That was Lincoln’s party, whether Mr. McCarthy and his colleagues know it.
That party had its share of racism to overcome; it was the 19th century, after all. But what are Republicans now? Mr. McCarthy now leads the party that has done its legal and illegal utmost to suppress the votes of brown, black, young and old people who do not tend to vote Republican. His is the party that has become essentially America’s white people’s party, following the racial rants of its leader.
Which party did Mr. McCarthy claim as Lincoln’s party? The one that has now given a safe haven for Confederate memory and neo-Confederate ideas? Which side was Lincoln on?
In fact, the Republicans have not been the party of Lincoln on race relations for at least 60 years, since President Dwight Eisenhower reluctantly sent National Guard troops to Little Rock, Ark., and established a small civil rights commission. A few years later, a number of Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. But by then the party had long since allied itself with corporate interests over those of everyday Americans.
In one of his first public addresses, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” delivered in Springfield, Ill., in January 1838, a young Abraham Lincoln, long before any Republican Party existed, worried eloquently and hauntingly about an “ill omen amongst us.” The omen then, he thought, was internal division within America over race and slavery.
Lincoln feared that bitter, polarized rhetoric would lead to blood. He feared “mobs” that held sway wherever people feared and hated one another. He described a “mobocratic spirit” directed especially at black people and abolitionists. People with unpopular opinions, practices or religions had been attacked or hanged; their “dangling” bodies along roadsides rivaled the “Spanish moss of the country, as a drapery of the forest.”
All people, Lincoln asserted, “the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions,” needed the protection of the law. He declared that “if destruction be our lot,” it would never come from abroad. “We must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” A quarter-century later, this same Lincoln led the Union through its greatest crisis and did much to save his country from national suicide.
What are Mr. McCarthy and his party doing now to prevent such a result in our own time?
Rather than encouraging the president’s mobs to shout “send her back,” perhaps they should encourage their fellow Republicans and their surrogates to rediscover the original Republican Party. They might not recognize it; Abraham Lincoln and his sometimes ally, Frederick Douglass, would surely not recognize them, except as the antithesis of everything they fought for 160 years ago.