Should Republicans still call themselves the Party of Lincoln?
Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, declared, “We are the party of Lincoln,” as he contended President Trump was not racist for suggesting four Democratic representatives, US citizens who are also women of color, should “go back” to the places they came from.
But it might be telling to remember what Abraham Lincoln thought of a political movement of the 1850’s called the American Party. They called themselves the Know Nothings, because they were encouraged to say they “knew nothing” about the secretive party’s membership.
The Know Nothings detested and feared immigration. They believed an influx of Catholic immigrants – from Germany and Ireland – were part of a papal conspiracy to overthrow white Protestant America. They wanted to restrict immigration, and keep foreign-born citizens from voting.
The Know Nothings were not a negligible splinter group. They won more than forty seats in congress in 1854. Millard Fillmore, their candidate for president in 1856, won 21% of the vote.
Lincoln wrote his old friend, Joshua Speed, in 1855, “I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.'”
Lincoln, like many great figures, can be quoted to bolster almost any position. But Sean Trainor, a lecturer at the University of Florida who has written about the period, told us, “Modern Republican immigration policy bears no resemblance to the policies of Lincoln and his generation of Republicans. The party’s founders fought against proposed limits on the number of immigrant arrivals …Today’s Republicans do the opposite.”
Maybe no political party can forever be identified with its founders. Many Democrats no longer call their annual fund-raisers, “Jefferson-Jackson Dinners,” because Thomas Jefferson wrote, “all men are created equal,” but still owned slaves, and Andrew Jackson brutalized Native Americans.
But can Republicans who don’t see bigotry in President Trump’s insult continue to claim Abe Lincoln as the brand name of their party?