“Think of your forefathers! Think of your posterity!”–John Quincy Adams
One of my favorite op-ed writers is Wheaton alum Michael Gerson, who writes a regular column for the Washington Post. His coverage of the current political campaign has been stellar. If you care at all about U. S. politics, and especially if you take religious faith seriously while caring about politics, I encourage you to check out his past columns.
Gerson’s most recent editorial, posted last night, appears under the title “The Party of Lincoln is Dying.” Gerson acknowledges that Republican leaders like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are under “tremendous political pressure to be loyal to the team” and preserve party unity, but he criticizes them for thinking they are “in a normal political moment–a time for pragmatism, give-and-take, holding your nose and eventually getting past an unpleasant chore.” The reality, Gerson argues, is rather different:
“It is not a normal political moment. It is one of those rare time–like the repudiation of Joe McCarthy, or consideration of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the Watergate crisis–when the spotlight of history stops on a single decision, and a whole political career is remembered in a single pose. The test here: Can you support, for pragmatic reasons, a presidential candidate who purposely and consistently appeals to racism?”
It won’t surprise you to know that Gerson’s editorial sent my mind racing into the past, nor to learn that my thoughts came to rest on Abraham Lincoln. I’ve been immersing myself in Lincoln’s papers this summer–so just about everything makes me think of Lincoln–but the connection I have in mind isn’t remotely forced or artificial. The GOP claims to be the “Party of Lincoln,” and Lincoln himself once had to face the decision of how much to compromise with a racist political movement in order to further ends that he viewed as morally just.
The context was the year 1855, a year of unprecedented political upheaval in the United States. The two-party system that had framed American political life for two decades was on the verge of collapse. Only the year before, the Democratic Party had been staggered by an angry popular backlash in the North to the Democratic-sponsored Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, a measure which had thrown open federal territories to slavery and threatened to plunge Kansas into Civil War. The Whig Party–which Abraham Lincoln had served heart and soul since its inception in the early 1830s–was similarly reeling, as sectional tensions and demographic trends inexorably pulled it apart. The Democrats would survive as a national party, though badly crippled; the Whig Party would be dead by the spring of 1856.
Among northern opponents of slavery extension, the foreseeable collapse of the Whig Party necessitated a change of allegiance, and two new political movements burst into the political vacuum, each vying to become the major alternative to the Democratic Party among northern voters. One was the Republican Party, born in the Midwest as a fusion of various factions incensed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and determined to halt the extension of slavery across the western landscape. The second, originating in the Northeast, was known officially as the American Party, and drew native-born Americans convinced that the swarm of recent immigrants from Ireland and Germany, not the perpetuation of human bondage, constituted the primary threat to national greatness and personal prosperity.
(Supporters of this second party were commonly known as “Know-Nothings”–an unfortunate nickname if there ever was one–because the party was descended from a secret nativist society known as the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner. Members of the organization pledged to do all within their power to thwart immigrant influence in American life, and when queried about the organization, they were sworn to respond that they “knew nothing” about it.)
By the summer of 1855, Whigs in Illinois were abandoning the party in sizable numbers to become either Republicans or Know-Nothings. For his part, Lincoln was determined to remain true to the Whig Party as long as it remained viable. If forced to find a new political home, however, he knew that he would choose the Republican Party over the Know-Nothings. Yet, astute politician that he was, he knew that it was unlikely that the infant Republican Party stood a chance against the Democrats unless they could entice Know-Nothing supporters into their camp as well. He was not averse to joining forces with the Know-Nothings, but only if the Know-Nothings were the ones doing the compromising. As he wrote in a letter to abolitionist Owen Lovejoy, “I have no objection to ‘fuse’ with any body provided I can fuse on ground which I think is right.”
This, then, was the context for a marvelous letter that Lincoln wrote to his old friend Joshua Speed in August of that year. Speed, probably the closest friend Lincoln ever had, had written from his home in Kentucky to ask his old friend where he now positioned himself politically. Lincoln’s answer is worth quoting at length:
I think I am a Whig; but others say there are no Whigs, and that I am an abolitionist. . . . 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.
I have been longing for the GOP leadership to take a page from Lincoln’s book. I long to hear Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell stand up and say that party unity is not the highest good, that party unity built by pandering to those who would degrade any racial or ethnic group is not worth the cost. I’m still waiting.