Lincoln Would Choose Obama over Romney

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Daniel Herman is Professor of History at Central Washington University. He has authored several books on American history and is currently writing a college U.S. history textbook for Longmans.

Lincoln and Obama. Not pictured: Mitt Romney. (Photo Credit: HNN Staff/Wikipedia.)

Mitt Romney claims history’s stamp. “The ‘last best hope of earth,’” declares his website, “was what Abraham Lincoln called our country. Mitt Romney believes in fulfilling the promise of Lincoln’s words.” Would Lincoln agree?

Lincoln penned those words -- “last best hope” -- 150 years ago. Nine weeks earlier -- on September 22, 1862 -- he had issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which promised to free all slaves in rebellious states that failed to return to the Union by January 1. No state came back. Lincoln’s “last best hope,” then, was an activist U.S. that would free slaves and win the war. It was also a Union that promoted the greater good through economic intervention. Were he alive, he would endorse Obama.

Far from being Lincoln’s heir, Romney is heir to his 1860 opponent, Stephen Douglas, the states’ rights Democrat called “The Little Giant.” It was Douglas who convinced Congress to renounce its power to stop slavery’s spread by passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. Each territory would now decide whether or not to legalize slavery prior to statehood.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act spawned civil war in Kansas overnight. It also decimated Northern Democrats, who promptly lost two-thirds of their Congressional seats. That fiasco left room for a new party, the Republicans.

Republicans drew not only disaffected Democrats but also Whigs. The mighty Whigs -- who had elected two presidents -- failed to nominate a standard bearer in 1856. In replacing them, Republicans retained a Whig philosophy. Lincoln himself was a former Whig.

Republicans, like Whigs, touted the “American System,” meaning subsidies for infrastructure -- railroads, telegraphs, harbors, canals, roads -- and universities. In many respects, they prefigured Obama’s platform.

The “American System” triumphed during the Civil War and Reconstruction, when Republicans financed a bevy of railroads, including trans-continentals. Equally important, they created land-grant universities, which put the U.S. on the high road to technological preeminence. To promote small business -- and to help people get homes -- they passed homestead acts. They also extended the vote to blacks.

To protect freed peoples’ voting rights -- and to protect their right to get educations and be heard in court -- Congress next approved Lincoln’s idea for a “Freedmen’s Bureau.” Like FEMA, the Bureau also provided whites and blacks alike with provisions and medical care so they could weather the war’s devastation.

Obama’s vision is similar. Like Lincoln, he promotes growth by subsidizing infrastructure -- roads, bridges, broadband, clean energy -- and higher education. Obama also enhanced a different “infrastructure” -- health insurance -- by making it universal. Like Lincoln, he uses government to help Americans weather devastation. Obama saved Detroit, extended unemployment benefits, cut taxes on middle-class families, and seeks to spare FEMA and Medicare from Romney’s cuts. Like Lincoln, finally, he upholds voting rights by opposing voter ID laws.

Obama’s coalition -- middle- and working-class whites in alliance with people of color -- is one that Lincoln developed. Some Republicans sought to add women to the mix by granting suffrage and new rights. Women’s suffrage, however, awaited Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, when Democrats and Republicans switched roles as reformers. Women now comprise a key part of Obama’s electorate.

Opposing Lincoln’s Republicans were Southern whites (former Confederates) and their states’ rights sympathizers in the lower Midwest. Mormons, too, opposed Republicans, who had attacked the “twin relics of barbarism,” polygamy and slavery. All three groups now support Romney.

Were Lincoln alive, he would see Obama as a kindred Illinois legislator who, with minimal national experience, became president (both served two years in Congress before launching their campaigns). Lincoln would see Romney, by contrast, as a latter-day Stephen Douglas who refuses to use federal power to solve problems.

By the standards of modern Republicans, Lincoln was a socialist. By the standards of his 1860s opponents, he was a “dictator” and a “black Republican” who would force white women to marry blacks. Obama’s detractors, similarly, deny he’s American, call him a “welfare king,” a Nazi, a communist, a Muslim, or whatever is handy. Some mutter of overthrowing his “dictatorship,” just as Southerners overthrew Lincoln by seceding. Given the unprecedented number of threats against Obama -- not to mention actual plots -- only vigilant police work keeps John Wilkes Booth at bay.

To vote Obama is to vote for the future Lincoln wanted. To vote Romney is to vote for something else.

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