What Would Lincoln Say?

President Barack Obama chose Osawatomie, Kansas for the site of his populist manifesto speech last December because of the town’s associations with Theodore Roosevelt. In the same place a century earlier, the Rough Rider had unveiled his New Nationalism campaign against corporate interests.

Just as Obama sought to ground his rhetoric in a more popular president’s words, it turns out that Roosevelt tried the same tactic. In his speech in Osawatomie, Roosevelt invoked President Abraham Lincoln’s words as the inspiration for his own progressive plans. A new book about Lincoln’s son, however, casts doubt on Roosevelt’s claims.

In The Wall Street Journal, Ryan Cole recently reviewed “Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln” by Jason Emerson. According to the review, the book describes Robert Lincoln’s outrage at hearing Roosevelt use his father’ name in defense of New Nationalism. Here is an excerpt from Cole’s piece:

In the midst of this flourishing career, Lincoln worked diligently, though always away from the public view, to guarantee that the memory of his father remained pristine. His collusions with friendly biographers, battles with unfriendly historians, the donation of his father’s papers to the Library of Congress and participation in the creation of the Lincoln Memorial, all documented here, played a central role in the transformation of Abraham Lincoln from man to myth. In 1912, for example, Robert Lincoln uncharacteristically leapt into the arena of national debate to challenge Theodore Roosevelt’s appropriation of his father’s name for TR’s “New Nationalism” agenda. Robert, writing in the Boston Herald, labeled Roosevelt’s progressivism a doctrine that the elder Lincoln “would abhor if living.”

If Lincoln would have “abhorred” Roosevelt’s progressivism, what would he think about Obama’s? It is impossible to know, of course, and it is a reminder of the humility with which today’s occupant of the White House should invoke past occupants.

  1. Foxman

    I don’t know what Lincoln would say and I doubt that you do.  Besides, he was a very good man, he was not perfect.  He could be wrong.

  2. Jonathan Horn
    C

    Foxman, I agree with you, and that was the point of my post. Presidents must be humble and careful before invoking their predecessors in defense of their own policies.

  3. Leporello

    A very telling anecdote, and thank you for telling it.  Although I knew Mr. Lincoln’s son had a fine political career of his own, I never realized how scrupulously he had worked on behalf of his father’s reputation.  

    Whatever unhappiness may yet be expressed by certain partisans of limited government regarding the Lincoln presidency, Lincoln was himself a friend of limited government, as can be seen throughout his writings and speeches, and, unlike Pres. Obama, he sought to fulfill the Declaration and Constitution, not replace them.

  4. Foxman
    Jonathan Horn: Foxman, I agree with you, and that was the point of my post. Presidents must be humble and careful before invoking their predecessors in defense of their own policies. · 7 minutes ago

    Sorry.  I did not even read your post.  I was annoyed by the title.

  5. tabula rasa

    Allen Guelzo, author of my favorite Lincoln biography,  Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, has a terrific extended essay (authored in February of this year) and published on the Heritage Foundation website that addresses this very subject.

    It’s entitled “Abraham Lincoln and the Progressives: Who was the real father of big government?”  Guelzo makes it irrefutably clear that the father of big government was not Abraham Lincoln.  I definitely recommend it to those who, like me, get miffed when big government liberals try to invoke Honest Abe in support of their nuttiness.

  6. EJHill
    Foxman: I don’t know what Lincoln would say and I doubt that you do.

    Channel.jpg

  7. EJHill
    Bern SHN    Is it true, though?  Would Lincoln be a Democrat today? 

    I don’t know. What was Abe’s views on chemical contraception and homosexuality?

    You can’t channel the dead. That kind of stuff is about as bad as “alternative history.”

  8. tabula rasa
    Bern SHN

    Another one that I hear from Democrats is that “if Lincoln were alive today, he’d be a Democrat” or “Lincoln wouldn’t recognize the Republican Party of today”.  My counter to that is that Andrew Jackson wouldn’t recognize the Democratic Party of today but it doesn’t quite have that good comeback “zing” that’s called for.

     Is it true, though?  Would Lincoln be a Democrat today? · 1 hour ago

    I think all you can say, as Allen Guelzo says, is that in his career Lincoln believed in and practiced principles of limited government (and this despite the massive role of government required by the Civil War, an exceptional situation if ever there was one).  Assuming that Lincoln was principled (no doubt about that) and would be consistent today, it’s pretty easy to say he wouldn’t be a progressive, and would more likely than not be a Republican.  But, as others have said, we’ll never know, will we?

    I’ve always wondered why Democrats have Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners. Old Hickory’s record (Indians (horrific), use of guns, he paid off the national debt) sure doesn’t seem consistent with the modern Democrats.

  9. Bern SHN
    EJHill: You can’t channel the dead. That kind of stuff is about as bad as “alternative history.” 

    Ah, man… But those are two of my favorite things!  Here’s a fun alt-history: what if Nixon had won in 1960? (You thought I was going to bring up the Nazis/Hitler didn’t ya? Nein, Sir.)

    tabula rasa: I think all you can say, as Allen Guelzo says, is that in his career Lincoln believed in and practiced principles of limited government (and this despite the massive role of government required by the Civil War, an exceptional situation if ever there was one). 

    TR, that’s what I was hoping to hear.  Any specific examples you would cite to back that up?

  10. tabula rasa
    Bern SHN

    EJHill: You can’t channel the dead. That kind of stuff is about as bad as “alternative history.” 

    Ah, man… But those are two of my favorite things!  Here’s a fun alt-history: what if Nixon had won in 1960? (You thought I was going to bring up the Nazis/Hitler didn’t ya? Nein, Sir.)

    tabula rasa: I think all you can say, as Allen Guelzo says, is that in his career Lincoln believed in and practiced principles of limited government (and this despite the massive role of government required by the Civil War, an exceptional situation if ever there was one). 

    TR, that’s what I was hoping to hear.  Any specific examples you would cite to back that up? · 2 hours ago

    The essay I cited in post 5 gives several good examples.

  11. Sisyphus
    EJHill · 8 hours ago

    Foxman: I don’t know what Lincoln would say and I doubt that you do.

    The ears are too small.

  12. Bern SHN
    tabula rasa: “Abraham Lincoln and the Progressives: Who was therealfather of big government?”  Guelzo makes it irrefutably clear that the father of big government wasnotAbraham Lincoln.  I definitely recommend it to those who, like me, get miffed when big government liberals try to invoke Honest Abe in support of their nuttiness.

    Another one that I hear from Democrats is that “if Lincoln were alive today, he’d be a Democrat” or “Lincoln wouldn’t recognize the Republican Party of today”.  My counter to that is that Andrew Jackson wouldn’t recognize the Democratic Party of today but it doesn’t quite have that good comeback “zing” that’s called for.

     Is it true, though?  Would Lincoln be a Democrat today?

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