (including Lincoln’s Illinois rival Stephen Douglas) during the preceding decade. These politicians offered local preferences as a solution to the growing divide over slavery. Lincoln’s words argued instead that the nation was about more than, as we political scientists would say, minimum procedural definitions of democracy.

But this rhetoric, despite its ceremonial setting, was also political. The war had cost many lives, and the country had grown weary of the ongoing conflict, as people often do. In 1864, nearly forty-five percent of the electorate would cast their votes for the Democrat, George “peace before reunion” McClellan. Defending the war, and its purpose, was a political position.

The unfortunate thing about the Lincoln myth is that it neglects his ambition, skill, and identity as a party politician. In contemporary political life, presidents are expected to provide stirring rhetoric that fixes problems – an impossible task anyway – but this is understood to be an act of distancing themselves from their parties. We ask presidents to provide meaningful solutions to serious, complicated problems, as we should ask of our elected officials. Many still also look to the president to reinvigorate our understanding of national identity – to offer guidance about what it means to be an American in our particular context. These aren’t unreasonable, but it’s not reasonable to want the president to provide these solutions and ideas alone, in isolation from party. Maybe if we understood this facet of historical “greats” like Lincoln a bit better, we would have an easier time seeing contemporary presidents in that light.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.