Oh, for fuck’s sake:
Abraham Lincoln, a Democrat?
So says a plaque at a public university in Lincoln’s home state of Illinois, where, since 1905, students at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago have seen the nation’s 16th president — and quite possibly its most influential — honored as a democrat.
“This building is dedicated to public service honoring the memory of Abraham Lincoln,” the inscription reads. “Democrat.”
The explanation for this inscription is simultaneously banal and rather more complicated than it would seem. As the university pointed out (for what seems not to have been the first time), the plaque used the word “democrat” because indeed “Lincoln was an advocate for democracy — the political or social equality of all people. The word was not chosen to reflect a political affiliation.” The latest organization to obsess over the plaque is something called Turning Point USA, which appears to be a project founded by middle-aged dudes hoping to inspire college students and other younger folk to work themselves into a grand mal over the size of the national debt. Charlie Kirk, the group’s founder, is determined to learn the truth about
Obama’s birth certificate the inscription’s provenance. “Before we go hard at it,” he explains, “we want to know if this is the original plaque, or was it replaced, because it might have eroded due to corrosion.”
The university’s explanation makes a good deal of sense, but as it happens, Democrats in 1905—especially (but not exclusively) Northern ones—were often quite content to appropriate Lincoln as one of their own. Republicans of course laid first claim to the man, but by the 1890s progressive Democrats like William Jennings Bryan were loudly quoting Lincoln’s various pronouncements on the rights of labor among other subjects; anti-imperialists were harvesting from Lincoln’s Mexican War speeches to condemn McKinley’s war in the Philippines; the national party hosted dinners and other gatherings under the auspices of the so-called Jefferson-Jackson-Lincoln League; and Democrats like Ohio’s John Lentz were arguing that the Republican Party had essentially squandered their rights to Lincoln’s legacy. Agrarian and urban radicals were even credulously circulating an apocryphal bit of text they called “The Lincoln Prophecy,” in which Lincoln had supposedly warned that corporations would soon be “enthroned” and the “money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign” by suffocating the people and aggregating wealth in the hands of a tiny few. (Lincoln’s “prophecy” was an obvious forgery, but it continues to play people for suckers to this day.) Most horrifically, even Democratic Lost-Causers like Thomas Dixon, D.W. Griffith, and Woodrow Wilson adopted Lincoln as a segregationist avant la lettre—a man who, had he lived, would have treated the South gently and accepted its reassertion of mastery over emancipated slaves. Most Southern Democrats would continue to loathe or ignore Lincoln’s memory for years to come, but there were not a few who discovered something they might admire about him.
So while this week’s minor rumble over the Lincoln plaque at NEIU has nothing to do with anyone actually caring about history, there’s nevertheless some interesting historical questions that could be—but won’t, sadly—make their way into the conversation.