Abraham Lincoln, the First Republican President
Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican President. Lincoln, a former Whig (and then “moderate” “anti-slavery” Republican), favored social justice and federal power over states’ rights regarding slavery.
We can thank Lincoln for free public schools, the income tax, and using federal power to defeat the south and ensure the Union (… just like a modern Republican?).
Disney The American Presidents: Abraham Lincoln. A short introduction to Lincoln.
What Party Did Abraham Lincoln Belong to?
Lincoln was a Whig, a Republican, and during the Civil War, part of the National Union party. Those parties were favored by the North and were an evolution of the Federalists.
Generally speaking, those Federalist line parties were all more “classically conservative, socially liberal, and elite” than the “radically classically liberal, sometimes socially conservative, and populist” Anti-Federalists and then Democrats (although, if we go issues-by-issue, faction-by-faction, and era-by-era it gets a little more complex, this general statement works).
- The Federalist line favored classically conservative policies like central power, taxation, order, tradition, and global trade, but were socially liberal on some key issues like race and slavery.
- Meanwhile, the Anti-Federalist line was more classically liberal in that they were populist, anti-national bank, anti-tax, and believed in Democracy even if it meant upholding the socially conservative will of the southern rural slave owners and northern nativists.
Later, in the Civil War, after some shifting factions (which result in the the Free Soil and Know Nothing parties) the Federalist line became “the Union” and the Anti-Federalist line became “the Confederacy”.
In the Civil War Lincoln leads the Union against the Confederate South and their Know-Nothing allies due to his aversion to slavery and his belief that all citizens, black, catholic, or foreign were equal. Thus, Lincoln was a Republican, and that was the type of Republican he was. He was a Grant-like, moderate, civil service Republican who believed in state-power and social justice. He idolized Henry Clay, and he had conservative aspects of his character, but he was “no Know-Nothing”.
FACT: While serving as a state legislator in Illinois, Lincoln wrote a letter strongly condemning the popular anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party:
“I am not a Know-Nothing,” he wrote. “How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me pretty rapid. As a nation we began by declaring ‘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.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for example, where despotism can be taken pure and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” – Letter to Joshua Speed 
Abraham Lincoln: Republican or Democrat?
Lincoln was the first Republican President, but Lincoln’s Republican party had a very different platform in 1860 than they do today in 2016 (it was more “republican” in many respects). In fact, given Lincoln’s geographic location (the North), and where he stood on issues (with the moderates of the Union), a strong case can be made that he would be more like a modern Democrat than a Republican (and that platforms have simply switched between parties over time). With that said, the details are more complex than that, as we have to account not only for the Southern Conservative south in the Anti-Federalist line, but for the pro-business and know-nothing nativism of the north in the Federalist line, and the changing parties of the 1850’s to truly get Lincoln.
The Complicated Changing Factions of the 1850’s to 1870’s
To truly understand Lincoln and his Republicans, we have to understand how the parties changed from the 1850’s to the 1870’s.
Lincoln’s newly formed Republican party had united after the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act (which split the country by North and South over slavery). The new Republican party was split between conservative, moderate, and radical factions (especially after Lincoln’s time in the 1860’s and 1870’s), but generally opposed the other major party of the day, the “pro-south” Democrats who favored states’ rights over social justice (favoring limited government over big government, even if it meant slavery would continue and modernization would be hindered) and their Know Nothing, War Democrat, Copperhead, and Southern Unionist allies.
The longstanding ideological divide between the day’s pro-south classical liberals (who became increasingly socially conservative going into the war, but who generally favored individual and states rights), and the Whigs and then Republicans (who became increasingly socially progressive going into the war, but who generally favored central authority and collective rights) culminates under Lincoln as the Civil War. It is through this post Kansas-Nebraska Act “lens” that we can get a true sense of Lincoln’s character, and the character of the American political parties of Lincoln’s time.
Although we can’t fully say which party Lincoln would have belonged to today, we can make a strong argument that Lincoln was an early social liberal progressive (based on his favoring of big government to ensure social justice, his creating the first income tax, his support of the north, his support of federal power, and his support of trade and debt), but it’s a little bit of a stretch to equate that with a modern Democrat or Republican for issues beyond those that were important in the day and geographic location (as the parties have generally changed a lot over time).
Below we will help paint a clear picture of Lincoln and his views, and discuss how they do or don’t fit with the current political parties.
How the Republican Party went from Lincoln to Trump.
TIP: Lincoln saved the Union, and that is something we all respect and appreciate today. It makes sense both modern parties want to claim Lincoln, and in some ways the both can! The evolution of the major parties results in factions switching between parties, and that means both Democrats and Republicans can look to past figures in both parties for inspiration in many cases. However, if we go issue by issue, its hard to equate Lincoln to a 2017 Republican in terms of policy and platform. Despite the conservative aspects of his character, Lincoln was “not a Know Nothing” (a faction of the Whigs similar to the Tea Party who broke off and ended up favoring the confederate south), not a southern conservative “Confederate” (the states’ rights Democrats of the time), and not or even a War Democrat Southern Unionist like his VP Johnson (the other slightly Tea Party-ish faction of the time), so we can safely say, in modern terms, Lincoln was not a populist nativist Tea party Republican. And thus, although Lincoln is relatable to McCain, Eisenhower, or Bush, he is more like a modern Democrat on most issues due to the Southern Conservative and Tea Party factions dominating the modern 2017 Republican party and pro-federal-power progressives dominating the modern Democratic party.
Was Lincoln like a Modern Democrat or Republican [Opinion Based on Fact]? Lincoln fought against the Confederate south and for the north. Thus, while we could make a case that he is like an Eisenhower, it is hard to make the case that he is like a modern Tea Party Republican from South Carolina or Georgia. Geographically, the confederate south was the confederate south then and now. Ideology that favors states’ rights, individual liberty, and the farmer, ideology that is anti-elite, it doesn’t really change over time. The solid south faction became Republican and progressive elites left the Republicans for the Democrats from about 1900 – 2000. So, in this respect Lincoln was more a modern Democrat. However, both parties can claim aspects of his character and ultimately this part of the essay is opinion. The fact is Lincoln was a Republican, the pro-government party of the citied North, what that means today is a matter of opinion based on the facts. One thing to note is that the arguments over slavery and state power were the main things America argued over from 1776 -1876 (Revolution to the end of Reconstruction), so I have 100 years of politicians and parties to cite for the ideology of the old parties, and then another 100 years from 1900 – 2000 to cite to show how they changed (see a long essay doing just this). I know some Republicans are attached to the idea that Lincoln is like Paul Ryan or something, fine that is your opinion, but for my money a modern Republican is much more like an anti-Federalist than a Federalist (both in geography and policy)… although certainly, the anti-immigration stance of the old Whigs complicates things (but of course, that wasn’t Lincoln’s faction!). Due to the complexity, this is why we frame this as, “Lincoln was a Republican by name, more like a modern Democrat on an issue by issue basis, but not unlike the more traditional old-gaurd Republicans like McCain, Eisenhower, or Bush”.
Was Lincoln a Liberal or a Conservative
Knowing what party Lincoln was in, and a bit about that parties ideology at the time, we can now ask, “was Lincoln a liberal or a conservative”. The answer is not clear cut, as Lincoln was a liberal in some ways and a conservative in others.
He was in ways the first “social liberal” (using authority to ensure collective rights), but also a classic liberal (like most early Americans, he rejected the idea of being ruled by churches and kings, and embraced democracy), but also a conservative (due to his use of authority and his often moderate views). Lincoln was also a progressive (as he favored change over the status quo). However, in terms of “punishing the south” after Reconstruction, he was a moderate (he wanted to hold the Union together and not punish the rebels too harshly). Like many of America’s leaders, Lincoln defies simple categorization.
To help better understand Lincoln’s character, I suggest taking each of the below points into account.
FACT: Andrew Jackson was the first Democrat. Today we would likely consider Jackson more like a modern “Tea Party” Republican (specifically he was an anti-statist and populist; what we might call a more libertarian-minded Republican), and Lincoln more like a modern Democrat (in key notable policies), but this theory isn’t fully agreed on. Lincoln was very popular then, and is still popular in retrospect. Meanwhile, the south of the Civil war tends to be rather unpopular in retrospect (i.e. no one wants to claim the south in the Lincoln conversation). Despite the fact that most on the academic political-right agree on Lincoln as a social liberal, many others on the political right don’t (as they like to point to modern Democrats being the Democrats of the Civil War, like this high-brow film). I like to put it this way “the south is still the south”, that isn’t the part that changed, the part that changed is the gilded age, progressive era, and conservative coalition and new deal coalition butting heads from the 1930’s to the 1990’s (or more broadly from 1900 – 2000) resulting in the Solid South essentially fully abandoning the Democratic party by Clinton’s Presidency.
FACT: In the years of the Civil War the South didn’t allow parties. They were the Confederates, and the Democrats ceased to be a party at the time. When you think about the Rebel flag argument, or just geographic location alone, you start to get hints as to how the parties of Lincoln’s changed to become the parties of today.
THE IDEOLOGY OF THE OLD REPUBLICANS AND THE EVOLUTION OF THE PARTIES: Hamilton, John and John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and Lincoln were notable Federalists, Whigs, Republicans of the pre-Civil War era respectively, and those parties generally became the Union (in a divisive time; there was a lot of party switching leading up to the Civil War in the mid-1850’s following Bleeding Kansas). After the Civil War era, over the course of Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and the Progressive Era, and generally over the next 150 years things changed considerably. The social conservative south (its own faction in any era) began embracing the Republican party between 1900 – 2000 under figures like Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, and progressive social liberals once with the Republicans began embracing Democratic policies (like those of FDR and LBJ) and began to favor the Democratic party. Meanwhile, both parties began to embrace a classically liberal and conservative pro-business stance, formally mostly exclusive to the Republicans, in the Gilded Age as “Redeemers” entered the south starting at Reconstruction (compare the Gilded Age Republican McKinley with the Gilded Age Democrat Cleveland for example; what today we call neoliberal and neocon). The result is the modern party systems, in which political factions have [loosely speaking] “switched parties”. So, Lincoln WAS a Republican, but the answer to the question “was Lincoln a conservative or liberal” is complex and requires a nuanced understanding of American history and the difference between American classical liberalism, social liberalism, classical conservatism, and social conservatism. See: The history of the American political parties.
TIP: Each party has historically been broken up into conservative, moderate, and radical/progressive types (which can be further subdivided). This can be seen clearly in the conservative, moderate, and radical Republicans of Civil War Reconstruction. America itself is a federation of states, with a strong central government, that is Democratic (favoring the people’s voice) and Republican (ruled by law and elected officials); or more technically, a Federal Republic; with strong Democratic tradition. Thus, America’s political parties have been accordingly dubbed “Democratic-Republicans”, “Democrats”, “Republicans”, “Federalists”, and in modern day “conservative” and “liberal”. These are all misnomers in a way (as every party favors all these things), but generally the core argument that separates the major parties of any era is over authority and collectivism vs. individualism. Which party took which stance, on which issue, changed over time, and this creates some of the confusion when trying to connect the parties of yesterday to the politics of today. Generally, the pre-Civil War mid-1800’s Democrats favored the liberty to own slaves, and the more conservative Republicans didn’t, and thus in this sense of state-power Lincoln is was Republican. Yet, in the sense of human rights, obviously he and the Union were more liberal than the southern Confederates. Again, the specifics get complex. See the Left-right spectrum and how the party platforms have switched between parties over time.
The History of the Republican Party (1854-2016).
TIP: See our model of the four basic political parties, the birth of liberalism, and our left-right spectrum. To understand the arguments below you’ll need to understand the historical definitions of terms like liberal and conservative (which are very different than modern Democrat or modern Republican).
TIP: See collectivism v. individualism. This concept is at the heart of understanding Lincoln and the Civil War. The fact that Lincoln favors using federal power to ensure the rights of a group makes him “a collectivist” and a “social liberal”. A classic liberal individualist would have, and did, support individual and states’ rights (the stance of the south leading up to Civil War).
What it Means that Lincoln was a Republican
Lincoln was conservative in many ways, and a liberal in many others. He was a Republican by name, but being a Conservative Republican meant being like Hamilton or Clay, not like say Barry Goldwater. He wad more social liberal (collective rights and authority) than classic liberal (individual rights and authority).
Since the time of Hamilton and Jefferson, all the way until after 1964’s Civil Rights the “Solid South” stood with the Democrats (previously the anti-Federalists), they embraced a Libertarian-like states-rights small government viewpoint (France’s brand of more radical classic liberalism) which appealed to the American farmer in the South. They also fought for separation of church and state, were pro-immigration, and opposed to war with France. The Democratic-Republican President Jefferson even repealed parts of the Federalist’s Alien and Sedition Acts (anti-immigration acts). They didn’t need Northern trade, credit, or debt, and they didn’t want British loyalty, they simply wanted individual liberty for all [white men] regardless of the cost!
Meanwhile, the Whigs (formerly the Federalists) wanted a strong Federal government, a central bank, and trade (an English Whig-like liberalism). The American Whigs, who held many modern conservative views (southern issues and religious issues aside), became more progressive under figures like Clay and in response to Bourbon Democrats like Andrew Jackson. By the time of Lincoln a new party was emerging the anti-slavery Republicans (which all the progressive Whigs, like Lincoln, joined). Sure, Whigs wanted liberty too, but they knew that being a superpower was going to take industrialization and taxes, and not just tobacco farming. Slavery wasn’t going to cut it much longer, especially after popular sovereignty and “bleeding Kansas“. The Republicans wanted collective rights, regardless of the cost!
As America started expanding westward, tension grew between the North and South. The Southern Democrats wanted states’ rights (and that meant letting the new states choose if they would be slave states, individual liberty first, social justice second). The Northern Republicans wanted modernization (industrialization and social justice, at the expense of taxes, credit, and debt).
Each state declared its secession from the United States following the November 1860 election of Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln to the U.S. presidency on a platform which opposed the expansion of slavery. The South formed the Confederacy in 1861 (before Lincoln ever took office), and shortly after the North was dubbed the Union.
Where US Politics Came From: Crash Course US History #9.
TIP: “The American party”, a nationalist anti-immigrant party, and another third party “the Know Nothing Party” housed many of the anti-immigration Americans. Immigration and religion don’t become major issues until after Reconstruction (although they are somewhat divisive issues since day 1). Lincoln was both pro-immigrant and pro-religion (but rather neutral on the issue and believed in separation of church and state).
“I regard our immigrants as one of the replenishing streams appointed by providence to repair the ravages of internal war and its waste of national strength and health.” – Lincoln (i.e. Although all parties have factions throughout history, the Republican party is not led by anti-immigrant sentiment in Lincoln’s time).
Lincoln, His Anti-Slavery Former-Whig Republicans, and a Civil War
As noted above, leading up to Lincoln’s Presidency in 1861 America was split over slavery, modernization (trade and banks), federal power, and the meaning of liberty. The main question dividing the country (which had been ignored too long by Lincoln’s time) was, “should the new territories have the right to be slave states, or should the slaves have the right to freedom?” (popular sovereignty). This was the question at the center of the war (along with, “how will this affect global trade and our standing in the world”).
Lincoln’s social-liberal policies, which included the first income tax, the Morrill Land-Grant Acts for tuition-free state universities, the Homestead Act of 1860, rights for slaves, policies protecting immigrants from fraud, and many other pieces of legislation are progressive by today’s standards. It was these progressive policies, and the aforementioned rising tension between the North and South, that contributes to the theory that Lincoln is very different from a modern day Republican.
Abraham Lincoln Biography – Documentary. Lincoln and his Republicans changed the world. Not only are the events surrounding Lincoln fact, they are well studied and recorded. We don’t have to guess, Lincoln was a Republican and that meant something very different in 1860 than it means today.
TIP: The Civil War won us a modern industrialized America, but the war also divided the country and created a bitter old wound that has hardly healed today. One affect of this wound is “the southern block”, which is the loyal southern base of states who always votes lock-step, shifting from the Democrats to Republicans in 1964 over Civil Rights. First, there is 100 years between Lincoln and LBJ which we explore below.
TIP: A strong case can be made for Lincoln as the father of both the Republican Party (as he was the first Republican) and the Father of Social Liberalism (the concept of using government to ensure liberty).
TIP: See a breakdown of major American political party platforms over time. You can see how the parties switch platforms and adopt new platforms. Make sure to check out Teddy’s Bull Moose Progressives, and it makes it clear that sometimes the views you hold dear aren’t found in any major party at all.
The Shifting Political Platforms Begin With Lincoln the Republican
We know that big government, taxes, free schools, social justice over states rights, and other Lincoln-isms are easier to equate with a modern Democrat than a Republican, yet views on immigration and religion (which Lincoln had progressive stances on) see more acceptance by the Anti-Federalists / Democrats than by the Federalists / Republicans. This means Lincoln had progressive stances akin to a modern progressive Democrat, but his party historically had many conservative views on authoritative government, anti-immigration, and pro-religion, and loyalty to Britain (although, is this really so different than a modern Democrat?).
Following Civil War the political platforms begin to shift. In this “Reconstruction era” new issues began to take center stage and divide the country like immigration (influx of Catholics who become Democrats), religion (Catholics bring their religious issues), and crony capitalism (a weak Grant Presidency and modern industrialization under the Barons, hard won by the party of Lincoln in the Civil War). These old issues of new importance and weak Crony-based leadership result in the parties breaking down into factions, but not necessarily with parties switching members or platforms (although that does happen later).
We simply can’t say for sure where Lincoln would stand on 1900’s immigration, temperance, the New Deal, or Great Society programs. We don’t exactly know where he would have stood on the World Wars or later wars either. We can only assume that “create tax, support central bank, start war over injustice, free slaves, support immigrants, middle road on religion” translates to supporting all the aforementioned aside from temperance, (and that generally is another sign that, “today Lincoln would, in a two party system, be a Democrat”, or at least, “not a Republican”).
TIP: Don’t think the parties switched platforms? Check out this quote from the Republican President Eisenhower, “I have just one purpose … and that is to build up a strong progressive Republican Party in this country. If the right wing wants a fight, they are going to get it … before I end up, either this Republican Party will reflect progressivism, or I won’t be with them anymore.” We can make some strong arguments that Lincoln was an Eisenhower Republican, friendly to the New Deal collation, but holding conservative values. The problem is we can’t say Eisenhower or Lincoln would be a modern Republican, things really did change that much after 64′.
More Lincoln Facts
Other big clues to what party Lincoln would identify with today include:
- The party of Jefferson and Madison (the Anti-Federalists), the Americans who stood against Lincoln’s Whigs, were the classical liberal party modeled after the French revolution (as opposed to the Whig-like English liberals who wanted global-trade and were pro-Britain). So Lincoln is a Hamiltonian Whig, not a Libertarian style Jeffersonian. With that said, the Whigs are more “conservative” at the time on big government, trade, and British tradition (although not as much on modern “conservative” issues like church-state religion, anti-immigration, and southern tradition). I like to say Lincoln was Jeffersonian or Madisonian in regards to moral philosophy, and Hamiltonian in regards to governance, finance, and trade. Of course, what I describe is essentially a moderate modern progressive Democrat, or a moderate conservative like Eisenhower.
- Teddy (Republican), FDR (Democrat), and LBJ (Democrat) are all Lincolnian presidents. They fight for social justice, tooth and nail, against the powers that be. They are notably not in the same party.
- After the Civil War, when the parties split, we get two key factions in the Republicans. The Half-Breed Republicans fought the Crony Capitalist Stalwart Republicans after Lincoln up to Teddy Roosevelt (there is also a third faction who routes to the Democrats and third parties). Both parties today have crony capitalists (see neocons and neoliberals) in them, so in a way, neither can fully claim to be a party of Lincoln (as Lincoln would have most surely sided with the Half-Breeds).
- Despite the progressive New Deal Democrats dominating the party in the 1900’s, the Solid South stuck with the Democrats all the way until LBJ signed Civil Rights in 1964. The Republicans disenfranchised the black voter many times from Lincoln onward, pushing them toward the independent Populist and Progressive parties that would pop-up from time-to-time, as the Democratic party often wasn’t an option. Things start to change under Wilson, and the Roosevelt’s in the early 1900’s, and by the 1960’s Republicans had largely shifted to what we today consider “the right.” The parties didn’t fully become the parties of today until 1964’s Civil Rights under LBJ, when Strom and the South leave the Democrats to join the Republicans. The change is further illustrated by the rise of Goldwater-Reagan-Nixon pro-south, big business, and modern conservatism and Clinton’s “New Democrats” in the (Fifth Party or) Sixth Party System (depending on your viewpoint). The shifting of party platforms causes some people to say, misleadingly, that Lincoln was a Democrat (we know he was a Republican by party name at least, that is historical fact).
- Lincoln’s era is called “the Third Party system”, he Fourth Party System is FDR and the progressive era, and LBJ’s signature in 1964 was the final nail in the coffin of the Fourth Party System. The new Fifth Party System finds us with the parties of today. The right-wing Republicans have the southern vote, favor Libertarian ideals on paper, and are pro-religion. The left-wing Democrats have strong support in the North and favor social justice at the expense of taxation.
- If we are talking about modern conservative intellectuals or progressive, moderate conservatives like Eisenhower, now we have a different conversation. There is lots of room for Republicans to be the party of Lincoln. The post 1964 Civil Rights “talk radio Republicans” are the type that really don’t mesh with Lincoln (they are much more like the first Democrat Andrew Jackson).
The Republican Party Has Betrayed Lincoln. A viewpoint that says Lincoln is a modern liberal. Both sides agree that the special interests took over the Republican party following 1964’s Civil Rights, but as you’ll see below, some modern moderate conservatives have hope to be “the party of Lincoln” again. Read John Nichols’s article in theNation.com (the article this video refers to).
How Abraham Lincoln Can Save Today’s Republican Party. Some say Lincoln was a progressive, moderate conservative, and that the current GOP can learn a thing or two from him if they can stand up against special interests in regards to big business, prejudice, and religion. The Republicans don’t have just to be anti-Democrat, as Conservative Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, points out in his book Lincoln Unbound (Amazon Link).
- See a really excellent telling of the story of the parties switching platforms under LBJ by theNation.com.
- See our breakdown of American political parties switching platforms throughout history here.