Politics & Policy

Lincoln, Not Jackson

Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Geopappas/Dreamstime)
Lincoln embodied the GOP’s core values better than any other former president.

Donald Trump is trying to do for Andrew Jackson what Lin-Manuel Miranda did for Alexander Hamilton.

Trump, like Miranda, is out to restore the reputation of a great American figure once threatened with removal from U.S. currency. Trump doesn’t have the cultural pull of the writer and star of Hamilton, yet his salvage job might influence Republicans, to the party’s peril.

The Jacksonian tradition in America has, until recently, been neglected, and Trump is firmly within it. If it deserves to be part of the tapestry of the Republican coalition, the GOP should nonetheless curb its enthusiasm. It already has a perfectly acceptable — nay, altogether superior — 19th-century champion in Abraham Lincoln.

Not only was Lincoln a founding figure in the party and on the right side of slavery, he is an unsurpassed exemplar of the GOP’s core values of personal responsibility and striving.

Jackson, for all his flaws, belongs in the American pantheon. Trump’s comment the other day about Jackson perhaps preventing the Civil War occasioned much obloquy, but he was right about Jackson’s stalwart unionism.

In the midst of the nullification crisis with South Carolina in the 1830s, Jackson told a South Carolina congressman that “if one drop of blood be shed there in defiance of the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man of them I can get my hands on to the first tree I can find.”

There’s a reason Lincoln reviewed Jackson’s proclamation against nullification when composing his first inaugural address.

There are other similarities. In a speech praising Jackson back in March at the Hermitage, Trump talked of Jackson’s rise from backwoods obscurity; Lincoln traced the same path. Trump noted Jackson’s regard for common workers; Lincoln felt the same way. Trump celebrated how Jackson challenged the powerful; Lincoln targeted the Southern planter class.

So, why wasn’t Lincoln himself a Jacksonian? This would have been the easy choice, given how Jacksonian Democrats dominated the areas where Lincoln made his first forays into elected politics. He instead became a Whig — and then a Republican — largely as a cultural choice.

The Whigs disdained Jackson as representing “the passions.” He was a slave owner, gambler, and duelist, and therefore, according to the Whigs, lacked the cardinal virtue of self-control. The Whigs believed deeply in self-discipline, lawfulness, and reason.

The temptation for Republicans will be to forget their message of personal responsibility.

And this is the rub. This Whig ethic passed into the DNA of the Republican party, but risks getting lost in a newly Jacksonian GOP.

First, in defending Trump’s various wanderings, the party could begin to argue that words and proprieties don’t matter.

This would be a turning away from Lincoln. A brutal insult artist early in his career, he got more serious. His famous speeches are models of precision, logic and historical knowledge. Certainly, this is how we should want our leaders to speak and think.

Second, there is the factor of new Trump voters. In the 19th century, the different cultural emphases of Democrats and Whigs tracked their different constituencies. The Democrats were the party of subsistence farmers, and the Whigs the party of people most integrated in the commercial economy. Not coincidentally, the Democrats believed in the natural goodness of the people, while the Whigs preached constant striving.

With Trump having won over a white working class that is, among other challenges, beset by social dysfunction, the temptation for Republicans will be to forget their message of personal responsibility — to emphasize what has allegedly been done to working-class voters rather than what they can do to help themselves.

Democrats have long wanted ownership of Lincoln, and now the GOP’s hold on the Great Emancipator is getting cross-pressured by a Republican president. If a swap of Andrew Jackson for Abraham Lincoln is on offer, the Democrats — already dumping their once signature Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners — would be foolish not to take it.

The Party of Lincoln should, despite Trump’s enthusiasm, keep Old Hickory at a healthy arm’s length.

READ MORE:

Lincoln’s Faith: A Good Friday Anniversary Meditation

The Trouble with Nationalism

Al Gore’s Lincoln Lie

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2017 King Features Syndicate

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

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