Last month, a group of dissident Republicans — George T. Conway III, Steve Schmidt, John Weaver and Rick Wilson — offered a scathing rebuke of President Trump in a New York Times op-ed for “the damage he and his followers are doing to the rule of law, the Constitution and the American character.” They broadcast their goal of “defeating President Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box” by “persuading enough disaffected conservatives, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents” to vote against Trump in 2020. Forming the Lincoln Project as a coordinating body, they cited Abraham Lincoln as the inspiration for their mission to defeat “so polarizing a character as Trump” and “allow the country to heal its political and psychological wounds and allow for a new, better path forward.”
The Lincoln Project’s founders are not the first to invoke the 16th president to justify the righteousness of a political cause. Since the Civil War’s conclusion in 1865, Republicans have portrayed Lincoln as the patron saint of Republicanism to whom all in their party must remain true. But while a romanticized image of Lincoln has been paramount within the party, Republicans have been less willing to recognize the key values that made Lincoln such a transformative president. Only by incorporating the ideas of national unity, tolerance and constitutional responsibility could the GOP actually become the party of Lincoln it claims to be.
At no time was the fracture between celebrating the idea of Lincoln while rejecting what he stood for more evident than during the 1960s. In 1964, Sen. Barry Goldwater (Ariz.) sought the party’s nomination by making antagonism toward civil rights legislation central to his platform. Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Act — one of only six Republican senators to oppose the bill — solidified his position as the chosen candidate of racial conservatives.
Many progressive Republicans saw Goldwater’s opposition to racial equality and courting of segregationists as tarnishing the party’s heritage. Just as contemporary anti-Trump Republicans use Lincolnesque memory to denounce Trump, progressive Republicans in 1964 leaned heavily on historical allusions to combat Goldwater.
The Ripon Society’s “Declaration of Conscience” of July 4, 1964, outlined these concerns. Formed in 1962, the Ripon Society — named after the Wisconsin town where the GOP was reportedly founded — was a liberal Republican group, mainly based at universities in the Northeast.
On Independence Day, Riponers journeyed to Ripon and issued their declaration. “The Republican Party faces its greatest internal crisis since its founding,” they declared, condemning Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Act. “It must choose … whether it will embrace a candidate who has by his action in Congress and silence in the face of national crisis disqualified himself to be the leader of the party of Lincoln.” Ripon members proposed that pro-civil-rights Republicans were the true “heirs of Lincoln — unwilling to surrender our Republican inheritance to him — unable to escape the implications of his legacy.” Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton, who unsuccessfully challenged Goldwater for the nomination, agreed: “The most important single Republican principle since Abraham Lincoln is equal rights for all. Sen. Goldwater’s vote indicates clearly he is not with the Republicans.”
Goldwater’s supporters countered these arguments by recalling a different version of Lincoln. Conservative theorist Russell Kirk accused Goldwater’s detractors of “being false to the principles of Abraham Lincoln” and employing “bad history.” Kirk saw Goldwater as the apt legatee of both Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, thanks to his willingness to stand against “baneful ‘civil rights’ measures” and refusing to bow to “pressure groups.” Others argued that by refusing to support civil rights legislation, Goldwater followed in Lincoln’s footsteps: “Lincoln was for the separation of our two most predominant races,” wrote one Goldwaterite from Tennessee. “If he were living today he would be appalled by the ‘compulsory’ integration law.”
As the party nominated Goldwater and moved to the right on racial issues, many of its longtime voters — notably moderate Republicans and African Americans — who had embraced Lincoln’s emancipationist legacy turned to the Democratic Party. But memories of Lincoln persisted, and in fact, invoking the “Great Emancipator” became a cover for conservative racial politics. Richard Nixon notably relied on Lincoln to support his racially coded “law and order” platform. He argued that Lincoln would oppose “redress by mob law” because of his belief that “no one is above the law. No one is below the law.”
Trump has also tried to present himself in the mold of Lincoln to rebut charges of racism. During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump traveled to Gettysburg, Pa., where he reworked the Gettysburg Address, declaring if he was elected, “we will once more have a government of, by and for the people.” In November 2018, Trump informed a crowd in Tupelo, Miss., that “African American unemployment [and] the African American poverty rate has reached the lowest level ever recorded. This is under Republicans, folks. Please remember the home of Abraham Lincoln.”
Today, the Lincoln Project is once again trying to reclaim the Lincoln legacy, and it is willing to go outside the party to do so, if necessary, by encouraging the election of “Democrats who support the Constitution over Republicans who do not.”
But perhaps rather than paying homage to Lincoln the man, the real solution to the deep divides facing America rests in examining the ideas he put forth about unity and, eventually, equality. Though he may have begun his presidency as a racial conservative, resisting putting abolition at the heart of the Union war effort and flirting with support for colonization, Lincoln gradually embraced more liberal ideas on race. Alongside the Emancipation Proclamation and his support for the 13th Amendment, Lincoln also spoke of limited black suffrage in his final public address, on April 11, 1865. Lincoln grasped that slavery was fundamental to the discord racking the United States. He understood that only by reckoning with racism was any future possible for the nation. Turning to Lincoln, and appreciating his great capacity for growth, would be a worthwhile exercise for those hoping to unite a divided America in the present day.