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Lincoln as GOP founder


I see that Ed Morrissey is relying today on a strain of Althousian hyper-literalism* to prove that Barack Obama is an idiot or something because he described Abraham Lincoln as the “founder” of the Republican Party during last night’s speech.

Er, not quite. Lincoln wasn’t even the GOP’s first Presidential nominee; the first Republican nominee was John C. Fremont in 1856. As the Independence Hall Association recalls, the actual founders of the Republican Party are “Northern leaders such as Horace Greeley, Salmon Chase and Charles Sumner.” Lincoln joined early, as did other anti-slavery Whigs whose party was unraveling at the time, and Lincoln came in second for the 1856 vice-presidential nomination, but he was not a founder of the party.

True enough, so far as it goes, though my Republican friends on Facebook are going to be awfully disappointed to discover that they never received their invitations to all those Greeley Day dinners. The fact of the matter is that Republicans have — until, apparently, last night — always recognized Lincoln as the party’s fons et origo, whether or not he was the party’s first choice of nominees in 1856 (and whether or not he could ever have been nominated by his own party after, say, 1876). Republicans, for better or worse, haven’t given a shit about John Fremont or Salmon Chase since the days they were buried, and they surely haven’t claimed Charles Sumner as one of their own since the Republican-dominated Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which Sumner co-authored and which every single contemporary Republican voter would regard as the spittle of madmen.

Moreover, Lincoln historians like Donald Fehrenbacher and Harold Holzer (among others) have also described Lincoln as the party’s “founder,” a title they bestow on him because it actually makes a substantial amount of sense. Since the formation of the Republican party was driven by a body of ideas about the status of the Kansas-Nebraska territories and not (as with the original two-party system) with the personalities of genuine “founding” figures like Hamilton or Jefferson, there’s no real point to scraping about for analogous characters that Obama may have overlooked. During the 1850s, the Republican organism was little more than an idiosyncratic coalition of state and regional parties united by an evolving recognition that the national Democratic party was little more than a vehicle for the interests of the Slave Power. Lincoln was a central actor in the emergence of Illinois’ Republican party, and to the degree that Illinois was a central actor in the larger national drama over the question of slavery in the territories, it’s no stretch to describe him as a founder. Moreover, if we consider Lincoln’s role as an intellectual figure within the party, there’s simply nothing — not even Seward’s “Irrepressible Conflict” speech — that rivals Lincoln’s debates with Douglas or his February 1860 speech at Cooper Union.

So was Obama thinking about any of this? Who the fuck knows? Probably not. But his description of Lincoln as the party’s founder is magnitudes less absurd than Ed Morrissey’s reaction to it.


* e.g., If one describes a political leader as “loudly trumpeting” an idea, one must also prove that the idea was broadcast using an actual trumpet.

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