Steven Spielberg's Lincoln recently received twelve Oscar nominations, more than any other film. It is also one of the most popular films of the year, grossing more than $145 million since its November opening. Praise for the film has come from both the left and the right, as Lincoln himself continues to enjoy nearly universal approval from both political parties.
Obama, never one to shy away from invoking Lincoln (despite his own protestations to the contrary during a recent Meet the Press interview), once again will use the 16th President's Bible at his swearing in ceremony later this month, along with a second Bible that once belonged to Martin Luther King, Jr. Republicans too are never short on admiration for their party's first President. Until 2012, references to Lincoln outnumbered references to God in the official party platforms, and only now does God receive a slight overall advantage.
Although Lincoln remains very popular, neither political party maintains his legacy, which is flatlining rather than ascending.
For the Democrats, the problem is progress. Yes, the party that largely opposed Lincoln and strongly supported first the perpetuation of slavery and then Jim Crow has come a long way, but Democrats in general, and President Obama in particular, fundamentally misunderstand the meaning and significance of Lincoln, because they fundamentally misunderstand the meaning and significance of the American founding.
Democrats are quick to offer praise for their party's one-time rival, but they're never at a loss when it comes it disparaging the American Founders, especially on the issue of slavery. And there's the rub: where Democrats see progress between the Founders and Lincoln, we should see continuity.
Lincoln never spoke ill of the Founders. His political purpose, as he understood it, was to do with slavery exactly what the Founders had originally intended, putting it on the course of ultimate extinction. That was Lincoln's position during the 1858 Illinois Senate race with Judge Stephen A. Douglas, and again his party's presidential platform in 1860.
Lincoln's 1863 Gettysburg Address begins with a reference to the founding, specifically 1776 and the Declaration of Independence's assertion that "all men are created equal." Lincoln, who said that he "never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration", which he called "the father of all moral principle", filled his speeches and writings with praises for the men of '76. The failure of Democrats to do the same makes their praise of Lincoln seem incongruous.
For the Republicans, the problem is inheritance. Just as the deceased father has no control over how a wayward son uses his inheritance, the father of the Republican Party no longer guides his political progeny.
The Republican Party was conceived in opposition to the expansion of slavery into the territories. That of course means the party's original purpose was fulfilled by Lincoln. So, Republicans, by name alone, have no claim to him. Their attachment to the man is reminiscent of ancient aristocratic privilege, where blood and name are praised, to the exclusion of thought and belief.
Republicans may be "blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh" of Lincoln's party, but that alone does not provide "the electric cord" to the man. In other words, the Republican Party is no more the party of Lincoln than Illinois today is the "Land of Lincoln." Party and place mean nothing compared to policy and principle.
As demonstrated by the last election, the Republican Party failed to persuade the American people on the question of policy and principle. And today, as with Lincoln, "public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed." Republicans must stop blaming the people (and changing demographics) for their failures, and use what Lincoln called "kind, unassuming persuasion" (that "drop of honey") to convince the people, on the firm basis of first principles, why their policies are good and prudent. When that is done well, "you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one."
Almost exactly a year before his death, Lincoln addressed a Baltimore crowd in April, 1864: "The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name -- liberty."
For Democrats, liberty has almost always meant "for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor," because their essential principle hasn't changed: "you work, I eat," as Lincoln called it. Wealth redistribution and the modern social welfare state imitate the principle of slavery exactly, but at least Democrats can claim an honest link to their political forebears; the Republicans can't even manage that.
The world is still in need of a good definition of the word liberty, as it is also in need of a good understanding of Lincoln. To find both, one must look to the American founders, not political parties, as Lincoln himself did.
Lincoln's legacy is flatlining, but like Lazarus, it is yet unclear whether he's approaching a second death or a resurrection. The man raised from the dead was, after all, the only human being to face two deaths. Lincoln's death in 1865 may now be followed by the ignominy of the death of his legacy, or a resurrection. But instead of the box office, Americans should focus on the ballot box.