Bring Back the Party of Lincoln

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Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of history at Boston College and the author of the forthcoming book “To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party.”

FOR all the differences between establishment Republicans and Tea Party insurgents, their various efforts to rebrand the Grand Old Party tend to start from a common premise: the belief that Ronald Reagan was the quintessential Republican, and that his principle of defending wealth and the wealthy should remain the party’s guiding vision.

In doing so, they misunderstand the party’s longer history. They would do better to look to earlier presidents, and model their new brand on the eras when the Republican Party opposed the control of government by an elite in favor of broader economic opportunity.

The history of the Republican Party is marked by vacillation between its founding principle of opportunity and its domination by the wealthy elite. The party came together in the 1850s in opposition to the wealthy slaveholders who controlled the federal government. Democrats acting on their behalf insisted that America’s primary principle was the Constitution’s protection of property, and they pushed legislation to let planters monopolize the country’s resources at the expense of the working class.

Abraham Lincoln and others recoiled from the idea of government as a prop for the rich. In organizing the Republican Party, they highlighted the equality of opportunity promised in the Declaration of Independence and warned that a healthy economy depended on widespread prosperity. Northerners and hardscrabble Westerners flocked to that vision, and elected Lincoln to the White House in 1860.

Even as the Civil War raged, Republicans made good on their promise: They gave farmers their own land, created public colleges, funded a transcontinental railroad, took control of the national currency away from rich bankers, and ended slavery. To pay for their initiatives, they invented national taxes, including the income tax. The middle class grew, and the North and West, regions covered by the new programs, boomed.

But as soon as the war ended, wealthy Americans joined with those who hated African-Americans and immigrants to insist that slaveholders had been right: Permitting poor men to have a say in government had produced policies that redistributed wealth. Only a few years after building a federal system that cleared the way for equal opportunity, Republicans faced a racist and xenophobic backlash against an active government — and they folded. By the 1880s, the party’s leaders had abandoned their message of opportunity and tied themselves to big business... 




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