In his remarks yesterday, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the constitutional provision that abolished slavery, President Obama urged his fellow Americans to draw inspiration from their ancestors and “push back against bigotry in all its forms,” because “our freedom is bound up with the freedom of others.”
Obama basically hewed to the high road, as required by the occasion. But there’s so much more to say about the historic 13th Amendment, especially about the president who championed it. That would be Abe Lincoln, the president who branded the newbie GOP as the civil rights party — and whose legacy has been soiled by low-road Republicans since the late 1960s.
What’s amazing, in retrospect, is that Lincoln was often reviled by the founding Republicans as too moderate on civil rights. They assailed him for not moving fast enough to free the slaves and put them on a path to citizenship. His 1863 Emancipation Proclamation had done so, but only as a “wartime necessity” aimed at the rebellious Confederate states. His stroke of the pen exempted the four border slave states that had stuck with the Union. All told, roughly 750,000 slaves were not covered by the Proclamation.
But in 1864, at Lincoln’s insistence, Republicans wrote full abolition into the party platform (Abe was running for re-election, and, canny politician that he was, he viewed a proposed 13th Amendment as good politics, as well as a moral imperative). When he prevailed in November, he spun his win as a mandate for that amendment, and he feverishly pushed the lame-duck Congress into passing it (as dramatically depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln film). He saw the amendment as a giant first step toward equality — he called it “a King’s cure for all evils,” a punning reference to a popular medicine of that era, King’s Cure-All — and at the time of his assassination, 21 of the required 27 states had already ratified it. Georgia, the 27th, cemented the deal in December 1865.
Lincoln’s high-road goal, as the first Republican president, was to coax America closer to the equality principles embedded in the Declaration of Independence. As Obama said yesterday, “The question of slavery was never simply about civil rights. It was about … the kind of country we wanted to be.”
So it’s a shame that the contemporary GOP has soiled Abe’s legacy. The so-called “party of Lincoln” has been assiduously alienating non-whites for the last five decades. In contrast to Abe, it appears to envision a different kind of country.
The main trigger was Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act; the historic ’64 desegegation law was enacted with major help from moderate Republicans, back when they were a populous species. But the white racist southern Democrats were so ticked off that they bolted the party and joined the GOP. As LBJ lamented at the time, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come.”
True that. And the trend was further abetted in 1968, when candidate Richard Nixon cut a deal with ex-Democrat Strom Thurmond to accelerate the exodus of southerners into the GOP. This was the birth of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” which cleverly played on white voters’ racism, often with dog-whistle policies, such as federal tax breaks for private southern white schools (widely nicknamed “segregration academies”).
The remaking of the GOP, and its distancing from Lincoln, took a few decades to complete, but we all know how it was achieved. Ronald Reagan talked about “welfare queens,” George H.W. Bush suggested, via TV ads, that his Democratic opponent was soft on black rapists, Senator Jesse Helms won re-election in North Carolina by attacking affirmative action, Newt Gingrich called Barack Obama “the food stamp president,” Republican legislatures have enacted “photo ID” laws that aim to hinder lower-income minority voters … those are just random samples.
The GOP’s apparent goal — limiting its appeal to a subset of white people — has been wildly successful; for proof, one need only examine the presidential exit polls. Blacks, Hispanics, and Asian voters have no interest in supporting a party that retails intolerance. And now that Donald Trump is out there braying for a total ban on Muslim travelers, the GOP can pretty much write off the Muslim-American voters who are disproportionately clustered in key states like Virginia, Florida, Ohio, and Michigan. As the beleaguered founder of the Republican Muslim Coalition says, “It’s damaging the Republican Party, if it’s gonna be defined by Trump. It’s hurting all Republicans.”
Lincoln’s overriding ambition was to plant the seeds of equality, to “assure freedom to the free.” Obama echoed that theme when he assessed the 13th Amendment: “Freedom for you, and for me. Freedom for all of us. And that’s what we celebrate today — the long arc of progress. Progress that is never assured, never guaranteed, but always possible, always there to be earned, no matter how stuck we might seem sometimes, no matter how divided or despairing we may appear, no matter what ugliness may bubble up. Progress, so long as we’re willing to push for it.”
Lincoln was willing to push hard, to brave the ugliness. How tragic it is that the party he brought to prominence has left him behind.