Lincoln, Liberty, and the GOP

By Michael Lynch

At The Washington Post, Michael Gerson argues that Ron Paul aims to undo the Republican Party’s legacy, a legacy which can be traced back to the election of Abraham Lincoln:

Whatever his personal views, Paul categorically opposes the legal construct that ended state-sanctioned racism. His libertarianism involves not only the abolition of the Department of Education but also a rejection of the federal role in civil rights from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This is the reason Paul is among the most anti-Lincoln public officials since Jefferson Davis resigned from the United States Senate. According to Paul, Lincoln caused 600,000 Americans to die in order to “get rid of the original intent of the republic.” Likewise, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 diminished individual liberty because the “federal government has no legitimate authority to infringe on the rights of private property owners to use their property as they please.” A federal role in civil rights is an attack on a “free society.” According to Paul, it is like the federal government dictating that you can’t “smoke a cigar.”

I think Gerson is overstating his case, but my intention here is not to take issue with either Ron Paul’s political inclinations or Gerson’s interpretation of them.  It’s to note that the Post editorial touches on some important points regarding America’s political trajectory.  The Civil War was a critical stage in the gradual transformation of Americans’ relationship to the federal government.

The generation that founded the Republic believed government was the most important potential threat to liberty, and restricted both the federal government and the state governments they created.  Over the course of the 1780’s, some of them became convinced that their federal government was too restricted, and accordingly set up a new, more vigorous one.  But even this strengthened national government was circumscribed within limits and greeted with some controversy.  For much of the nation’s early history, Americans perceived the relationship between government and liberty as fundamentally adversarial.

As historian James McPherson has noted in an essay printed in his collection Drawn with the Sword, the Civil War marked a turning point from a prevailing American belief in negative liberty (freedom from) toward positive liberty (freedom to).  Whereas the first amendments to the new Constitution prevented the government from infringing on rights, the Reconstruction Amendments ratified after the war used the government as a force to extend and safeguard rights.  The relationship between liberty and government was not necessarily adversarial anymore.  Out of the conflict came an opportunity to flex the government’s muscles on behalf of both negative and positive liberty at the same time—negative liberty because the end of slavery also brought about an end to those laws that upheld the institution, and positive liberty because government was the tool that struck off the chains.

Even before the war, the Whig Party had already demonstrated a certain degree of willingness to use government as a tool to foster national development, with federal support for internal improvements like roads and canals, and the former Whigs who filled the ranks of the new Republican Party when their own party splintered in the 1850’s brought their old political attitudes with them.  Lincoln, the loyal Whig who became the first Republican in the White House, provides the perfect example.  As a young legislator, he wanted Illinois to adopt the same internal improvements that Whig leader Henry Clay advocated on a national scale.  Even during his presidency, with the Civil War occupying so much of his attention, Lincoln still managed to indulge these Whig tendencies.  It was he who signed the legislation enabling the construction of a transcontinental railroad, although it remained unfinished until four years after his death.

In its infancy, then, the Republican Party was in a sense the party of “big government”—or at least the closest approximation to such a party that existed at that time.  In the decades after the war, the political landscape continued to change.  The emergence of big business and the problems that plagued the nation’s growing cities convinced many Americans that a vigorous government was no longer the only significant threat to liberty, and could in fact be used as an agent of reform.  This conviction that government offered a remedy for the ills of late nineteenth-century America gave rise to the Progressive movement.  The twentieth century, of course, brought further extensions of federal power and more political re-alignments, during which the Republicans transformed into a party advocating limits to the national government’s role.  Drawing a direct line from the Republican Party of the 1860’s to that of today, as Gerson seems to do in his editorial, is thus something of an oversimplification.

But, of course, no one would disagree that Ron Paul’s desire to reduce the power of the national government is much greater than that of the other GOP contenders.  That is because even today’s Republican Party, though it is no longer the party of big government, takes for granted a degree of federal power that would have seemed extraordinary in the age before the Civil War changed the relationship between government and the people, and between government and liberty.  In this new election year, Republicans in particular and Americans in general will once again be faced with the question of how much power the federal government should wield, and in what manner.

—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.

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1 Comment

Filed under Civil War, Lincoln and Memory, Lincoln as President

One response to “Lincoln, Liberty, and the GOP

  1. Charles M. Hubbard

    A thoughtful and perceptive observation. Another phenomenon that materialized out of the Civil War is a new form of American nationalism. Certainly, Andrew Jackson exercised extraordinary presidential power against states rights advocates like his vice president John C Calhoun during the nullification crisis. But Lincoln more than any other president before him transformed Americans with a new understanding of their nationhood. The American Civil War was indeed revolutionary and the Constitution was dramatically altered by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. I look forward to further discussions and thoughts on the subject from you and your readers. Charles M. Hubbard

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