What Was Abraham Lincoln’s Legacy?

Frequently during that run to the 2016 November presidential election and several times after the election, I read references to the Republican Party as “the Party of Lincoln.”

The first “Party of Lincoln” reference was September 2016, when Trump, speaking in a church with a predominately African-American parish in Detroit, promised to carry on Abraham Lincoln’s legacy if elected president. [Any bolding is mine for your attention.]

The party and legacy of Abraham Lincoln?

Becoming the nominee of the party of Abraham Lincoln … has been the greatest honor of my life,” Trump told churchgoers at Great Faith Ministries International, marking his first appearance at an African-American church. “It is on his legacy that I hope to build the future of the party, but, more importantly, the future of the country.”[1]

Odd choices those bolded phrases.

Granted, our 16th President of the United States WAS a member of the then fledging Republican Party. (It formed in 1854, and Abraham Lincoln was its second presidential candidate, and he became its first elected president in 1860.)

But why use “the Party of Lincoln” slogan during the 2016 election campaign?

And what IS Lincoln’s “legacy” really?

The ‘Party of Lincoln’ Slogan

Why Abraham Lincoln?

There are plenty of Republican presidents since Lincoln’s years. President U.S. Grant was a Republican.

President Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican. Heck, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan were

An 1860 “Honest Old Abe” campaign ribbon

Republican presidents within the last sixty years! All were successfully elected presidents since Lincoln – (and Teddy’s even immortalized on Mt. Rushmore with Abraham!)

What was the purpose of using that dead politician’s name from 150 years ago in a 21st Century election?

Of course the purpose was to say, indirectly, that the Republican Party and its candidate held the same values and principles as “Honest old Abe.” (Another appropriate term would be “guilt by association” – but which way?)

The “Honest old Abe” moniker was a clever campaign ploy – like “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” in 1840 or “I like Ike” in 1952. But how clever was the “Party of Lincoln” in 2016?

To answer that question, let’s continue.

So what IS Lincoln’s legacy?

A “legacy” is something handed down by a predecessor. Since the current administration is quoted as hoping ‘to build on that legacy,’ it might be a good idea to consider what that “something” of Lincoln’s is.

A self-made man who largely taught himself to read and then read voraciously, Lincoln also “read for the law” (same thing again only the process involved self-education on the principles and application of law). He then passed the Bar examination and practiced law very successfully in central Illinois.

He enjoyed the mental challenges that frontier law and frontier property law presented. There are

Abraham Lincoln - Circuit Lawyer
Abraham Lincoln, the circuit lawyer, dispensing legal advice in one of the small towns in his district.

some historical accounts that dispute Lincoln’s legal prowess, but truly, the ONLY endeavor at which he was a failure was as a retail business manager (the current office holder’s supposed forte).

Self-aggrandizement (self-glorification) or self-enrichment were of no interest to this country lawyer, but politics was. As a frontier lawyer who rode to the various small towns in the legal district around his home in Springfield, it wasn’t slavery that first captured Lincoln’s attention. He saw the need for making better laws, clearer laws as the nation grew.

Lincoln’s easy, folksy manner that helped him in front of those small town juries also helped him on the campaign trail. In frontier politics, arrogance and corruption were the fastest tickets out of town in the 1830s, ’40s, and ’50s. Lincoln’s masterful use of humorous stories to illustrate complicated points of law; his reputation for honesty, humor, and compassion, as well as his ungainly appearance, were all strengths that he carried from law to the political arena.

As in law, Lincoln was well-traveled as a politician. He served on the Springfield Town Board, five terms in the Illinois state legislature, and one term in the U.S. House of Representatives (1846-1849). He also lost three times as a candidate – one time at the state level and two times for the U.S. Senate. Overall, Lincoln was experienced in politics.

And of course, he was the only president to ever cope with a true civil war.

That covers the biographical details and resume part of Lincoln’s “Legacy.” But what were Lincoln’s guiding moral principles, values, and his political beliefs? Those are part of a legacy too.

All of those can be summed up in these two quotes.

The first quote is on his view of the purpose of government. It is written in his handwriting on a fragment of paper, and it is included with his papers in the Library of Congress.

The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves — in their separate, and individual capacities–” [2]

The second quote frames his moral code and his value system. It’s from his Second Inaugural Address [March 4, 1865] in which he lays out his plan for the treatment of the South after the Civil War.

Cropped portion of Lincoln delivering his second inaugural address, which is the only known photograph of the event.

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...[2]

So, let’s review the facts:

  • The Republican Party (and Trump) consistently referred to themselves as the “Party of Lincoln” as a campaign ploy during the 2016 Presidential Campaign.
  • They sought to associate themselves in the minds of 21st Century voters with a long dead president from the 19th Century.
  • That long dead president loved reading, was a largely self-taught reader who was a failure as a business manger but a success as a lawyer.
  • Lincoln’s honesty, compassion, intelligence, and folksy manner aided him in the law and in politics.
  • He served politically at the local, state, and national levels BEFORE running and winning the presidency.
  • Lincoln’s political and moral beliefs center on a government meeting the needs of a community it can’t meet for itself “with malice toward none and charity for all and with firmness” as God shows the way.

Donald Trump and the 2017 Republicans represent of the “Party and the legacy of Lincoln?”

You’re kidding, right?

Food for thought.


Works Cited

[1] Goldmacher, Shane. (2016, September 3). 2016: “Trump flashes humility in first ever black church visit.” POLITICO. Retrieved July 24,2017 from http://www.politico.com/story/2016/09/donald-trump-detroit-african-american-church-227712

[2] Abraham Lincoln Association (2008, September 11). Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. “Fragment on government.”v.II:p. 221 and “Second Inaugural Address.” v.VIII:p.334. Both retrieved July 24, 2017 from http://quod.lib.umich.edu/l/lincoln/  

[Please Note: Though undated, the “Fragment on government” (v.II:p.221) was given the date July 1, 1854 by Nicolay and Hay as they were organizing Lincoln’s papers after his death. However, historians believe that the more accurate timeline for this was during Lincoln’s first time in Congress (1846-1849).]

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