|1860 Presidential Campaign Banner for Abraham Lincoln and his running mate, Hannibal Hamlin (LHM)|
“It is the most important election since 1860,” said former House Speaker and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich in a campaign speech this month in his home state of Georgia. Such a comparison to the epochal election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 might be taken seriously, except that, well, we’ve heard similar talk before… a lot.
Such presentist notions are thrown around without abandonment in every presidential election. Why should 2012 be any different? Unfortunately, Gingrich did not design his statements to be historically retrospective of 1860 as much as he intended this as campaign rhetoric to energize the masses against the President Obama. Gingrich undoubtedly used this comparison to emphasize the urgency of the current issues we face, and I can only include that Gingrich truly does believe the election is of that magnitude. However, as bad as the current economic downturn is, to say that it rivals what Abraham Lincoln faced when he took office finding the nation torn in half is preposterous. After all, Lincoln himself found no comparison to what he faced in the Civil War, saying that “the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.”
As long as such a comparison of 2012 is made to 1860, I must wonder if Mr. Gingrich envisions himself as the modern-day Abraham Lincoln who will save the union from the direction the country is taking. But Gingrich is not alone in evoking Lincoln. President Obama also cloaked himself in Lincolnesque language this week as well. In his annual State of the Union address, the president told the nation, “I’m a Democrat. But I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.” Consider that statement from a president whom many Republicans decry as a “socialist,” you will understand why they view his words quite incredulously.
In the days of multi-million dollar campaigns and constant media barrage of political speechmaking by the candidates, it is difficult to compare modern politicking and governing to Lincoln’s era. Candidates don’t campaign the way aspirants for office did in 1860, nor would we want them to. It must be noted that Lincoln gave no campaign speeches for president from the time he was nominated to the time he was elected. He allowed his party regulars and backers to do the work for him. He claimed he did not wish to be misinterpreted by the media. Today, we would expect nothing less than frequent public appearances and ready answers to any question thrown out to him. But politics in 1860 required then something that perhaps we have little of today: a long attention span and intense devotion to being informed on the candidates. Lincoln had his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas compiled to serve as his 1860 presidential campaign literature. Newspapers generally served as party organs—mouthpieces for either the Republican or Democratic Parties. Thus, readers had to be careful that what they read might be information filtered through partisan lenses. Yet, they became ever more engaged. Today, many do not even bother to read a newspaper. And the difference in political participation between that and our current generation is striking.
Truly, Abraham Lincoln had the benefit of living in an era of intense civic participation and political engagement. Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation of America in the 1830s is accurate in that democracy was “the spirit of the age.” Thousands would travel lengthy distances to assemble and hear a political speech by Abraham Lincoln or Stephen Douglas or countless others that might consume two to three hours. Yet those witnesses would not complain in extreme boredom that the speaker droned on, but more often would testify to the orator’s lofty sentiments and platitudes. Beyond that, the voting public demonstrated that same political zeal at the ballot box. Lincoln’s 1860 presidential election witnessed the highest voter turnout in American history at a whopping 81.2% of the voting population, second only to 1876 election that saw an 81.8% turnout. In contrast, the 2008 election, with a clear contrast between John McCain and Barack Obama, with full availability to anything anyone would want to know about the candidates, and with the prospect that the first African-American president might be elected, yielded a still disappointing 57% turnout.
Lincoln believed fiercely in ensuring and perpetuating the privilege and right to vote. He held that as what made our republic “the last best hope of earth.” Unlike countries that experience brutal dictators and monarchs, we can live freely and exercise the opportunity to change our government at will. It was to the first free-state governor of Louisiana in 1864, that for the first time in our nation’s history, a president suggested giving the right to cast a vote—the bedrock of democracy—to a black man. President Lincoln proposed to the governor that “some of the colored people…be let in.” He continued, “They would probably help, in some trying time to come, to keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom.” That says it all. He made a similar plea to the people in his last public address on April 11, 1865. Because of such boldness to proclaim the right to vote for the previously disenfranchised, he was assassinated four days later.
Yet today, with no such hindrances blocking our access to the polls, we stay away.
Which leads us back to where I started—calling upon Lincoln. So the 2012 campaign heats up, and both parties find themselves calling upon the memory of Lincoln—albeit for political grandstanding purposes. However, whatever the motivations, they still call upon the memory of Lincoln. Let’s keep doing so. This is an election year, perhaps not the most important since 1860, but an important step in the life of our republic that happens every four years. The fate of the nation is in the hands of the people. Let’s make a choice. Let’s act. Let’s keep the jewel of liberty alive, as Lincoln would have wanted. When we do so, and then when the next president, whoever it might be, is inaugurated next January, may that president still call upon Lincoln, and lead the nation from the better angels of his nature.