I recently met President Abe Lincoln in Washington DC during the 152nd anniversary celebration of the Battle of Fort Stevens. I didn’t expect to see him – but there he was, dressed in his famous frock coat even on this hot day. He was an imposing figure – his height accentuated by his top hat. He was gracious enough to pose for a photograph and discuss current events.
The former President asked if I thought he would have been well received at this year’s Republican convention—after all, he had spoken to enthusiastic crowds in Cleveland in 1861. I said that, unfortunately, if he were allowed to speak this year, the Republicans would have booed his policy positions, called him a Republican In Name Only and would never have considered nominating him for President. He asked how that could happen – after all, Republicans had twice nominated him for President.
I explained that modern Republicans were playing to the basest attitudes against blacks, immigrants and people belonging to unpopular religions. The wrinkles and lines of his face became even more furrowed as he directly contrasted that attitude with his own statement written in August 1855, "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.” His gray eyes flashed as he continued, “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 shall 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."
President Lincoln also couldn't believe that Republicans now uniformly support the interests of capital over labor. He referenced a sentence he wrote in April 1859, "Republicans are for both the man and the dollar, but in case of conflict the man before the dollar." And he reinforced this point by restating parts of his first annual message to Congress in 1861, "Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is superior to capital and deserves much the higher consideration."
The President was astounded to learn that corporations had become the most powerful political and economic force in the nation - and that Republicans enthusiastically supported this development. He reiterated his specific warning about corporations made in November 1864, "I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country… corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed." His voice was higher than I expected but his delivery was resolute and intense.
Honest Abe could not understand that his Republican Party – the party that he led to the Presidency - had actually turned against so many of his principles. And he was taken aback when I stated that modern Democrats were now more likely to speak against the oppression of blacks, support immigrants and people belonging to unpopular religions, prefer labor over capital, and attempt to limit the power of corporations.
It thus comes as no surprise that President Lincoln did not attend this year’s Republican convention. He was not alone – none of other Republican Presidents came to Cleveland either.
President Lincoln walked away with a troubled brow and in deep thought. Then he turned and said that he needed to clear his mind... maybe go to the theater...