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.