November 14, 2009
I Am a Lincoln RepublicanBy Yervand Kochar
While interviewing people on the streets of L.A. and N.Y. for our documentary about the legacy of the Civil War, we came to the staggering realization of how many allegedly well-educated people assumed that Abraham Lincoln was a Democrat fighting slave-owning Republicans in the South.
Confronted with the uncomfortable truth that Lincoln was a Republican, many people became enraged at their own ignorance and projected their angst on our unsuspecting and bewildered crew. To fully grasp the pain of big-government liberals' realization of Lincoln's true party affiliation, imagine Sean Hannity discovering one day that Reagan was a Communist.
Others, who had come to that realization prior to our interview, were therapeutically well-adjusted to it. "Yes, but it's the opposite now," they claimed. "Today's Democrats are the old Lincoln Republicans because they are willing to use federal power for good aims while the individual- and state-rights-pushing Republicans of today are the same as slave-owning Democrats who protected their private property by all means."
Within this reasoning, the individual- and state-rights proponents are forced to identify with the slave-owners when it comes to the legality (not morality) of the federal intrusion into the Southern states. Southerners' general disapproval of the Republican Lincoln was not and is not based as much, or in many instances at all, on Lincoln's anti-slavery stance.
Contrary to popular belief, the South was not a slave-owning monolith; only one in four Southern men had slaves (and in a rather eerie coincidence, one in four Southern men were killed in the war). Slavery was hurting poor white Southern men in a devastating way by rendering them unable to compete with the free labor of slaves.
Apart from the generationally persistent sentiments aroused by local resentment to any occupying force, even that of fellow Americans, the Southerners considered as Lincoln's greatest sin the establishment of a precedent for federal violation of state rights. These are the very rights that today's conservatives and libertarians hold sacred in their opposition to expanding federal authority.
This current layout presents an opportunity for modern liberals to claim Lincoln as their own federal-power-abusing hero, who had to sacrifice the principle of state rights for the higher moral good.
This revisionist trend is forced into the mainstream so powerfully that it is accepted by even some serious scholars in their depiction of Lincoln and the Republicans using federal authority to crash state rights (and by extension, individual rights).
Republicans -- who have developed an astonishing talent for missing or messing up any and all P.R. and marketing opportunities -- do not even try to dismantle this monumental falsity, easily allowing their first president to be hijacked by the very mindset that he fought against throughout his entire political life.
Yet the glaring flaw in big-government liberals' appropriation of Lincoln is exposed by a simple examination of Lincoln's motivation for his reemergence onto the national political stage.
After one rather unremarkable term in the U.S. Congress, where Lincoln made 175 antislavery speeches and introduced a partial emancipation bill (so much for the argument that Lincoln didn't care about slavery), Lincoln retired from politics to resume a successful lawyer's career. This was, of course, perfectly in line with that blessed tradition, now gone with the wind, of a citizen running for Congress not as an end in itself, but as a social service with a limitation imposed by common conscience.
What pushed Lincoln back into politics was the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In essence, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, by federally sanctioning slavery in the free Western territories, was a de facto repeal of the Missouri Compromise. In its legal implications and the consequent reaction to it, the Kansas-Nebraska Act resembles today's Roe v. Wade ordeal. In its attempt to promote an already socially and morally resented phenomenon, the Kansas-Nebraska Act managed to transform the explosive issue of slavery from a functioning status quo to a militantly opposed proposition.
This abuse of federal authority was the fulfillment of a long lobbying effort by the wealthier and more politically organized slave-owning Southern states to impose their will -- indeed, their very economic and social lifestyle -- on less-developed states and, in essence, on the future of America. If Lincoln could possibly have lived with slavery being contained in the South -- where it was believed to be progressing to its natural end -- the Kansas-Nebraska Act catapulted him right back into the political inferno of the divided states of America in the 1850s.
It is very important to understand historic events within their own context in order to avoid (or answer) the smug, self-righteous revisionism so prevalent in our culture today. It is true that Lincoln would tolerate slavery as a state's right, as long as it meant preservation of the Union. If Lincoln could have counted on slavery to be contained only to the areas where it had previously existed, if he could have been secure in the belief that it was eventually going to collapse, and if he could know that a sudden dismantling of the institution would likely create economic chaos in the South, then he might have been able to accept the situation. The realism and attitudes of the time cannot be ignored.
However, contrary to self-serving revisionist histories, the issue of slavery was the driving force of Lincoln's career. Lincoln was well aware of the ruinous effects of slavery on both moral and economic grounds. He vividly remembered how his impoverished family, unable to compete with free slave labor, was forced to leave their native Kentucky. The expansion of slavery into the West, sanctioned by the government against the will of new and hardworking settlers, presented the same danger of destroying competition and allowing a few to push their will by using the federal authority.
The same slave-owning Democratic establishment that was trying to influence Western states through federal power -- while confronted later by the same power -- would hide behind the state rights defense and shamelessly use it to manipulate masses of poor Southern boys into a war to preserve the interests of a few.
This is the same mindset of special interests that today manipulates women, minorities, and gays in order to impose its political will onto others, and who, when challenged, hides behind and uses the same women, minorities, and gays as human shields.
It was precisely this "civil terrorism" that Abraham Lincoln came to defeat. It was this passionate opposition to federally sanctioned slavery that fueled Lincoln's otherwise Zen-Midwestern engine, transforming this participant-citizen's moderate political impulses into an uncompromising will to national leadership.
Lincoln's genuine opposition to this totalitarian trend and prompt answer to the call of freedom made him the only force who could tame and direct the unhinged passions of young, fierce Northern abolitionists; the militant spirit of colorful, torch-bearing revolutionaries known as Wide Awakes; the vigilante forces of the Strange Guards; and the dangerous energies of John Browns into a concentrated people's movement. It was a movement of people to overthrow a government that was betraying its own principle of freedom by enslaving others and making free people accept others' bondage.
It was truly a movement by the people, for the people, and the party that represented this movement came to be known as the Party of Freedom.
Whether today's Republicans are the torchbearers of those Wide Awake Republicans can be validly debated, but that today's Democrats are certainly not is beyond any historic doubt.
The experience of that historic passion for individual and universal freedom that forged the original Republican Party -- and the real people's movement that was led by the very real Abraham Lincoln -- make me proud to call myself a Lincoln Republican today.
There were various factions and opposing social and cultural trends that coalesced into the Freedom Party of Lincoln, but one thing that turned them all -- liberal and conservative, abolitionist and moderate -- into Lincoln Republicans was that desire for the basic freedom of the individual, the true fulfillment of the ancient dream of freedom, and the willingness to fight for it everywhere...even at their own door.
Today, we live in an age of culturally promoted self-doubt and deliberate abandonment of America's role as the leading force for good, an age characterized by an overflow of narcissistic trends and obsession with being loved by all -- even dictatorial forces of the world. Perhaps the fading call of the Lincoln Republicans of old will awaken our diminishing desire for freedom, the desire that made America so exceptional...and truly beloved by all.
Yervand Kochar is a filmmaker and writer based in New York City. A trailer for his film on the legacy of the Civil War can be found here.