If Greeley and Lincoln Were Alive Today, They Wouldn't Recognize the Republican Party

Johann Neem is Associate Professor of History at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., and author of Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts (2008).

The Maine Republican party has recently adopted a new platform that challenges the principles of national sovereignty and active federal government.  The platform invokes the 1854 words of New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley that the then new Republicans were “united to restore the Union to its true mission of champion and promulgator of Liberty.”  But Greeley, Abraham Lincoln, and other Republican founders would have been astonished at the policies that Maine’s Republicans are claiming as their inheritance.

Both Greeley and Lincoln were ardent nationalists who supported the priority of the national Constitution and the national people (as in “we the people” not “we the peoples”) over those of the states.  They did not reject federalism.  Federalism was and is an entrenched part of the American political system, and states and the peoples of the states retain sovereignty in those places and spaces where the federal government is denied authority.

But to Greeley and Lincoln, there could be no doubt, as President Lincoln put it, that the nation preceded the Constitution and that the Constitution spoke for a single people united by Revolution and politics.  “The Union is much older than the Constitution,” Lincoln reminded his audience in his 1861 inaugural address.  Lincoln, of course, was challenging secessionists who believed the Constitution was a primarily federal rather than national document.  The first Republican president, in contrast, was willing to use American troops to defend the sovereignty of a single, national people formed in the crucible of the war for independence.

Greeley and Lincoln were also among America’s greatest advocates of publicly-funded internal improvements, what today would be called infrastructure.  They understood, with Maine’s Republicans, that freedom was not natural, that it had to be protected.  But they also knew it had to be cultivated.  Economic freedom required economic opportunity, and this required providing ordinary Americans with education and access to markets.  Republicans in Greeley’s and Lincoln’s era therefore supported expanding public schools, increasing access to higher education via the Morrill Act, and redistributing wealth by offering western lands at free or cheap prices to poor Americans.

Greeley and Lincoln, like the state’s Republicans today, believed in free labor as vital to democratic freedom.  But Greeley distinguished clearly between the ideal of free labor and the realities of work in actual markets, where workers were coerced by poverty, law, and the greater power of capital.  Greeley certainly did not believe American laborers were free in the mid-nineteenth century.  In fact, Greeley was one of American labor’s best friends.  He condemned corporations and capitalists who used their power to extract the cheapest wages from American workers.  Greeley understood that unregulated wage markets led to what Americans of the time called “wage slavery,” in which the formal freedom of workers in the market was undermined by the actual economic power of the wealthy.

Greeley’s real concern was that without regulating the workplace, workers would lose their freedom as employers treated them as “a commodity—a marketable product, like cheese or chocolate.”  Unless workers could regulate their working hours and conditions, freedom was meaningless and, in fact, employers would work their laborers so hard that they would be reduced to being animals.  "Man was not made merely to eat, to work, to sleep.  He has faculties which such a routine does not develop," Greeley wrote in 1850.  True economic freedom would encourage every American to develop his or her faculties rather than simply be a tool of the wealthy class.

Greeley and Lincoln believed that capitalism promised all people the opportunity to work hard and to achieve—to be self-made.  But they were equally aware that no one was self-made, that the promise of economic opportunity and economic freedom required government to step in by providing schools, economic infrastructure, ensuring the wide distribution of wealth, and ensuring that workers were not just formally but actually free.  In short, whether or not the state Republican party’s principles are good for Maine and the nation, they are radically different from those that were espoused by the party’s founders.

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Jay Allan - 5/31/2010

While I must partially agree with Prof. Weems's conclusions, I must disagree with what are cheap political shots being made at the Republican party using Lincoln and Greely as tools.
While it is true that Lincoln believed that the federal government created the states, and not the other way around, this is somewhat specious and contested history. Lincoln believed that the federal government was created under the Declaration of Independence and that, because the federal government began then, it created the Constitution. The other view, which was assumed in my law school constitution and civil procedure class (a very liberalschool one, by the way) is that the states created the constitution (when the constitutional convention was held there was the creation of a new federal government). The issue is resolved, I suppose, upon determining when the federal government came into existence and the nature of it prior to and after the Constitution. Lincoln was right about many things, but not all things, as I'm sure Prof. Neem would admit. And while the above stated position would help certainly vindicate the anti-secesisonists, it is still an equivocal position that I don't believe all Republicans in the 19th century believed. Here, Prof. Neems is using Lincoln and Greely to beat down on the Republican Party today without showing the larger context of the creation of the federal government and constitution.
Admittedly, Lincoln did advocate public education as a means to self improvement and to gain knowledge to advance exonomically in the world. This was a popular idea with the Whigs (of which Lincoln always held himelf to be a supporter of their views, even while a Republican) who further adovcated that while education is beneficial to achieving greater economic opportunities it should be coupled with moral teaching, particularly in the judeo-christian tradition. I wonder if Prof. Neem believes that this form of morality (or any other kind) should be taught in public schools.
Prof. Neem's labeling of the Homestead Act as "redistrubution" is quite strange. The Homestead Act provided the opportunity for Americans to buy up land BELONGING TO THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT for a cheap price and provided they work it for a certain number of years. This is land that already belonged to the government that was acquired through the Louisiana purchase and other American acquisitions. (Don't argue with me that the land originally belonged to the native Americans or Mexicans, as that is irrelevant to the point Neem is making and I'm arguing against.) By using the term "redistribution" Neem is implying that the government took the land from one party and is distirbuting it to others; well, maybe, but this is a term that is somewhat equivocal and I don't know if selling land with certain conditions attached ought to be considered "redistrubtion."
The interesting thing about Greely's opinions of capitalism si that while Greely did support some regulations of labor and wages, he was still a proponent of wage capitalism, as pointed out by Eric Foner. Furthermore, it was commonly believed at the time that regulation in such areas came from the states and not the federal government.
Prof. Neem should recall that Lincoln, while supporting the Homestead Act and pro-economic opportunity, wanted to transform the country into an industialized nation. He personally detested agriculture and farm work. You do wonder if he would have become an environmentalist, as he wanted to compeltely develop the-then wilderness of the US.
Lastly, wasn't Lincoln the president who suspended Habea Corpus, jailed dissenters', and deported whom he consiered those guilty of sedition during war? I'm not sure what Prof. Neem would think of that.

Paul Siff - 5/24/2010

Of course he wouldn't - but he might recognize many of today's Republicans as kindred spirits!

Michael Davis - 5/24/2010

Amen to that. Let's talk about the Democrats, and how Jefferson Davis wouldn't recognize his party anymore.

Javier Ramirez - 5/24/2010

The idea that the nation preceded the states is both a historical and legal fiction. The states were the clear succesors to the colonial governments before there was anything resembling a national govt. The continental congresses possesed no national powers whatsoever. They could only beg the states for provisions.

As for this fringe notion that " The first Republican president[...] was willing to use American troops to defend the sovereignty of a single, national people formed in the crucible of the war for independence".
This is truly frightening Orwellian language. There was a debate during the constitutional convention on this matter. A provision was proposed in March 31 of 1787 that would have given the federal govt the power to militarily subdue states that were being naughty. Thankfully the majority rejected Professor Neem's thinking that using military might was done for some romantic notion of "independence". Talk about double speak.

Madison who was a strong nationalist at this time wrote against this provision when he said "A Union of the States containing such an ingredient seemed to provide for its own destruction. The use of force against a State, would look more like a declaration of war, than an infliction of punishment, and would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound".

Madison in reply to Patrick Henry refuted this "one people nation" idea. His reply to Henry who inquired about the "We the People" clause was, to summarize, that the people of the several states were to ratify the constitution not the people in the aggregate. Madison stated, "...not the people as composing one great body" but "the people as composing thirteen sovereignties” were parties to the union.

Professor Neem's article is a one sided view of history. Given the Republican party's defense of a strong unitary executive and strong expansion of national powers during times of war, Lincoln would be very proud of the Republcian party today and see in it his craftsmanship.

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