Democrats Are the Last Best Hope
Lincoln can lead us through today’s constitutional and electoral crises if we cling to the values he embodied as a guide
This essay is the first in a series entitled “Lessons of Lincoln for Democrats Today” that tells the story of how Lincoln managed the violent constitutional crisis of the Union from February of 1861 until the end of the Civil War.
By all appearances, the Republican Party has sunk to a low of corruption that puts it beyond redemption for the foreseeable future. That means the Democratic Party alone is left to keep alive the flame of liberty that has endured in the United States since 1776.
It’s an awesome burden of responsibility that will require Democrats to sustain Americans’ faith in the Constitution, the rule of law, and ethical leadership through trials of lawlessness and violence not witnessed in the United States, quite possibly, since the Civil War.
I wonder where the party will find the strength. What are the principles that will guide Democrats as they embark upon this historic project to save the American experiment from collapsing into authoritarianism?
Ironically, one of the brightest places for Democrats to look for moral courage and strategy is February 11, 1861, the day Abraham Lincoln boarded a train headed for Washington, D.C., to be inaugurated as the first president representing the Republican Party. Lincoln, Republican exemplar of civic virtue and constitutionalism, has more to teach Democrats today about how to rescue the Union from Republican corruption and anarchy than any other historical figure I know of.
Last day in Springfield
By that February, the president-elect had already committed himself heart and soul to standing by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Missouri Compromise, opposing with vigor the Kansas-Nebraska Act that opened those two territories to the prospect of slavery. Four and a half years earlier, he had attended the first national convention of the Republican Party in Philadelphia, where he endorsed the bedrock principles of the new party’s platform. Thereafter, Lincoln never veered from them.
In the preamble of this first formal statement of Republican values, ratified on June 18, 1856, Lincoln and the other delegates declared to the world their opposition “to the extension of Slavery into Free Territory.” The expansion of slavery, they said, was grossly incompatible with the vision set out for the United States by the founders of the nation, who intended for the immoral institution to die a natural death in the trans-Appalachian West and beyond.
The convention adopted two resolutions in particular that speak to the ideals and values that Democrats should hold tight to today in order to find calm and confidence in the battles ahead between truth and lies.
The first is an unwavering adherence to the principles of justice, equality, and the rule of law as embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
The second roundly affirms that the federal government guarantees “the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to people of all colors under the Constitution––not just white people. And it finds unconstitutional any act of any legislative body that gives “legal existence to Slavery in any Territory of the United States.”
Fortified by these commitments to humanity and the Constitution, Lincoln bid farewell to the more than one thousand people gathered at the Western Railroad Depot in Springfield to see him off that damp, cold day in February. By then, seven Southern states, led by South Carolina, had seceded from the Union. It was the first time in U.S. history that millions of people from one political party, the Democratic Party, had acted unconstitutionally to reject the peaceful transfer of presidential power.
Just before 8 a.m., from the platform of his railcar, the president-elect removed his hat, quieted the crowd, and spoke affecting words: “My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried.
“I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington . . . I hope in your prayers you will commend me. I bid you an affectionate farewell.”
After this, Lincoln entered the presidential car, and the train pulled away from the station. He was fifty-one years old, one day shy of his 52nd birthday. He seemed to be acutely aware that February 11 might be his last day in Springfield.
What road will Democrats take?
Now, as the filthy brew of Trump’s Big Lie stirs up greater threats of violence in the United States, the Democratic Party must consider where it is headed. Will Democrats fight Republicans with their own poisonous medicine, descending into corruption and all-out dirty political warfare? Or will they instead lay hands on books about Lincoln and get to reading them?
What Democrats need to do over the next several decades to preserve the republic––and expand its rights and privileges to all people regardless of race, religion, gender or sexuality––is to take the high road, following Lincoln.
I am not suggesting that by modeling ourselves on the 19th century prairie lawyer we are going to avert political violence and death. We can’t control what others do. But we can set our goals high, as Lincoln did, and control ourselves.
Hard as it is to admit, there is something far greater at stake in the battle against the Big Lie than ensuring domestic tranquility. It is preserving our ethical constitutional democracy. We cannot––we must not––appease Trump and the Big Lie, or else we will be signing the death warrant of our democracy.
Think of the Delacroix painting where a valiant woman wearing a liberty cap is pushing through a battle scene, raising the tricolor flag of the French Revolution on high. Democrats today must match her confidence and resolve, grasping the flag of ethical constitutional government and braving the storm of whatever may come until “We the People” are triumphant.
Lincoln can lead us, if we find the wisdom to turn to history as our guide.