Where is Abraham Lincoln in the Tea Party?
I’ve become slightly obsessed with the way that the modern right wing (mis)uses a certain historical memory in their rhetoric and imagery. You know, as Tina Fey said, those guys dressed like Paul Revere who are so fat they picket from lawn chairs. The latest is this ad from a real Congressional candidate (not, I repeat, not a parody) in which he is discussing taxes with George Washington, Sam Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. At the end, George Washington advises the candidate to “gather your armies.” Kind of awesome, in its own way.
But it all got me thinking. The modern right loves them their Big-Daddy presidential heroes- your Jeffersons, Washingtons, etc… But think about who is almost always missing from their iconography? Lincoln. Where the hell is Lincoln in all this? Why isn’t he advising Rick Barber? After all, Lincoln was actually a Republican.
I don’t know why I ask, since there answer is too obvious. Even were you to put aside the thorny question of the Right’s relationship with race and slavery, Lincoln and the early Republicans still pose a massive ideological problem for the right.
Lincoln, you see, believed in “centralized government and the pursuit of empire,” as the Conservative Political Action Committee tells us. I’m not sure where empire comes from, but the “centralized government” critique of Lincoln is Lost Cause narrative stuff in its perfect form (the South didn’t rebel to protect slavery, but because of high-minded interest in Constitutional federalism.)
Anyways… this is all an excuse for me to link to my favorite right-wing scholar: Thomas DiLorenzo. DiLorenzo is a, what else, economics professor who has made a name out of “correcting the record” on Abraham Lincoln, in no less than three separate Lincoln hating books. Lincoln was insufficiently free market (Tariffs, Homestead Act, etc…), too enamored of the Federal Government, and instituted income taxes and soft money policies to pay for the Civil War (rather than pay for war with pixie dust and wishes, as the Republican Party now prefers). DiLorenzo is instead a fan of the “limited government” political philosophy of John Calhoun. In fact Clyde Wilson, professor at University of South Carolina and editor of the John Calhoun papers lauds DiLorenzo as “the very heart and core of American history.”
Anyways… the full story here is too long, but can be summed up: A conservative strand of Jeffersonian/Jacksonian political philosophy was very appealing to Southern slaveholders for a variety of reasons — power stayed at the local rather than federal level, agrarianism, anti-modernism, anti-immigration (since immigrants couldn’t be trusted on the slavery question) etc… — and this lasted well after the Civil War as white elites chaffed under Reconstruction and Northern economic dominance. Equality, a fundamental Jeffersonian principle, was made possible for whites, even encouraged, by the domination of slaves and then free blacks in the Jim Crow era. Limited government and low taxes became the call of the Redeemers who both re-segregated the South (often after so-called “Tax-Payer Conventions”) to end Reconstruction and enacted fiscal retrenchment, retreating from the pro-poor activist state governments that African-Americans and poor whites had put into place during Reconstruction. Variants of this philosophy survive to the day, prospering– who would have thought– after a black President from Illinois is elected president.
This isn’t to say that the modern Right is motivated by a nostalgia for slavery. But their intellectual tradition sure has some ugly roots. But if John- slavery is “the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world”- Calhoun isn’t a motherfucker, no one is.